Ellen Lehman McCluskey, a firm believer that quality design is a result of close communication between architect and interior designer, built her own design firm into a business with national, international, and professional respect. She worked meticulously and with great energy on each project, as well as for the profession and for the organizations with which she was involved. She was a strong advocate of state legislation to register interior designers and to establish fee structures and educational requirements, thereby creating recognition for the breadth of knowledge and familiarity with the other construction professions and materials necessary to be an interior designer.
Ellen Lehman McCluskey was born in 1914, in New York City, where she lived her entire life. The daughter of Allan Lehman, an investment banker and community leader from a prominent Jewish family, and Evelyn (Schiffer) Lehman, she received a B.A. from Vassar College (1934), an M.A. from Columbia University (1936), and studied at the New York School of Interior Design (1936–1937). She was an associate interior decorator with Adele Dewey (1937–1938), Franklin Hughes (1938–1942), and Ruth Warburton Kaufman (1942–1943), all of whom were innovators in the field. Influences on her choice of profession and design sensibilities began, she said, when she traveled to Europe as a child with her mother, developing an appreciation for the arts from the great museums, palaces, and hotels she visited.
She established Ellen Lehman McCluskey Associates in 1948 and was principal of the firm and its retail showroom until her death on October 21, 1984. The firm’s work, which included interior and furniture designs for private homes, hotel and restaurants chains, and corporate clients, was widely recognized and published in design magazines in the United States and Europe. Her work was praised for its innovative design solutions, which were responsive to the local climate, cultures, and traditions, as well as the particular needs of each client.
She married Richard McCluskey in 1942 and had three children, Maureen, Sharon, and Orin. She was divorced from McCluskey in 1952 and married Preston Long in 1958. She divorced Long in 1971.
Together with her brother, Orin Lehman, she founded Just One Break, a foundation providing vocational training and placement for the physically handicapped. She also designed its annual ball. Her other community service activities included working on the acquisitions committee and benefit auctions for the Cooper-Hewitt Museum, serving as chair of the American Society of Interior Designers Education Foundation, and working with the National Committee on Historic Preservation.
Her major projects included the Plaza, Waldorf-Astoria, and Regency hotels (New York); the Charlotte City Club (North Carolina); the Light House Club (British West Indies); the New York Infirmary, with the architecture firm of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill; Washington’s Watergate Complex; Paradise Island and Britannia hotels (Nassau); Loew’s Monte Carlo Hotel; the New York Life Insurance Company Building; and the Parker House (Boston). Her clients included McGraw-Hill, Allied Chemical Corporation, United Airlines, Howard Johnson’s, and Prudential Lines. McCluskey was a fellow of the American Institute of Interior Designers, and its New York City chapter president. She was featured in National Hotel Exhibitions and participated on panel discussions on the “modern home.”
Ellen Lehman McCluskey’s work developed and maintained an integrity that, never blindly following fashion trends, developed a sense of place, scale, function, comfort, and hospitality in each project. Her professionalism made her a leader in the field for several decades. While her work bears her signature, she never sacrificed the physical context or a client’s needs and wishes in producing her final designs. She set an example for all design professionals who strive to create real, human-scale living environments.
Blackwell, Ed, ed. Celebrity Register. 3d ed. (1973); “Decorating Studio Opens.” NYTimes, May 25, 1949, 39:1; McCluskey, Ellen Lehman. Interior Design magazine (April 1960–September 1981 passim), and Interiors magazine (May 1955-October 1982 passim); Olin, Norma Ireland. Index to Women of the World from Ancient to Modern Times: Biographies and Portraits (1970); “Principality of Monaco.” NYTimes, February 24, 1974, sec. 8, 10:6; Who’s Who in America (1978–1984); The Women’s Book of World Records and Achievements (1979); WWWIA 8.
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Tuchman, Miriam. "Ellen Lehman Mccluskey." Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia. 27 February 2009. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on July 20, 2019) <https://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/mccluskey-ellen-lehman>.