You’re sure to know if you’ve ever experienced a space designed by interior designer Tamsin Johnson. Purveyor of the eclectic and unexpected, Tamsin’s definitive approach to interiors surfaces through every material, finish and object, and how they’re layered to achieve what the designer calls ‘tactful disharmony’. Making way for interiors defined by unpretentious sophistication, Tamsin inherited her magpie eye from her parents’ legacy of antique dealing, instilled with the belief that good design can last through many lifetimes, just like a quality piece. 

Tamsin creates spaces to be lived in – to be used and loved – where everything should feel like it’s always been there. It’s this sentiment that’s captured in Tamsin’s first book, Spaces for Living. Featuring 13 of her favourite projects spanning continent and mirroring her design evolution, the book explores Tamsin’s career as both an eminent interior designer and antique dealer. To celebrate, we spoke with Tamsin on honing her signature aesthetic, fundamental influences and her most notable projects to date – including the opportunity to design abroad. 

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Hideaway by Tamsin Johnson | Photography by Anson Smart

Congratulations on your publication Spaces for Living. Could you please talk about the collection of projects in the book and how they capture your career to date as both an eminent antique dealer and interior designer?

Tamsin Johnson: Thank you! The book features some of my favourite projects, and they span quite a few places and stages of my life and career. Some projects are reflections of my path, such as a New York apartment that I lived in years ago with my husband, Patrick, when we were there to set up a showroom for his tailoring business in SoHo, which I also designed. I designed a local showroom for the P. Johnson brand features in the book – located in a Melbourne townhouse. It feels like a trunk show, gallery space and home all at once.

And of course, there is our previous house in Tamarama, where we lived with our two children. This is joined by some other beachside projects, from a Bondi bungalow to a grand home in Palm Beach and the iconic Raes on Wategos hotel in Byron Bay. There are also some beautiful older city houses in Sydney and Melbourne and a Paris apartment in a gorgeous 17th-century building.

I guess you can see that whether I’m designing for a beachside home or an older city residence, my approach is always to create beautiful spaces that are not too overworked and that have a sense of timelessness. Things feel as if they have always been there, and the homes are liveable above all – where every space can be used and loved.

In terms of collecting, many of the projects showcase my interests in mid-century furniture, the textural appeal of cane and rattan, the beauty of Daum and Murano glassware, the style of Edgar Brandt, and of Art Deco and Art Nouveau. 

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Sanctuary by Tamsin Johnson | Photography by Sean Fennessy

Your parents were antique dealers. How has this background and your learnings informed your magpie eye for sourcing antiques – and how do the antiques inform your interiors?

Tamsin Johnson: I’ve learnt that a good quality piece will always remain so, and that good design can last through many lifetimes. I particularly love antiques because they can defy the decades and enjoy different life cycles in different settings. They bring something unique to an interior, even a little mystery all of their own, and they work beautifully with contemporary and custom pieces.

As an interior designer, who or what has been most influential to your approach to design?

Tamsin Johnson: My former boss, interior designer Don McQualter, who took me under his wing, showed me that there is no one way of doing things, and taught me to trust my instincts and have the courage and confidence to do something new.

Many places inspire me, from the hotel Le Sirenuse in Positano to our own Sydney Opera House, but I would say that trips to India with my parents when I was young really informed a lot of my interior memories, particular those spectacular palaces that are so complex and layered, and I think even more beautiful as they age.

There are many designers whose style I love but here are some:

Federico Forquet, who turned a hugely successful career in fashion into designing beautiful homes and gardens.
Bunny Mellon, a trailblazer of taste in both interiors and landscapes. I was actually reading a book about her when pregnant and named our daughter after her.

Georges Geffroy – what he did for Christian Dior was so rich and layered.

Axel Vervoordt, a dealer and designer after my own heart, with the most exceptional taste and refined eye. To me, he epitomises the practice of restraint.

David Nightingale Hicks – I love his black high-gloss walls, and obviously his prints made him famous. I’m generally drawn to designers who have their own distinct aesthetic.

Jacques Grange – he layered so beautifully and in such a considered way. I especially love the spaces he designed for Pierre Bergé and Yves Saint Laurent.

Luis Barragán – the way he used light, shadow, form and texture was so thoughtful.

“I like to establish a dialogue between old and new, the dynamic and the calm, the polished and the textural, the ordered and the delightfully dishevelled – what I like to call ‘tactful disharmony’.”

– Tamsin Johnson

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Townhouse by Tamsin Johnson | Photography by Sean Fennessy

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Townhouse by Tamsin Johnson | Photography by Sean Fennessy

How would you define your aesthetic – and how is ‘Spaces for Living’ reflective of this?

Tamsin Johnson: I’d say my aesthetic is refined yet relaxed, where spaces are beautiful but also functional, livable and full of life. I like to establish a dialogue between old and new, the dynamic and the calm, the polished and the textural, the ordered and the delightfully dishevelled – what I like to call ‘tactful disharmony’. I strive to create spaces that show respect for materials and craft alongside a sense of adventure and play. I’d like to think that the book reflects this through the beautiful photos of the projects and its insight into my approach to the different spaces. I have always loved that quote of Diana Vreeland’s, ‘The eye has to travel’, and I think an interior designer – and certainly a book about one – has the potential to offer that wonderful journey of discovery.

What is the most memorable project you’ve worked on to date?

Tamsin Johnson: Probably the boutique hotel Raes on Wategos in Byron Bay. When they engaged me to do the job, I spent a week there, with a night in each different room, to experience the place and understand what worked and what didn’t. I was with my husband, Patrick, and our son, Arthur, who was only six weeks old. Months later, I returned with my son and my mum, who’d come to help me, and we spent a week installing all the new pieces. Again, we stayed in a different room each night, on what was literally a building site. I’ll never forget it! Raes was a beautiful project to create, and we all still feel like we’re part of the family whenever we visit.

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Temple by Tamsin Johnson | Photography by Sean Fennessy

As an Australian designer, what’s it like to design homes internationally; namely, in Paris and New York?

Tamsin Johnson: It’s certainly more challenging, but in the most rewarding way – you have access to a whole new array of resources, shops and artisans. I’m lucky to have amazing international contractors who I can call on, and I also often seek help from local interior designers. Some of the most fun pieces I’ve discovered overseas have come from simply pounding the pavement – such as a Jean Royère-style wrought-iron screen I found in an antique centre in New York’s Flatiron district, and a pair of zinc vessels that Patrick and I discovered in an antique store in Hudson. In Paris, I found a fabulous mustard-coloured sofa when I was walking by a store window, and I lugged a pair of bistro chairs home through the streets of sticky-hot Paris in summer with my friend fashion and jewellery designer Lucy Folk, for whom I was furnishing an apartment.

What’s next for Tamsin Johnson?

Tamsin Johnson: The most exciting venture is a new showroom in Paddington, which is due to open in November. The business has outgrown the William Street premises, and this new larger space in a 1930s warehouse building will be more accessible for the public, not just our clients. From there, we’ll be selling antiques sourced through Europe and America and some custom pieces. I can’t wait!

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Tree House by Tamsin Johnson | Photography by Sean Fennessy

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