Zibby Owens: "Moms Don't Have Time to Read Books" is live at Author’s Night 2018 from the East Hampton library.
I am here with Ellie Cullman who’s the founder of Cullman & Kravis Associates, a world renown firm that redefines home interiors. Born and raised in Brooklyn -- fun fact, her family owns the Peter Luger steak house. Ellie went to Barnard and Columbia Graduate School before starting a business later in life. She has coauthored several books including Decorating Master Class: The Cullman & Kravis Way, The Detailed Interior: Decorating Up Close With Cullman & Kravis, and her latest, From Classic to Contemporary co-authored with Tracey Pruzan. Mother of three grown children including [indiscernible], Ellie has decorated homes from Miami and Texas to Hawaii.
Ellie Cullman: Thank you, Zibby. Lovely introduction.
Zibby: I know you've been friends with both my parents for a long time. My mom has been telling me for years that you and Mrs. Kravis, Hedi Kravis, a long time ago had an idea for a screen play, that you showed it to some producers and they said, “Why don't you guys just decorate instead?” Is there any truth to that statement?
Ellie: It’s absolutely a true story. Because I'm a crazy movie nut -- I go to the movies at least two or three times a week -- Hedi and I decided that we would write the story of her divorce from Henry Kravis, a banker that nobody had ever heard of thirty-five years ago. Of course now people have heard of him. We spent a year writing the screenplay. We bought books about how to write a screenplay. A hundred and twenty pages, plot point one on page thirty, plot point two on page ninety. We spent a year writing this, what we thought was a wonderful warm story about the wife, submitted it to our dear friend Stanley Jaffe, who had just won an academy award for Kramer vs. Kramer. We went to his office hoping that he would think we had some kernel of an idea that would make a really heartwarming story.
Instead, he said it was the single worst screenplay he had ever read in his thirty years of being in business. Without skipping a beat I said to him, “Stanley, what am I going to do when I --” because I'd already had five careers. He said, “You should be a decorator.” I'm like, “What?” He said, “I love both of your homes. I know you did them by yourselves.” I want to be your first client. That was October 1st, 1984. The rest is history. It started just the two of us. Now, we have a firm with eighteen people. We work all over the country. I'm very grateful to him. This is a lot more fun than writing, much more fun.
Zibby: I feel like it’s every woman’s dream to start a business with their best girlfriend. What was that like for you? Were there any negatives?
Ellie: It really was a very natural continuation of our friendship. I feel so lucky. When we started, let me tell you, we knew nothing, absolutely nothing. Somebody would ask us a question. We would say, “Could you give me a minute?” Then we'd walk in the hall. We'd say -- we didn't know you should think about these things ahead of time -- “Red walls. No, yellow walls.” It was so supportive to have somebody that you love who you'd figured something out with. I feel so lucky to have done this with Hedi. Honestly, I would've never had the nerve. I would've gone to school for twenty years before I even picked a fabric. Hedi was very instinctive and original about it. She just did it.
Zibby: I have this mental image of Hedi in my dad’s apartment. I walked in one afternoon, long after I feel like it was ready. She was sitting in his living room smoking at his desk. It was a picture frozen in time. She was gorgeous.
Ellie: Frozen in time. I always remember Hedi saying, every time we installed somebody's apartment, she would lean back and say, “I just love our work.” That's what the client is supposed to say, not the decorator.
Zibby: Then so sadly, Hedi Kravis passed away from lung cancer. I know her daughter KK has been raising money for the Lung Cancer Research Foundation ever since. How did you cope with that personally and professionally?
Ellie: It was one of the biggest crises of my life. Hedi was diagnosed on February 2nd. I remember exactly twenty-one years ago. She was dead by April 2nd. The only good part of that is that she suffered for a very short time. She wasn’t suffering for a long time. She’d obviously been sick. We just didn't know. She thought she had a back problem. It was terrible. By that point in our careers we were not always working on the same job together. I’ll never forget this. Besides the personal loss -- I remember there was no email at the time. Every morning I would have my morning conversation with Hedi. My husband would be like, “Would you please get off the phone?” We would discuss not only what we’re doing in work, but also life. Losing her as a best friend was terrible. Professionally, I was really out on my own. I remember the first time I went to this huge house that we’re doing in Greenwich. It was about 25,000 square feet. I didn't know where each room was because it was so big. I was walking around with the owner. He said, “Now let's go to the library.” I was waiting for him to walk there first because I was not going to walk in the right direction. It was a double problem.
Zibby: You obviously have recovered and come into your own as one of the preeminent designers in the world at this point. What do you think is the most important thing in a room? If you [indiscernible] into someone's room and it was hideous, what's the biggest bang for your buck?
Ellie: I agree with what you said to me before. Paint is absolutely the biggest. If you do it on a mathematical basis, if you add up the square footage of four walls compared to anything else in your house, carpet, chair, a curtain, the walls have the most impact. It’s also the cost-effective way to fix a room. I'm always for paint. Paint is wonderful.
Zibby: Paint is wonderful. Do you have any decorating pet peeves when you go into someone's house?
Ellie: Mess. Every house can be a thousand percent improved if somebody just organizes it. It’s very hard when you have young children. We often say to our clients, “First of all, take everything off of every table top.” This is a very Japanese thing. Then you only put back what you think really enhances the environment. People tend to get house presents. You get an ashtray from [indiscernible]. It stays there for the next twenty years. The whole idea in Japan of the [indiscernible], the art niche where you only put out one artwork or one flower, you have to think about what's on every single surface. To me, decluttering, everything looks better uncluttered. You have to have a closet. Sometimes in New York you don't have a closet. If you have a closet, it’s a great thing to have.
Zibby: I'm constantly picking up. Even if I can get the kid’s stuff behind a door, even if it’s a cabinet, just shove it in. Drawers can be messy. If I can't see it, then I can go to sleep at night.
Ellie: I agree. It adds a sense of cohesion to your home, and order. There's nothing more beautiful.
Zibby: What do you think? I vote for the lamp as the most overpriced fixture. How can this lamp be six hundred dollars? Why so expensive?
Ellie: Because it’s not ten thousand. Let me talk about lamps for a minute. Every item in interior design has a good/better/best. It’s just like clothing. Sometimes there's an antique Chinese vase that is going to cost ten thousand dollars. It’s not for everybody. I went to CB2 the other day for a client. I bought, for their kid’s room, lamps and [indiscernible] shades for a hundred and fifty dollars. I was so proud that I did that. It’s the way we all shop for clothing. You can buy a blue blazer at H&M, or you could buy it at Loro Piana. Everything has a good/better/best. The important thing is to evaluate. Cars too, you don't need to have a Mercedes. You have to look at everything. What are the perimeters of the design? Is it important to you, and at what level you're going to jump in. The other thing is that most people do have a budget. You have to put it all together. I'm a big advocate of doing one or two signature pieces always. The rest that surround it looks good just by proximity to the signature items. That's my philosophy. Not lamps. CB2, I don't know if you've been there.
Zibby: I've been to the website a million times.
Ellie: That's another thing.
Zibby: I haven't been to the store.
Ellie: I like websites for finding out what's available. I'm old school. I have to see it. When you see something, it’s either better or worse than you expected. For example, when we get some of these catalogues, we open them. We dog-ear every page. We say, “Mrs. X, Mrs. Y.” Then we go to the sale and maybe we like three things. Conversely, on the websites if you're lucky enough to see it, there's more that you're going to like than you think from the sites. I'm advocating going out in the field.
Zibby: I have to say, Kyle and I thought we could decorate our house in LA by ourselves. We’re like, “We can do this whole thing, Jonathan Adler, and all these things. We’ll just order it.” We had to start from scratch, toss out an entire room because it was mortifying and upsetting.
Ellie: That's why, thank god, people still need decorators. It’s not only the scale. It’s also the relationship of one thing to another that takes years to figure out. You have a place in LA? How exciting.
Zibby: Yeah, it’s amazing.
Ellie: How huge.
Zibby: You worked on these three books all with Tracey Pruzan. What was it like to collaborate on a project like this? How did you even think which houses to focus on?
Ellie: That was actually easier than the first step of deciding we need to write a book. The first book was all about how you put a project together. I wasn’t trained. I don't know why I figured out subliminally what the first step, second, third, whatever steps were in putting a project together. We decided to write that. Of our three books, that one sold the best and is still alive because people don't understand how logical and sequential what we do is. That book really helped it. After that, it became a piece of cake to write these books. We may have one more left in us. I don't know.
Zibby: What's on your wish list? You've accomplished so much professionally already. Is there anything you still want to accomplish?
Ellie: I have a huge wish. I really want to do a movie.
Zibby: My husband’s a movie producer.
Ellie: I didn't know that.
Zibby: He’s filming this.
Ellie: As I say, we have to talk. I didn't know that.
Zibby: He has some movies he’s working on. [indiscernible] by CAA right now and a bunch of reality shows.
Ellie: That's huge. Oh, my goodness. I have a son who’s a director and a son who’s also a filmmaker.
Zibby: So you're covered.
Ellie: No, no, no, no. If you're the producer, you need to hire these people.
Zibby: It’s true. Author’s Night, you heard it here first. [laughs]
Ellie: I saw your brother. I saw him at the Venice Film Festival. I've seen him at all the film festivals. I love seeing him.
Zibby: Oh, good. Thank you so much for coming on "Moms Don't Have Time to Read Books.”
Ellie: Thank you.