As the man of the house drove to work through New Jersey’s horse country, he looked for open land with real estate signs. He saw none. One morning, his eye was caught by 60 wooded acres with no Realtor’s sign. He made a call: The land was available. So was a neighboring parcel. Did his wife need to pass judgment? “You decide where we live,” she said. “I just want to pick out the pretty things.”
In fact, she had something to say to her architect, James Paragano: “We’d like a house that looks as if it’s been there for a hundred years, just with all the modern amenities.” Paragano replied, “That’s exactly what I do.” He proposed a grand European-style house, scaled to satisfy the discretion of a couple who have a subliminal social profile and like it that way. Ellie Cullman and her partners at the ELLE Decor A-List爱博体育下载 firm Cullman & Kravis were the obvious choice to design it; over more than 30 years, this all-female firm has built a four-star reputation for interiors that are elegant without ostentation. And Cullman, Alyssa Urban, and Katie Sutton worked as a team, which would be crucial in the four-year marathon that lay ahead. The twelve-and-a-half-foot ceilings? Not at all daunting—that was the specialty of art consultant Rachel Carr Goulding, who had worked with the firm for 15 years and knew where to find large contemporary art that echoed classical themes.
And so they began. “We don’t dictate, we collaborate,” Cullman says. “We’d lay out piles of fabrics and rugs, and then the clients played Roman circus.” Still, collaboration requires trust. Cullman described an unconventional wall treatment for the living room that would start with layers of Venetian plaster and hand-applied gold foil, followed by a hand-sanding so that the gold would melt into the plaster. Add a gold, rose, and oxblood antique Indian rug and discreetly patterned upholstered armchairs, and the room both whispers and glows.
Tradition rules in the husband’s retreats. He wanted a paneled library, and he got one that has a pair of 19th-century French terra-cotta figures and a bonus: Over the mantel is an early-1890s George Inness painting of meadows near their home. He mentioned that, in Paris, he gravitates to the bar at the Ritz; he now has an updated version. The pool table in the billiard room is antique inlaid burl wood. Yes, there are James Welling postmodern photographs in the foyer, but they were created over images of classical sculptures.
The wife likes “bright, happy colors” and art that tells a story. In the kitchen, she got that in capital letters—two Andy Warhol soup cans can’t compete with a 72-inch-tall Mel Bochner monoprint that says HA HA six times in a blinding burst of color. The chaise in her dressing room is pink velvet, but far from blinding.
During construction the family lived nearby, and the wife would stop at the site after school drop-off each morning. It is often said of clients, not kindly, that they don’t know what they want and won’t quit until they get it, but these clients made several incisive suggestions—including one that changed an unneeded closet into a wine room. Four years after the construction crew arrived, the move-in was uneventful. Has vast space changed the family? The question provoked a laugh. “The house is authentic to who we are—happy and laid-back,” she says.
There is flexibility, too. When school ended abruptly in March, it quickly resumed at home. A spreadsheet was created that mimicked a school schedule; different classes would meet in different rooms. There was never any danger that spilled drinks would ruin precious fabrics; the house is “child-friendly but not child-centric.” After school, there’s a “freestyle” playroom. “It has doors that shut,” the mother says. “And I shut them.” All restraint ends in the basement game room, where there’s a movie theater. And arcade games. And a basketball court. And a pool, with the ceiling painted a dreamy blue that echoes the water.
Projects this ambitious require a very specific kind of collaboration—equal talent at all levels, with everyone operating at the same degree of expectation. I shared that thought with the Cullman & Kravis team. “You were like the 1927 New York Yankees,” I said. Dead silence. I tried again: “You were like the 2019 U.S. women’s soccer team.” In the Zoom windows, three women smiled as one.
This story originally appeared in the Summer 2020 issue of ELLE Decor.