Elissa Cullman's Colonial Evolution
A long-held family home becomes a sophisticated merger of past and present
photographs by Tom McWilliam
Twenty years ago, interior designer Elissa Cullman signed on to do a “gentle cleanup” of the interiors of an ailing center hall Colonial with views to Long Island Sound for a young couple just starting out. “Calling it rundown would be an understatement,” says Cullman, owner of the esteemed Cullman & Kravis design firm, whose star-studded client list includes Candice Bergen and Oprah. “It was tired, but we could see the bones of this beautiful 1930s house, and we all fell in love with its potential.”
Two decades and four renovations later, under Cullman’s discerning eye, the classic clapboard has more than fulfilled its promise. Over time, the residence has not only doubled in size, the interiors have moved beyond the home’s strict traditional roots and evolved into a sophisticated merger of past and present. “We call it new traditional,” says Cullman, who collaborated on the project with associate Lee Cavanaugh. “It’s all about figuring out how to keep the best of Grandma’s antiques while introducing more contemporary elements.”
Landscape design by Martha Baker Landscape Design, Greenwich, 203-661-7393, marthabaker.com.
Like all of her projects, this one started with the living room rug, and the celadon and gold 19th-century Tabriz with red flourishes provided the foundation for the overall color scheme. It is also one of several Oriental carpets selected in the initial phases that still remain. “The other rugs eventually gave way to more modern touches like the leather-bound sisal in the dining room and a shag silk in the master bedroom,” says Cullman, who encouraged a similar shift in the artwork and accessories. “In the early years, all their art was representational. More recently, we’ve added contemporary selections like the Josef Albers silk screens in the family room.”
The modern movement continued in the dining room where the 19th-century black lacquer chairs with brass inlay surrounding the mahogany table were selected for their forward-looking profile, and 12 Chinese sculptures of the zodiac displayed on a cinnabar Venetian stucco wall became the formal room’s unexpected informal centerpiece. “The sculptures were the owner’s idea,” says Cullman. “She has this outgoing personality and isn’t afraid to mix things up.”
Meanwhile, as the homeowners’ family grew to include three children, the once-modest Colonial slowly expanded into a rambling estate starting with a kitchen/breakfast room addition. “The homeowner really cooks, so there are two large prep islands—one topped with Rosa Alicante granite and the other with wood,” says Cullman, who embellished the durable white oak floors with a diamond stencil pattern.
Next came a commodious family room with double-height ceilings where a beige chenille sofa and a pair of custom club chairs share space with a commanding gauge-carved 19th-century mantel and a pair of red metal étagères. “A lighthearted touch,” says the designer about the latter. Pulling it all together is an Elizabeth Eakins rug fashioned from a flower design found in an old document that she recolored in yellows, reds, greens and blues. Eakins dubbed the creation “Ellie’s Primrose,” after Cullman.
But despite the multitude of changes, the home still lacked a critical connection to the landscape, necessitating one final addition: a solarium designed by architect John Murray. “They wanted a porch-like indoor-outdoor room that worked in all seasons,” says Murray, who outfitted the space with radiant-heated French limestone floors and retractable windows on three sides. “It basically transforms itself into a screened-in porch. It’s spacious but maintains its classical characteristics.”
For their part, Cullman and Cavanaugh introduced a hand-screened gold arabesque pattern on the sofa, a shag silk in front of the double-sided fireplace (the room opens to a bluestone terrace with spectacular views) and on the rattan chair cushions, a toned-down version of the red accent from the living room Oriental that started it all. “The coral is a more modern incarnation of that red,” says Cullman. “Like everything in the house, the colors have emerged and evolved with time.”