Creating a Career & a Company

An interest in art and an entrepreneurial spirit leads to interior design

By Annette Kahn

“I really like change; it’s invigorating. Anything that doesn’t change is devoid of life,” says Elissa Forman Cullman ’68, whose post-Barnard career was marked by several twists and turns before she found her niche as one of the reigning eminences in the interior design field. Since 2000, she’s been listed in Architectural Digest’s AD100, which names the top 100 designers and architects in the world. Her interiors evince a calm, elegant classicism, often and unexpectedly adorned with modern accessories and art to give them what she calls “some pop.”

Design led to Cullman’s career evolution, not only as top tastemaker, but also as a savvy entrepreneur. With penthouse offices on Madison Avenue and nearly 20 staffers (many of them with her for more than 10 years), Cullman & Kravis celebrated its 30th anniversary this year. And, Cullman continues to enhance the brand, with a line of fabrics for luxury-fabric company Holland & Sherry and carpet designs for the rug and tapestry gallery Beauvais. She’s currently seeking to expand the firm’s influence with a furniture collection. Additionally, two books—the latest, The Detailed Interior: Decorating Up Close with Cullman & Kravis (The Monacelli Press, 2013), with collaborator and senior C&K designer Tracey Pruzan—present a panoramic view of the firm’s work.

Cullman was born in Brooklyn. Her father, Sol Forman, who passed away in 2001 in his late 90s, was the owner of Peter Luger steak house, an institution that remains in family hands. Barnard is also a Cullman family institution: both her sisters, Marilyn Forman Spiera ’59 and Amy Forman Rubenstein ’60 are graduates, as are several of Cullman’s nieces, plus her daughter-in-law. Cullman was a British civilization major at Barnard, graduating Phi Beta Kappa and magna cum laude. She was accepted to (but didn’t attend) Harvard Law School, instead marrying Edgar Cullman, Jr. After her marriage, she lived in Japan for two years. Cullman returned to Columbia University and began a master’s in East Asian studies, but though she spoke Japanese, realized she didn’t have a passion for learning the language’s written characters.

It was time to find a career. As Cullman says, “I always intended to do something; there were goals, but no direction.” She began helping to put together exhibitions for the gallery at the Japan Society. She curated exhibitions at the American Folk Art Museum; one dealt with artists as collectors, a second, in 1980, spotlighted children’s portraits.

But design seemed always to be at the back of her mind, even if she went through the proverbial “back door.” Cullman and friend Helene-Diane “Hedi” Kravis, often found themselves at gatherings in friends’ apartments rearranging furniture—after a few glasses of wine. Which led to suggestions the duo set up their own business. While the idea was percolating in their minds, the pair submitted a screenplay to Stanley Jaffe, who had produced the Oscar-winning Kramer vs. Kramer. He rejected the screenplay, but mentioned that he was having problems finding a designer he could work with on his various homes. (He had already fired several.) Enter Elissa and Hedi; they had their first client.

Describing the experience, Cullman uses words like “problem-solving” and “steep learning curve.” She recalls hiring a dancer as their office assistant, who didn’t know the difference between the “net” and “list” prices (the former paid by designers, the latter, the retail cost), and Cullman had to learn that purchase orders need to be done in triplicate. Made aware of the need for contracts, she collected other examples, borrowing paragraphs to form one for the partners’ new firm. In 1984, Cullman & Kravis was born. The two were young, energetic, and entrepreneurial, and had not served long apprenticeships with other designers more established in the field. They designed for a clientele of their peers; both Cullman and Kravis had traveled a great deal, knew about antiques and art, and were familiar with the types of homes they were called upon to fix up. (Cullman does point out that their friends and acquaintances knew other designers as well.) They did everything down to the last detail: from organizing linen closets to ordering matchbook covers. What they didn’t know about, they researched thoroughly, finding vendors and specialty dealers helpful.

Cullman & Kravis dialed back from what the partners believed to be the design excesses of the ’80s. Says Cullman, “It was all about pattern on pattern...every door frame was marbleized...[But] you need to edit [otherwise] the eye becomes anaesthetized.” She lays no claim to a signature style, but doesn’t refrain from thought provoking and provocative mixes of both antique and new.

The firm grew exponentially in the ’90s, as Cullman and Kravis (by then Kravis Ruger—she’d divorced and remarried) volunteered their expertise for designer showhouses on behalf of specific charities. Interior design magazines also discovered their work and published lavish spreads of C&K interiors. But tragedy struck later in the decade, with 49-year-old Hedi Kravis Ruger’s untimely death in 1997. Greatly distressed, Cullman carried on and vowed to keep the firm’s name the same to honor the contributions her friend and partner had made to the business’s success.

Still on a growth path, Cullman attributes the success of her business to careful control of her projects, which involves all the moving parts of design, including detailed planning, and a very professional work ethic that moves from the top down. She’s also embraced technology, using it to advantage when staffers execute spreadsheets with detailed lists of furnishings and costs. While paint samples and fabric swatches remain touchstones of the design business, Cullman & Kravis clients can also expect pages of these spreadsheets that include both high and low budget options.

Currently working on homes in New York, Florida, Colorado, and Hawaii, Cullman smiles when asked if C&K will become another family institution, and notes that she plans to pass it on to her colleagues. Her three children are all pursuing different careers: environmental science, theatre directing, and documentary filmmaking. In the best of taste, of course.

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Latest IssueSpring 2023