When it comes to the world of interiors, it’s easy to assume that perfectly-curated spaces equal more style than substance, but that simply isn’t the case for interior designer Gillian Khaw...
“The thing about the 60s/70s style of this [Palm Beach] house is that any decorating is secondary to the architecture, and I have relished the process of stripping back rather than adding … The furniture is a random collection, there is cane furniture leftover from the previous owner, my parents’ old Parker chairs and seagrass matting. I wanted the children to feel like they’re on summer camp, so they have a really simple bunk bed and baskets for their belongings. The other night I found them making hand shadow puppets with their torches so I guess the camp-vibe is working,” says Khaw who divides her time between her inner-city apartment and family weekender in Palm Beach. Gillian combines a busy and successful interior business, Handelsmann + Khaw, with caring for her two children, and admits that the juggle is often more about keeping your head above water than nailing the daily routine without hiccups, a notion that so many working mothers can relate to. With a reliable routine in place, monthly meal planning and sacrificing weekend parties and activities for beachside family time, the demands of family and career become more manageable and enjoyable for everyone. We quizzed Gillian on her refreshing approach to decorating kids’ spaces, where she finds inspiration (hint: it’s not Instagram!) and why a cuckoo clock could be the next must-have item for all family homes… Photography: Julie Adams | Hair and makeup: Jess Diez | Go to www.handelsmannkhaw.com
Gillian wears Sir Top. Eve wears Daughter dress
Tell us how you ended up in interior design after a career in investment banking?
I think I always wanted to work in interiors but I needed to prove to myself I could do the corporate thing. When my then-boyfriend-now-husband asked me to join him while he studied in France for a year it was the catalyst to step out of one vocation into another.
What was the process like setting up your own interior business, Handelsmann + Khaw (with co-founder Tania Handelsmann) and establishing your signature aesthetic?
Tania and I had been friends for a while and always planned to do something together -like a blog! Our children are roughly the same age and when we both came out the other side of having toddlers we were both ready to focus on business. Our shared aesthetic happened organically from daily debating about floor-plans, finishes and furniture tp fusing into an H+K house view. I think you have to leave your ego behind in a partnership, to have the humility to ask for another opinion because that’s the beauty of having two heads.
What are some of the most memorable projects you’ve worked on throughout your career?
The most memorable projects are the ones where you just click with the client on a personal level; there’s trust, which leads to a real exchange of ideas and experimentation. The most memorable projects aren’t necessarily the ones with the biggest budgets. Working in high-end interiors in Europe is quite different to Australia, we tend not to have the oligarchs so the period I had working there was memorable in its own way.
How do you stay inspired?
Travel, galleries, plays, reading. I’ve realised that social media has quite a shallow level of inspiration, you really don’t know a subject until you read about it and contextualise it. I was surprised by how many young designers claim that Instagram is their inspiration and have no ‘primary sources’.
If you had to name three things to splurge and scrimp on when it comes to decorating a home, what would they be?
I’m not sure whether this answers the question but I think splurge OR scrimp applies to everything interiors related. I would rather sit on Ikea or Muji and save for years for that unique piece from 1stdibs, rather than buy something pseudo ‘designer’ in the middle range of the market.
How have you managed to juggle business with being a mother of two?
I think the metaphor of the duck, seemingly calm but paddling furiously under the water totally applies to me. I have forgotten to pack my kids’ lunch, so I’m not sure I’m juggling very well.
What does a typical morning in your household look like?
Mornings all are calm and civilised until the last 10 minutes before we have to leave which is total chaos. I bought a cuckoo clock and put it in the dining room so that the children become more aware of the concept of time!
You alternate your time between your inner-city home and weekender in Palm Beach - can you talk us through how both spaces work for you and your family?
We live in an apartment, it’s close to H+K’s office and I can walk the children to school. I grew up in leafy suburbia so I enjoy living a quite different, urban existence. I would say our apartment is child-friendly but not child oriented. Not every surface is wipe down and there are definitely precious things they could break. We’re quite strict about spending weekends at the beach, it’s forced family time: we miss out on some birthday parties but that’s the trade-off. There’s a garden/jungle and of course the beach and I try and keep the children outdoors while we’re there. It’s like a mini holiday every weekend.
In terms of interiors, what was your approach when it came to decorating your Palm Beach home?
The thing about the 60s/70s style of this house is that any decorating is secondary to the architecture, and I have relished the process of stripping back rather than adding to this house. The furniture is a random collection, there is cane furniture leftover from the previous owner, my parents’ old Parker chairs and seagrass matting. I wanted the children to feel like they’re on summer camp, so they have a really simple bunk bed and baskets for their belongings. The other night I found them making hand shadow puppets with their torches so I guess the camp-vibe is working.
Do you have a favourite room in the house?
I like the dining room because opposite sides open onto the bush. I’m always drawn to house layouts which are one room deep, there’s a modesty to them and you feel like you’re sitting in the landscape.
As kids grow older their needs change when it comes to space and decorating - how have you approached this with your own family? (e.g. concealing toys, creating more desk space, TV/technology space, etc.)
I didn’t invest much in the ‘nursery’ stage of their rooms and generally have selected things I could imagine them using into their teenage years. I like wall storage systems like Vitsoe which will go with you when you move house and can morph from bookshelf to hanging space to whatever you like. I’ve put the basic furniture into their rooms but strangely, for an interior designer, I’ve left the embellishments up to them. Children are bowerbirds and I think their little collections of pebbles/feathers/snowglobes give them ownership of and make them feel secure in their space so no matter how unstylish, I go with it.
What kind of mum are you - relaxed, strict, routine?
Strict (I guess we parent like we were parented) and I couldn’t do my job if I didn’t have a routine.
Gillian wears Shop Doen dress
How do you handle the more stressful parts of parenting?
I’d like to say with grace, but my children might disagree. I find this 6-8 age much less stressful than the newborn/toddler period. I found not knowing what was wrong with them or being able to reason with them the most stressful.
What is your definition of self care and how do you make time for it?
My mother-in-law once told me, ‘guilt is a wasted emotion’ and I’ve found that a useful mantra because I think it’s mother’s guilt that stands in the way of self-care. I have to admit I’m not great on self-care but I do find short grown ups-only holidays very restorative and definitely make me a better parent when I return.
What are some of your ultimate mum-hacks - tips or tricks you use to make the days/weeks run smoothly?
I do a monthly menu plan – which I don’t stick to but it takes the deliberation out of grocery shopping. My children must be the slowest, fussiest eaters in the world and I used to read to them at meal times and only turn the page when they had finished their mouthful. It’s far more effective than nagging.
Gillian’s Little List of Loves:
1. Monocle on Design: Monocle magazine’s design podcast 2. Nowness: A digital video channel, the brainchild of Jefferson Hack and LVMH 3. Pizzico Italiano: Hidden in a laneway in Avalon, Nonna is the chef and her daughter front of house. You can taste the love in the cooking. 4. Alimentari Paddington: working lunch destination 5. Aje – I’ve always loved Aje’s Australian brand of femininity, I saw someone looking super chic wearing their ‘corsaire’ blouse backwards. By coincidence, H+K was recently asked to work on the designer’s house. 6. 1stdibs: I can’t imagine how we’d do our job without this portal to almost every antique dealer in the world. 7. Granite and Marble Works: This is my version of a candy store. I always enjoy choosing stone slabs with clients for their project and Granite Marble Works can source anything. 8. Queen Street Woollahra: Whether it’s lunch at Parterre gardens or my morning visit to Simon Johnson (I phone up and say “Hi, it’s Gillian” and by the time I’ve crossed the road my coffee is waiting), I love that our office is on one of Sydney’s most charming streets.