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Two Sides of the Story

The houses of decorating partners demonstrate their belief that individuality is a matter of detail.

Ellie Cullman and Hedi Kravis are the kind of women who know about the best of everything. They know where you can get the best sandwiches in New York. They know who makes the best stationery, the best shoe polish, the best fountain pens. Partners in a seven and a half year old decorating firm, they expend a lot of energy to find the best everything, but like any effort sustained until it becomes a character trait, their insistence on perfection has a casual offhand quality about it. It’s not so much that they strive valiantly for the best as that they would feel rather uncomfortable with anything else.

The details of Hedi Kravis’s style are different from the details of Ellie Cullman’s, but the two women have in common the fact that their styles are all about details. They are such good friends that each has a keen grasp of the other’s mode: Ellie made suggestions about Hedi’s house which are plausibly Hedi-ish, and Hedi made suggestions about Ellie’s house which seem authentically Ellie-ish. Talking to them is bewildering, since they keep interrupting each other to explain each other. In the end you feel each one is the other’s most impressive invention.

Their summer houses are about twenty minutes apart and their husbands get along famously – which is great, since it means that the men can go golfing while the women sit by the pool (either pool) or in the living (either living room) and make plans for clients. Each of them has a largish but unpretentious house on a large piece of land, and each has been redoing her house in stages for years. “You can never say that you’ve done your house and it’s finished, like women who find their look in their twenties and stick with the same eyeliner and hairstyle straight through middle age,” Ellie Cullman remarks. “You have to keep everything fluid and open.” Both women wanted houses in which you could put your feet up and feel comfortable, houses in which children could run free – “reasonably free,” says Hedi – but both also wanted elegant spaces in which to entertain.

There are a thousand differences of detail. Ellie’s house is clever and whimsical where Hedi’s is classical and serious. Ellie’s is full of folk art and has a slightly primitive stripped-back feeling; Hedi’s is full of English furniture and has a rich, finished feeling. “When you walk into Ellie’s house, you smile, and you keep on smiling as long as you’re there,” says Hedi with her trademark perkiness. “Hedi’s house does all the things you’d want to do in the country to which some clients would probably say, ‘No, that’s too formal’ – but it feels like the country anyway,” says Ellie.

Ellie’s place has been in her husband’s family for two generations; by rights it should have gone to other Cullmans but it was “so hideously ugly,” she says, that no one else wanted it. She brought in Robert A.M. Stern to do her first phase of alteration. He opened up the entire space, making it light and bright and linking what had been wholly unrelated rooms. Architect Rink DuPont later designed a new five-bedroom wing. Ellie has been a guest curator at the Museum of American Folk Art, and her collection creates the mood that is sustained throughout the house. “I didn’t want to have only American folk art,” she says. “In the museum world everyone is so purist – I used to take objects off to a little man in Delaware who would do experiments on wood shavings to disqualify foreign pieces. I wanted to have the sort of collection that might have been put together in the late nineteenth century by an American with a good eye who liked to travel.”

Since Ellie herself is an American with a good eye who likes to travel, the only requisite leap of imagination was temporal. She has painted furniture of the Napoleon III period, provincial English carvings, and wonderful American material: the eagle from a Connecticut courthouse dominates the dining room and cigar store Indians – Ellie’s husband is in the tobacco industry – appear in most of the main rooms. There are little stars and big stars leaning against cupboards or lying on end tables or stacked in bookcases. Some were ornaments; others were used in shooting ranges or board games.

The details are, of course, superb. In both houses the sheets have been custom-made with Wllie and Hedi’s own designs brocaded in ombre threads on dreamily soft Egyptian cotton. The door hinges and radiator grilles are either old ones that have been restored or new ones made to their specifications. “We love hardware,” Ellie and Hedi confess simultaneously.

Hedi’t house, too, was originally a mess, full of crystal sconces and wall-to-wall carpeting. She knew she couldn’t change everything at once, so she painted it white, called it a blank canvas, and worked from there. “I wanted a high-country style,” she says. “If you look around the house now, you’ll see that it has brass picture frames, not silver. I’ve kept that shine and twinkle but tried to drop the stiffness and pretension.”

A long and beautiful drive leads to Hedi’s house, through woods and past horse fields. From a big hall with a shining wood floor – Hedi found it beneath wall-to-wall – you can go into the living room, where traces of gold on the glazed walls make the whole room shimmer. Or you can, instead, go to the dining room, which is in some ways the focus of the house. Hedi had planned to paint the walls in yellow stripes with highlights in gold pencil and had been suffering over the exact yellow for weeks when Ellie said, “You know what? It should be blue.” And all at once Hedi saw that it should indeed be blue. Now the stripes are cornflower and cobalt, and the gold pencil makes them look like a rural fantasy for the royal family of Sweden. The mirror-back chairs and miniature bull’s-eye mirrors add to the sparkle Hedi is so keen on.

“You’d never mistake a photo of my house for a photo of Ellie’s house,” says Hedi, and this is true, but you’d also never mistake their work for anyone else’s. These houses are two distinct variations on a single theme. One may be in waltz time, the other in march time, but the melodic structure is unmistakably consistent.