By Katy B. Olson
A new tier of leadership is emerging at Cullman and Kravis, where firm co-founder Ellie Cullman has made it her mission to seek out and nurture talent, from the assistant level on to design partner distinction. About five years ago, the company adopted a small-group management structure (collaborative teams led by newly-appointed partners) to support the growth of employees at all levels. Cullman and Kravis’ top four—Alyssa Urban, Claire Ratliff, Sarah dePalo and Lee Cavanaugh—along with the firm’s eponymous leader-founder each sat down with EAL to discuss their early days, their latest experience and what’s next on the horizon.
The firm’s four current design partners include dePalo, whose auction house experience brought her from an internship in Italy and work at Christie’s London and Sotheby’s in New York to Cullman and Kravis, and Urban, who did set design for The Conan O’Brien Show and The Dana Carvey Show before branching out into commercial, hospitality and cruise ship projects, prior to coming to the firm. Cavanaugh, who studied textile and surface pattern design, in college began interning at Cullman and Kravis with one of her best friends, and has never left. And Ratliff was working with Robert A.M. Stern Architects when a headhunter convinced her to interview with Ellie; but having accepted a job at another firm, she stayed there for six months before Ellie called and offered her a six-month trial. She’s stayed ever since.
DePalo, Cavanaugh, Cullman, Ratliff, Urban
How were you first mentored here?
AU: When I started, I was working with one senior person; I was her assistant and she taught me all her ways of doing things: paperwork, cut sheet books, samples. Her mentoring carried on to me. Once she had left, and I had an assistant, the two of us together worked out the kinks of what she had taught me, to what worked better for the two of us. It keeps evolving. We’re all open to how it can work better.
LC: One of the most valuable things is I’ve always worked with Ellie on her own personal projects, which has been such a learning experience. Being the decorator’s decorator, you really feel like you’re challenged—you want to do the next, best thing, something new, something no one’s done. For example, when we did her apartment, we hand-picked beads to sew them into trim; it was our first embroidered cuffs. She was the guinea pig for all of these new things we did. One thing that she’s always taught me is: If you change this part, what will it do to the rest of the room? Looking at the picture as a whole is something she’s taught me to focus on.
How has the management structure changed through the years?
AU: We’ve sort of evolved. We used to work with a senior person and an assistant. Over the years, we’ve tried different ways of doing things. This [current] team structure makes sense: The younger people who come in get trained by those who are one step above them, and we all work together. If someone is sick, or someone is on vacation, everybody knows what’s going on. We all work in teams.
CR: When I started, we had project managers and assistants. As we’ve grown, we’ve had to change our structure to accommodate the workload, in part to take a little pressure off Ellie, even though she’s still totally super-human. She does more than any other person I’ve ever met in my life. I think we’ve had to compensate for the larger workload.
As partner, more than anything, you’re involved in the mechanics of how the office is working. You’re more involved in the interview process with new hires and interns. You also do take a responsibility as far as wanting to generate new clients, too. It definitely make sit feel more like a partnership. A lot of it falls on us, which, for years, was just Ellie. We’re so lucky because she’s been in the industry, has built such a good reputation for our firm, that the majority of our clients come that way – through word of mouth – and being published.
EC: The only way we’ll transition to the next step is by having full-fledged partners who can do anything and marshal the forces underneath them. It’s also allowed us to grow. The collaboration has made the product so much better, and more diverse. A lot of firms are known for one look. We started out heavily steeped in antiques and 18th, 19th century. But is boring to do the same thing every day, and the young people bring new perspectives to what we’re doing. It’s been wonderful growth.
The design partners say that the office's open floor plan fosters collaboration and brainstorming.
How are projects assigned? How do designers grow?
EC: You can tell when they are ready for the next step. The really good ones come to us and say, “I’m ready.” At first, you don’t give them a four-year construction project to work on. You give them a small, local apartment, with few bedrooms. My favorite thing is to give the person who has been a full-blown assistant the assignment of doing one room. It’s amazing doing one room; they figure out the secrets of the trade, how to be sure everything is ready for the day of installation. They’ve seen it in a big picture but, since they’re now responsible, it’s really different.
SDP: We look at who is where in their workload. That’s a big part of it, and another part of it is, when you get an idea of what the client wants, ‘Oh, I think Sara would be a good fit with them.' Most of our projects are long-term, so, for example, I’m finishing up a very large project I’ve been working on with Claire for three years, in December. Already we are working on the architecture phase of another project which will then get really going after December.
Share a lesson that Ellie has shared with you.
LC: Making people feel that they’ve come up with their own ideas, that they’re the genius behind it, and also that you’re not pressuring them into doing something. A good example is when we move a client into a new place, and they say “We want to keep this sofa, and bring this antique and grandma’s secretary.” You can’t just say, “No, they’re awful!” You say, “Let’s work them into our floor plans.” And eventually, a client will start seeing what we’re doing and they get excited about what we’re doing. It pretty much never fails that they all come around and say, “Maybe we don’t have to bring grandma’s secretary here.”
CR: I learn from her every single day. More than anything, it would be how to interact with people. She’s amazingly gracious and humble. A lot of times in design, there’s a lot of ego. She just doesn’t have that. She loves collaborating with people. It would be her way of dealing and interacting with people, making clients feel comfortable.
AU: There’s a C and K way of doing things, and you grow to learn that as you’re here, hands-on, working with Ellie, with the partners, with the senior people. Ellie’s great at allowing us all to help keep the company moving forward. She really allowed us to get our hands on making it less of just American/English decorating and open up to doing more contemporary projects, cleaner lines, and maybe no more bouillon fringe and tassels but beaded trim.
SDP: A lot of what we do is the paperwork and the follow-up and the organization. It is a lot of “This fabric works with this fabric,” but it’s also learning how to wear many hats. It’s all about the schedule, being organized, and dealing with a lot of different trades, and being nice to supers.
Ratliff, Urban, DePalo, Cavanaugh
How would you describe the firm’s culture?
SDP: Ellie, beyond being our boss, cares about us all personally. You want to come to work every day. There’s such camaraderie here. There’s no competition, no “my project’s better than your project,” at all. Probably because we get our projects by where you are in your flow; it doesn’t matter if you have someone who is spending millions of dollars and someone else who is spending not as much. It’s about getting it done and making it look beautiful and keeping the client happy.
What’s your philosophy towards mentoring the rising generation?
AU: The way Ellie runs her company—allowing younger people to be able to feel free to partake in it, bring their ideas to the table—is so important. My being here 15 years is testament to Ellie’s ability to be open to change. I think that’s why the company has been around for so long, and people stay. I want the girls on my team to feel they have a say, can be open, and not just sit there and do paperwork, but be part of it. We love to brainstorm here. We all have teams and work on our own projects but we all come together if there’s something we can’t figure it out: “What do you think? And what do you think?” We have our teams, but C and K is a big team.
LC: The best way to learn is to do things on your own. With my team, I try to give them freedom to figure things out by themselves. I like to help, but I don’t like to tell anyone what to do. I try to come from a perspective of, if you need my help, I am here to help you. If you’re not involved from the beginning, seeing the process, then you miss out on details.
Are there many repeat clients?
CR: A large percentage are repeat clients. I think it has a lot to do with C and K, because our style has gotten to be so versatile. Decorating is such a personal thing, and you learn so much about the client. You hope to get to [a point] where you can read their mind, and see a pair of lamps and say, "Well those have got Debbie’s name all over them" and know she’ll like them.
Cullman and Kravis adopted its current team-based, partner-led structure about five years ago.
What do you look for in hiring new designers and promoting current employees?
EC: "Can-do'' is the most important. It’s critical everyone here be attentive, be polite. I can’t tell you how many times I hear from vendors, “Everyone in your office is so polite!” It makes such a difference because people want to do things for us. When we call up and say, “We really need this for next week,” it’s not a question.
Following through is critical. If you don’t answer the phone call within the day that is not acceptable. Even if just to say, “I don’t know the answer yet, but I haven’t forgotten.” And the minute that you know there’s a real problem, you have to tell everybody, that second. As long as they know what’s happening and know you’re not asleep, it’s very helpful.
CR: A positive outlook and hard worker. Eager to learn. Since so many of has been working here for so long, so much of it is shorthand. There’s a huge learning curve, no matter what your background is. It’s being a positive, pleasant person who is hard-working. We all work so closely together – we travel together, we just got back from midnight last night from Florida. It’s great to have that camaraderie where it’s easy, not a nail-biting torturous experience to be stranded in the Palm Beach airport for four hours! It’s such a lovely, nurturing environment, and I’m a strong believer that that trickles down from the top.
EC: What I’ve done recently is have my colleagues do the first and even second round of interviews. We’ve been very lucky—since they do the preliminary interviews, and also hiring from within, it’s not a question at all if the person will work out. You know within a few months if they will. That’s the joke here: You may not last the first three months, but if you last the three months, you’ll be here forever!
Small teams mean that young employees are exposed to every detail of a project, start to finish.
Where do you see the company headed?
SDP: We will still be asking Ellie if that paint color looks right, because she is so good!
LC: Our style has really broadened. We used to be known for such traditional work, and now it’s more modern. I hope to see us doing a very wide range and also developing our new furniture and rug collections and rug designs more.
EC: The next step is they’re running the business, and I’m doing the fun parts, which is, for me, mixing the paint, doing photography, and antiquing. If I never go to another electrical meeting as long as I live, I’ll be thrilled! I want these four women to take on the company. If you think about every law firm, every architecture firm, that continues past the retirement or semi-retirement of the founder, why has that happened so rarely in interior design?
I learned a long time ago that it’s not all about me. It’s a little about me, but it’s about everybody here.