“No glass top tables, but on the other hand, no microsuede either. The childhood years are when we spend the longest time at home and share it with others the most, it seems a waste for this to also be the period of plastic storage buckets and disposable furniture. I think just anticipate someone will draw on your oak dining table with a texta and just learn to love it,” says Gillian Khaw, who is sharing her tips on balancing a beautiful home with a functional home (i.e. a home where kids can be kids)...
She would know, along with being a mother of two children, she’s also one of the co-founders of the hugely successful interior design studio Handelsmann + Khaw, and she has spent her entire career transforming both residential and commercial projects into elegant, thoughtful, but surprising spaces with her business partner Tanya.
Stepping side her Bellevue Hill home, her love of antiques is clear (she began her career in Europe dealing in European antique furniture) as is her love of art (we can’t take our eyes off her Oliver Watts painting).
Here, she shares her inspirations and gives us an insight into her creative world.
You began your career dealing in European antique furniture - tell us about your love of antiques and where do you source most of your pieces from?
I think living in Europe is what gave me the view that rooms need antiques, even if it’s something mid-century, to have depth and look like a home. We source from auction houses, overseas dealers, eBay, Etsy, Instagram. If you are starting to collect antiques, buy what you love, not what’s in vogue, and preferably an item that doesn’t have cheap knock-off substitutes. As you amass more furniture, I’d say mix up your provenances… a house full of a single period looks like a museum.
Tell me about your time spent working in Europe, firstly in Paris then in London – how did it influence your aesthetic?
I think the French aesthetic is more than just using French furniture, it is the offbeat way things are put together. My heroes are really the antique dealers in the flea markets, their store vignettes that get changed around every few weeks are amazing. The London interiors I worked on had a discipline and classicism to them… I was influenced by both, in equal parts.
Returning to Australia, what is unique about Australian interiors and design?
Australian interiors are definitely more relaxed. I think our market is flooded with a lot of low mass-market furniture and fakes in a way France and the UK aren’t, so you can get “the look for less” which is not always a good thing.
Top: Oroton Cotton-Linen Sateen Tab Detail Dress, $449. Bottom: Oroton Evelyn Baguette Bag, $429, and Etta Shoulder Bag, $499
What do you remember about the early days of motherhood?
Sleep deprivation. Troubles with feeding. Not enough of the special moments. Early motherhood was the most challenging stage for me. I much prefer it now when the children are able to voice their needs. I also felt everyone was out there making bounds in their careers while I was wasn’t… the grass is always greener.
What has been your favourite stage?
I would say now is my favourite stage of motherhood, their personalities have well and truly developed and they are trying to navigate the world with us as their guide.
You escape the city each weekend – what prompted this decision and what does this space bring to your family dynamic?
I prefer either a very urban or very rustic environment, over the in-between. Taking ourselves out of the city on the weekend filters life down to a family routine of long walks, surfs and somehow, less media. During COVID these routines became a reassuring constant.
Your home in the city is filled with character – how would you describe it?
Unlike our projects, there is no overall vision, but it’s actually quite liberating to have one interior evolve organically. It’s a random mix of things I like. I do move things like art around way too often, but I think if I have an idea it often goes straight into someone else’s project.
What are some easy ways to update/refresh a home?
Reupholster. You can really date a room by its upholstery so updating this has the most impact. When designing or decorating a home, one thing is to stop asking for opinions (except if you have a designer!). I think your aesthetic has nothing to with what your friends think and workshopping an idea around will always reduce it to something average.
What colour palettes do you love that are timeless?
I don’t think any colour palette is impervious to one day falling out of fashion, except white, although there are even shades of whites that haven’t stood the test of time.
For furniture, what are your favourite stores/suppliers?
What about for interior items such as lamps?
When it comes to interiors, what’s your approach to balancing a beautiful home with a functional home that kids can be kids in?
No glass top tables, but on the other hand, no microsuede either. The childhood years are when we spend the longest time at home and share it with others the most, it seems a waste for this to also be the period of plastic storage buckets and disposable furniture. I think just anticipate someone will draw on your oak dining table with a texta and just learn to love it.
How would you describe the work of Handelsmann + Khaw?
Elegant, thoughtful, but surprising.
What have been some of the biggest highlights since you began Handelsmann + Khaw?
The biggest highlights for Handelsmann + Khaw have not necessarily been the largest projects, but the ones where we have carte blanche and the confidence of the client, even with a small budget. As a designer, your career works up to a moment when clients are open to your ideas, not just replicating an image they’ve seen. More recently, being nominated in the Belle Awards for Interior Designer of the Year and Emerging Design Star was quite a thrill.
What do you want to see celebrated more in Australia in terms of interior design?
I’d like to see Australian interiors which are neither recent nor done by a designer, celebrated. I’d love to see inside a mid-century house in the suburbs which hasn’t been updated since the 70s, or a weatherboard beach house which has not been turned coastal chic. I think authenticity should be celebrated.
What tips do you have for a successful business partnership?
I think my partnership with Tania is a success because a. we respect each other’s out of office hours and b. we conceptualise every project together. The creative exchange, including the debates, is what feeds our enthusiasm.