When Traditional Interiors Meet Bold Contemporary Art and Design

In the latest book by Cullman & Kravis, the interiors firm showcases their contemporary design aesthetic

The firm pumped up the color scheme of this home in Miami with bold hues.
Photo: Courtesy of Cullman & Kravis

In the latest design book by Cullman & Kravis, entitled From Classic to Contemporary (Monacelli Press, $65), the New York interiors firm set out to showcase what they do best—draw from tradition while enlivening homes with a contemporary aesthetic. Classic principles of design are at the core of each project they create even if they select the latest in contemporary furnishings and tap young artisans to make unique pieces.

Revered interior designer Ellie Cullman, along with her four partners in the firm, Lee Cavanaugh, Sarah Ramsey, Claire Ratliff, and Alyssa Urban, approach each new home they fashion by relying on the elements of good design balanced by a consideration of how families live today.

“The process of designing a home takes time,” explains Cullman, “and it’s an education for all of us—a journey together in terms of furnishings and art on the walls.”

To update her own apartment, which is featured in the book, Cullman decided not to start with a blank canvas. Instead, she looked at the redecoration as more of an evolution—keeping pieces and tweaking elements such as wall cover and curtain valences to refresh her home’s point of view. Naturally, art played a major role in the redesign as well—as, for example, she revitalized the space by pairing works by Helen Frankenthaler and Pat Steir on either side of a doorway.

Art is featured in many of the firm’s projects showcased in the book. The properties shown here offer insights into the designers’ creative process in shaping these artful homes.

For this project in Miami, the young clients aimed for a “strong presence” but preferred the house to remain a white box. As the couple requested, the firm pumped up the color scheme with bold hues. “Our team’s youthful designers injected a spirit of vibrancy and imagination” into the interior, says Cullman. Architect Tom Kligerman, of the firm Ike Kligerman Barkley, included details that gave the home personality, but the real oomph comes from the color and pattern used throughout.

In the bedroom, the firm admits that finding the right artwork to place above a bed is often a challenge even for experts. That’s why when they spotted these celestial glass discs by Abby Modell at an art fair they knew they would be the perfect statement for this room. “The art was as fun and fanciful as the decor,” explains Alyssa Urban, who oversaw the project.

The Bibliochaise from Nobody and Co. commands attention in the reading room, as do the colorful glass pieces on the bookshelves, which the firm commissioned from a glassblower in Brooklyn. “Art doesn’t have to be art with a capital A; decorative objects can have just as much appeal,” says Urban.

The playful approach to art continues in the family room/kitchen of this Miami villa, which showcases a custom installation of jacks from Kaiser Sudan of Next Step Studio. This energetic addition gives depth and dimension to the walls and integrates them with the overall design of the space.

Clients returning to New York after raising a family in suburbia wanted to break away from the traditional feeling of their Connecticut home, especially at their new downtown address. Although the firm often starts with the rug when designing a room, in this case they looked to the owner’s collection of contemporary art and photography as the first step of the process. The collection—including works by Alex Katz, David Salle, Thomas Struth, and Andrea Gursky, among others—provided a wealth of inspiration.

For the hanging of the art, Claire Ratliff explains, “Early collaboration among art advisers, the clients, and us was important because it is critical to analyze where the art should be hung and how it relates to the space.” Cullman concurs that this preparation provides for the best installation scenario and notes, “No matter how many elevations you’ve done on the computer, one of the critical moments in installing a project is hanging the art.” Here, a Robert Kelly diptych, Andreas Gursky, and Ikat-print chair provide the focal points of a room.

Carnegie Hill duplex. Architect: John B. Murray Interior Design: Cullman & Kravis Photo: Courtesy of Cullman & Kravis

To invigorate the duplex New York apartment of clients with a preference for antique furnishings, Cullman & Kravis conjured a dynamic contemporary twist with overscaled art. Lee Cavanaugh, who led the project, says that as a result of the focus on art, “It’s more minimal than our normal work.” Yet just as layered, with the addition of works by Sean Scully, Adolph Gottlieb, and Georgio Cavallon, seen here from left to right.

Carnegie Hill duplex. Architect: John B. Murray Interior Design: Cullman & Kravis Photo: Courtesy of Cullman & Kravis

In the dining room, red-glazed walls offer a warm background for a Robert Motherwell painting over the mantel and one by Lee Krasner hung nearby. The choice of artwork recasts English Regency chairs and an English Crystal chandelier from 1870 in a more contemporary light.

When a client with a museum-worthy collection of art and antiques called on Cullman & Kravis to design a new oceanfront house in Palm Beach, Florida, it was crucial to pair the right pieces in each space even if their styles and periods were completely different. Here, the scale of a Roy Lichtenstein painting from the 1960s perfectly complements a George II marble top table by William Kent from 1740.

“We did actual mock-ups of the art, including the depths of the frame, to hold up on-site to decide if it worked proportionally,” explains Sarah Ramsey, who spearheaded the design. This type of planning led to the perfect positioning of paintings such as the Hans Hoffman beyond the Chinese Chippendale balustrade and a Marsden Hartley above a Regency sofa from 1810.