Ken Fulk Brings a Contemporary Edge to the American Ambassador's Residence in Vienna

A 1930s Bauhaus-style official residence gets a welcome update with modern art and patterns that pop.

Living room with patterned wallpaper
Oberto Gili

I have known Trevor and Alexis Traina for at least a decade. We were friends before I ever did any work for them. I’ve designed their house in San Francisco and a place in Napa, and we’re working on a fun project in Mexico. They have become family to me, which made it even more special when they asked me to decorate the American ambassador’s residence in Vienna. We have different outlooks on the world sometimes, but we have a real love and understanding. Another thing that was such a fairy tale is that Trevor’s grandfather was assigned to this very same post under President Gerald Ford. And Alexis’s uncle was an ambassador to the U.K., so this is in their blood.

When you close your eyes and think of Vienna, you think of wedding-cake architecture. The challenge here was to make a circa-1930 Bauhaus-style official residence feel representative of a young family that has such warmth and joie de vivre.

Decoration, Tablecloth, Room, Centrepiece, Interior design, Dining room, Table, Furniture, Textile, Function hall,
The breakfast room’s table, with a Sue Fisher King tablecloth, is framed by circa-1910 J. & J. Kohn chairs and set with Herend china.
Oberto Gili

Once Trevor was sworn in [in May 2018], we submitted an idea of what we wanted to do to the State Department for approval. Trevor and Alexis have an incredible art collection and planned to ship it to the residence. They also covered the expense of the renovation and decoration. I think the State Department was a little nervous about what I might do aesthetically, but we set them at ease by showing we had put some real thought into it and weren’t just coming in and decorating for decorating’s sake.

We brought over Deborah Phillips, a decorative artist at the Saint Joseph’s Arts Society in San Francisco. She decamped to Vienna for eight weeks and created painted backdrops that enlivened this 14,000-square-foot space. The palette was inspired by the colors in a Josef Albers work, I-S LXXI b: a deep, bittersweet chocolate for the living and dining rooms that also references the original wood paneling; and a saturated pink, like a strawberry, for the music room. The patterns are inspired in part by Gustav Klimt paintings. And we worked with Vienna’s Dorotheum auction house to buy Secessionist-era furniture with enough pedigree and gravitas to fit in this setting.

Bedroom, Decoration, Bed, Blue, Room, Furniture, Interior design, Ceiling, Bed frame, Wall,
In a guest room, the trompe l’oeil striped tent was hand-painted by Phillips. The bed linens are by Schweitzer, and the photograph of model Cheryl Tiegs is by Anne Collier.
Oberto Gili

The living room, with its Josef Hoffmann armchairs, Austrian Biedermeier seating, and artworks by Tina Barney and Pablo Picasso, had to be comfortable: The Trainas have two dogs (Honey and Tony) and two kids (Johnny, 12, and Delphina, 10), so they really live full throttle. Once when I was there, they hosted 15 U.S. Marines for a barbecue meal in the living room. And I’ve also been there when it’s a dog on the sofa and a kid doing homework.

Dining room, Room, Chandelier, Furniture, Interior design, Table, Lighting, Light fixture, Decoration, Kitchen & dining room table,
The dining room’s Biedermeier table, which belonged to the ambassador’s father, John Traina, is topped with Saint-Louis crystal goblets, Oneida silver, Flora Danica porcelain plates by Royal Copenhagen, and napkin rings by Deborah Rhodes. The Gillow & Co. mahogany chairs and demilune tables, gilt mirrors, and Japanese screen are all antiques from the State Department collection.
Oberto Gili

In the dining room, there is a mix of 18th-century furnishings including mahogany chairs and demilunes from the English firm Gillow & Co. The antique Biedermeier dining table belonged to Trevor’s father and was shipped to Vienna from San Francisco. That David Hockney painting is such a major blue-chip piece of art, but from a purely decorative standpoint, it’s also so fun and happy. The space that has historically been labeled the music room today functions more like a den: It’s a cozy spot where you can have conversations on a more intimate scale, especially with the grouping of the Italian modern sofa and early-20th-century velvet Austrian chairs.

And I took a space off the library and reenvisioned it as a bar room, with a midcentury bar and barstools. The Trainas and I have a great history of creating wonderful lounges in their homes. I did one in their house in San Francisco based on a Damien Hirst painting, and we called it the Hirst Bar. It became iconic overnight, and suddenly everyone in town was texting me, “How do I get invited to the Hirst Bar?”

Bedroom, Bed, Furniture, Room, Curtain, Interior design, Property, Bed frame, Bed sheet, Wall,
The master bedroom’s canopy, headboard, armchair, ottoman, and curtains are in a Quadrille toile. Coleen & Company sconces hang over 19th-century Regency chests. The bed is dressed in Léron Linens, and the bed skirt and canopy lining are in a Quadrille stripe. The photographs (from left) are by William Eggleston and Diane Arbus.
Oberto GIli

There’s a Wes Anderson quality to this house. We arrived in a place that was somewhat staid and, like magicians, we kept opening these bags of tricks and watching it all blossom. Take the master bedroom: The space was old-fashioned, but we made it exciting with that crazy Quadrille Independence toile and all the pink and the blue. Or look at the guest bedroom: It’s in a 1970 addition that frankly didn’t have the bones of the rest of the house. The solution was to have Deborah paint the walls in those genius stripes, against which the Anne Collier photograph of model Cheryl Tiegs now really pops.

“I want people who visit to go, ‘Oh my God, this is wonderful.’”
Ken Fulk

With this whole project, I wanted to live up to expectations. We were trying to demonstrate through design an idea of what our country represents abroad and communicate positive things about us as Americans. To me, that was a higher calling. I want people who visit to go, “Oh my God, this is wonderful—just absolutely fabulous and happy and uplifting and joyous.”

This story originally appeared in the June 2019 issue of ELLE Decor.

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