Being open-minded is often a prerequisite for being a good designer—especially when it comes to clients with a very particular and singular vision. Luckily, designer Ellie Cullman is well-versed in working with homeowners who think outside the box. “Our firm has no signature style,” she says. “We like as much diversity as possible.” In fact, keeping variety in their portfolio is one of the reasons Cullman and design partner Alyssa Urban embraced a recent project for a young couple with three small children in Key Biscayne.
While the wife approached the home’s design with a discerning and exacting eye—no doubt passed down to her from her grandmother, the legendary fashion icon Betsy Bloomingdale—she felt the home should balance cutting-edge design with a fun-loving family vibe. Cullman and Urban, for their part, knew exactly what that meant: The design needed to feel fresh. “It had to be lively and energetic, but not glitzy in any way,” Cullman says. “It was more about a bright and bold color palette.”
But there was someone who needed convincing: The husband’s more conservative tastes might not have gravitated to all the Crayola colors and sense of whimsy injected into the home. So, the wife took the lead, working with Cullman and Urban on the home’s signature aesthetic. “My husband didn’t see anything until he walked into the house at the end,” says the wife. “We both have strong opinions. I thought if we both did this, we might have to get divorced. So, I said, ‘You just have to let me do it.’”
First, though, the team would have to address the home’s nondescript construction. Other than the main floor’s 12-foot ceilings—some of them swathed in warm wood—the interiors of this house had little architectural character to speak of, recalls Thomas Kligerman, the architect hired to add some zing. So, he found ways to make the rooms more embracing. “The library was a sheetrock box,” he says, “a space you walked through your way to the laundry.” Kligerman, working with builder Grey Marker, wrapped it in cantilevered shelves with uplights to invite the residents to linger.
Another sheetrock box was a space designated as the husband’s “man cave.” For Kligerman, this became the most elaborate part of the project. To give the room some distinction, he designed a wall of glass shelves framed in bronze. Then he backed the unit, which houses the TV and the bar, with translucent glass and installed lighting that could change colors on a whim. Other changes included an overhaul of the master bathroom, with Kligerman and Marker basically replacing everything except the floor—the lighting, tub, shower enclosure and surfaces. The architect also added a glass barn-style door in the family room that rolls elegantly on a track to open or close the space’s connection to the playroom.
In its own way, though, the whole house feels a bit like a playroom—albeit one for adults. The project is home to a wealth of cool, contemporary art pieces, yet it doesn’t fall prey to Miami’s prototypical slick white-lacquered interiors and Lucite furniture. In fact, even the furnishings feel like artwork, such as the dining room’s custom wood table designed by Urban and inlaid with brass pieces. It is surrounded by equally sophisticated dining chairs, but their backs are characteristically covered in citron-colored upholstery—a hue first introduced in a brighter version on a wall in the entry.
Daring turquoise and burnt orange shades abound in the living room, while the kitchen, breakfast room and family room mix citron with marine blue. The evolution of the palette was “emotional and instinctual,” Cullman says. Urban adds, “In the beginning we thought we’d leave all the walls white because many rooms were open to each other.” But, Cullman elaborates, “It felt like a design that was missing some spice.”
Yet for all the playful polychromatics, the rooms are punctuated by a mix of elegant midcentury furniture and bespoke pieces. “They’re both into the arts,” Urban observes. “So, we found young craftspeople and asked ourselves how we could come up with bespoke versions of many of the furnishings.” These pieces rise to the level of the many artworks displayed throughout—most of them assembled by the wife, who concentrated on young up-and-coming talents such as Los Angeles-based artist Petra Cortright. Cullman and Urban also contributed, discovering, for example, New York-based glass sculptor Abby Modell, who created a whimsical wall installation for the family room.
In the end, the collaboration was exactly what Cullman and Urban had hoped for when taking on the project. “We are excited by clients who challenge what our firm has been doing for 30-plus years,” says Urban. Cullman adds: “This was just so much more fun because of the vivid color and the dynamic personalities involved.”
—Jorge S. Arango