Designer Page-Turners

Mario Buatta and Ellie Cullman show off their book smarts with their must-have interior designer books coming out this fall.

Among this fall’s crop of interior design books, two must-have volumes are scheduled to launch this month. Celebrating a half century of beautiful interiors, the highly anticipated Mario Buatta: Fifty Years of American Interior Decoration includes countless images of the renowned decorator’s work, plus insights into his process, entertaining anecdotes and personal reflections, all told with Buatta’s legendary wit and humor. The Detailed Interior: Decorating Up Close with Cullman & Kravis is a behind-the-scenes look at how the esteemed firm creates its layered, harmonious spaces. Focusing on the many intricacies that contribute to a successful overall design, Elissa Cullman and Tracey Pruzan share their thoughts and tips on creating elegant and distinctive interiors.

We met with Buatta, Cullman and Pruzan at the distinguished antiques emporium Florian Papp in Manhattan and asked them to share a few thoughts about each other and the world of design.

What do you think Ellie/Mario does best?
C&K: Mario is one of the preeminent masters of American design. His approach to designing master bedrooms is brilliant. He has said that “the right bedroom makes you look more huggable, more lovable. It should be flattering. You spend one third of the day there, so it should be idyllic—and a place where you look your best for the person in your life.” [From Architectural Digest, 2012] MB:I think Ellie’s work shows she creates a proper background for her clients to live against. We are basically the set designers. Ellie’s rooms have a great sense of saying, “Please come in, sit down and relax.” All the clients have to do is give their personal touch of objects they like and pictures and photos. Ellie’s apartment gives testimony to the above!

What kind of project would 
you like to collaborate on 
with each other?
MB: Retirement. But I am older and going first!

What is your favorite project in Ellie’s/Mario’s book?
C&K: I love the penthouse apartment that Mario recently designed for Hilary and Wilbur Ross. Traditional with a modern sensibility: This is one of the most glamorous New York apartments, ever. MB: Hard to pick, as they all have the feeling that the client just stepped out of the room.

What is the most challenging aspect of doing a book?
C&K: Getting the photography right is a challenge. We commissioned all new photography for this book so that it would have a more uniform feeling, allowing the reader to focus on the projects and the details within the rooms. MB: Having left an important aspect of your career and personal life out. It is a challenge as these aspects come up in your thoughts daily, and I find that posting them on my iPhone notes or on paper is best. I did this for a year and a half until the book went to press. Luckily, I think I got them all in or too much. I have no regrets yet!

What mistake do you see most often in design?
C&K:A lack of attention to comfort, function and, often, a lack of attention to detail seem to be the most common mistakes made. MB: Mistakes I see often are scale, minimal use of colors from room to room, night rooms versus day rooms. A client’s mother once asked her daughter, “Why did you paint the entire interior of the house white when you could have gotten colors for the same price?” A can of paint is the least expensive investment to get a huge change in atmosphere and mood.

He Said, She Said Meet designers Mario Buatta and Ellie Cullman (above) at a book signing at Stamford’s Antique & Artisan Center on October 10, 6–9 p.m. photograph by stacey bewkes/

Ellie, your new book is all about the details. What is your favorite detail for getting a lot of visual bang for your buck?
C&K: Regardless of a room’s design or palette, every room needs a little sparkle. Whether it’s the gleam of a bronze table leg, a flash of mirror or the shine of embroidery threads, without twinkles of light, a room appears lifeless and still. You don’t need a lot of money—gold, silver or bronze, brass or glass all add a spark of life to your interiors.

Another really easy fix—you don’t have to spend a penny—is to take everything off your bookshelves and tabletops and start again, thinking of every surface as an opportunity for a composition. Bookshelves should be organized with a mix of vertical and horizontal stacks, a surfeit of air space and collections of objects mixed into the shelves. Tabletops can be designed to have an assortment of objects in a variety of materials, shapes and surfaces that can be appreciated from every angle. Aim for asymmetry and a mix of tall and short, round and rectilinear, three-dimensional and flat pieces.

What is the most underrated decorating detail?
C&K: Lampshades are both underrated and overlooked. If you can walk into a room and change all the lampshades to the same or similar shade of off-white, you will do your room a great favor. Clean neutral-color shades allow the light to filter out evenly without hot spots at the top and bottom openings. At the same time, it’s a great idea to confirm that they are all the correct proportions for the lamps and the tables. This is such an easy fix for any room that needs a lift, and it is a detail that is often ignored.

Mario, we know you prefer decorating to evolve over time. Besides the furniture, what extras do you always try to include first time around?
MB: I do attack a room or rooms as a white canvas and build as I go along until that canvas looks like a watercolor painting of the room my client and I are looking for. It is cheaper to make a mistake on a floor plan or rendering than doing the room and making costly mistakes that are frustrating. No room is ever finished to my mind as we add and subtract furnishings and objects during our lifetime. It’s like a garden that each season gives colorful pleasures, textures and finishes. 
I had a client in New York who, to change with the seasons, had four sets of slipcovers and changed tablescapes as well. It was refreshing and fun to change the setting.

And what do you never let clients skimp on if possible?
MB: I never let clients skimp on quality upholstery and fabrics. And the best mattress, as you spend half of your life on these pieces.

Your book is full of funny and entertaining anecdotes. What is your favorite practical joke you’ve played?
MB: My favorite practical jokes usually involve something silly like a wine glass half spilled on their new carpeting or a plastic windup water bug in a glass of water on their dining table. Note: Always ask how strong their hearts are!