Like many designers, Ellie Cullman dabbled in several other professions before entering the world of interiors. She dropped out of both Harvard Law and grad school in Japan, shied away from taking over the family business (Brooklyn’s famed Peter Luger Steak House), and wrote a screenplay with her late best friend and business partner, Hedi Kravis. The screenplay never sold, but it led to the duo’s first decorating job: a project for an award-winning film producer who admired Cullman’s taste. In 1984, Cullman and Kravis established their eponymous firm, growing into a 15-person team (Kravis passed away from cancer in 1997). More than three decades later, Cullman continues to lead the firm, completing projects across the country that have led to media coverage, major awards and an induction into AD100’s Hall of Fame.
On this episode of The Business of Home Podcast, Cullman shares the story of her career with host Dennis Scully, along with insights about why leading with kindness has meant employee retention, how her firm learned to “knock themselves off,” and why design, at its core, is all psychology.
Crucial insight: Over the past three decades, Cullman’s firm has lived through several financial crises, from the dot-com bubble to the Covid pandemic. This prompted several strategic shifts in how she runs her business, both financially and creatively. “During the first economic downturn, one of our big-shot Wall Street clients said to me, ‘The only way to distinguish yourself is to be incredibly fiscally responsible,’ so we learned how to do spreadsheets with low, high and actual estimates, because they wanted to know what to [expect] the project to cost,” says Cullman. In addition to keeping flawless books, Cullman and her staff learned how to “knock themselves off,” aka sourcing products that fit the client’s high-end aesthetic but at a more reasonable price: “Find the less expensive product but put it in a C&K dress.”
Key quote: “On a Friday afternoon in July, a client’s daughter called and said, ‘Mom is definitely going to die within the next few days, but she just wants to have one night in the new apartment.’ The apartment was really a construction site, but we went there and made it look like a home—getting the flowers and laying down rugs. I felt such pride in what our team had done, and how everyone worked together. It’s the same thing now in the office—there’s always somebody who wants to come in and help. It’s a collegial atmosphere, not a competitive atmosphere—that’s what we aim for.”
The Thursday Show
Meanwhile, on the latest episode of The Thursday Show, Scully and BOH executive editor Fred Nicolaus dissect the most recent news in the design industry, including why designers are flocking to the new Threads app, an AI fabric generator, and how Gen Z’s embrace of dupes is making an impact. Later, real estate consultant Jonathan Miller discusses the latest developments in the housing market.
Homepage image: Ellie Cullman | Courtesy of Cullman & Kravis