For more than 30 years, Ellie Cullman has been redefining traditional through a masterful (and gutsy) mix of old and new. Her focus on fine art and antiques has become the hallmark of her venerable firm, which is why we couldn’t think of anyone better to tap for advice on incorporating art into the living room. Read on for a Q&A with the pro and her design partner, Sarah Ramsey, and shop the look from their wonderfully layered, contemporary-meets-classic rooms.

Can you tell us more about the images below and your creative process when it comes to integrating art in a project?
In our eyes, no project is complete until art is hanging on the walls.  It is such an important element in our work and is part of the design discussion from day one. We  begin with studying how the furniture layout will impact the opportunities for a great painting, photograph or sculpture and follow up with placement of art lighting to complement these pieces.

In the images below, because the walls are all “gallery white” the art plays double duty, not only infusing a bit of personality and soul into the rooms, but also giving a pop of color, texture or pattern.

In the entry, the large piece on the wall is actually a functioning clock by the artists Humans Since 1982.

In the living room there is a Paola Buffa chair on the left and a Robsjohn Gibbons chair-and-a-half on the right. Two large works by Robert Kelly hang on the back wall.

 

Ellie: My apartment has always been the laboratory for our design ideas.  As the word “lab” implies, the “mix” is something that calls for experimentation. Our advice is to combine things you love – and somehow they will work! Here the big idea was to keep the period antiques, oriental carpet, etc, but to juxtapose these traditional items with a light palette and contemporary and modern art – all in all to create an exciting, dynamic interior.


Ellie: The starting point for the library was the early 20th century Tabriz carpet that is the dominant design element in the room. I was lucky enough to find this wonderful 1962 painting by Kenneth Noland titled “Warm Reverie” to complement the rug and to inject a modern vibe into this traditional room.

How did you discover your passion for design?
Ellie
: I lived in Japan as a newlywed and studied Ikebana (flower arranging). When you spend two hours arranging five chrysanthemums in a bowl, you really learn about scale and proportion.

Sarah: Beginning with an internship at an auction house after college in Italy, and culminating in a three year position at Sotheby’s NY, I became passionate about decorative and fine arts, and interior design was the perfect way to combine both.

What is your favorite decorative object at home?
Ellie: Again, Japan is a huge passion. The first piece of art I ever bought was a six fold 17th C Japanese screen depicting a view of Kyoto, the ancient capital of Japan which we visited very often. It has always had pride of place in my home through multiple apartments and redecorations.

Sarah: I am a great lover of animals and regularly volunteer at an animal shelter on the weekends. Animal imagery speaks to my heart– from a pair of 19th C Indian elephant wall brackets, to a 20th C unidentified painting of a cat. These objects give me great pleasure.

Is design an art or a science?
There are underlying principles of design that can be considered a science and can be learned – scale and proportion, symmetry and the like. But the ‘artful’ part cannot be learned. It is a huge component of inspired design.

Do you have any go to color or pattern combinations?
Ellie
: Red and Gold

Sarah: Blue and Beige
Still, having worked with so many different people for the 35 years we have been in business, there is literally not one color or color combination we haven’t explored. We have learned to appreciate the whole gamut!

When do you consider a completed project a success?
When the art is hung, flowers in the vases, family photos in frames, a project is complete. But most importantly, the definitive moment is when the client is happy.

Share your biggest design secret.
Don’t be afraid to break the rules. Whatever it is – a color combination, a mix of styles, etc, – if you love it, it will work!

What is the most common design mistake you see?
We worry that often there is too much emphasis on creating a ‘pretty picture’, rather than paying attention to how a room functions. Functionality should never be sacrificed for form.

How do you balance style, comfort, and functionality?
That is the eternal question…….and why you need us!

Is there a specific item you typically use as a starting point? 
We always start with the living room rug. It is typically the largest and most expensive item in a project, and all design decisions orbit around it.

What do you think about Sotheby’s Home?
Love! A great resource for the private buyer, as well as the professional designer.

We love your use of art in your interiors, is there any advice you would give for anyone buying art?
Educate your eye; get out to all of the auction houses, galleries and fairs. Many people are intimidated when it comes to buying art because they read about the astronomical prices that the market has attained. But in fact, if you look long and hard enough, there are actually exciting opportunities at every price point.

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