Gillian Khaw & Tania Handelsmann

Can a home be sophisticated, art-filled and child-friendly even? Together, Sydney-based interior designers, Gillian Khaw and Tania Handelsmann of Handelsmann + Khaw, balance classical ideas with modern quirks and practical touches – kids' rooms included. Here, a look at their shared inspirations and how the interior designer dresses her own home

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  2. Photographed by HANNAH ROCHE 

  3. Editor NATASHA INCHLEY 

Room With  A View: main picture top, Gillian Khaw, at her home in Bellevue Hill, stands beside a photograph by Karen Rosenlund entitled After Glow. Khaw wears Bella Freud; above, Khaw in Aje, with co-founder Tania Handelsmann wearing Valentino, photographed in the living room featuring a nude by Oliver Watts,  an ink drawing by Jasper Knight and a bold abstract work by Khaw herself. Needless to say the two women are in demand – and busy. Khaw is mother to Eve, aged 5, and Toby, aged 7;  Handelsmann's children are Harper, aged 4, and Oscar, aged 6. 

You both have such a wonderful sense of style – where did your love of good design come from? Gillian: My parents took me on a long holiday to France when I was 10, I suppose it was a formative age, aesthetically speaking. I still have the diary I kept, which detailed my ridiculous observations about how sophisticated Paris was. Tania: I studied architecture at university but it wasn’t until working at BKH [Burley Katon Halliday] in my early twenties that my obsession with interiors really flourished. The studio was a very inspirational environment – many BKH’ers from that era have gone on to be some of the most successful designers in Sydney, and it was a privilege to be mentored by the inimitable Iain Halliday. Also, every time I travel, my passion for good design is reignited – I adore discovering the best contemporary design in other cultures.

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  2. Can you describe your philosophy, how does the creative partnership work? It’s important to us that each interior is unique and responds to person and place. We develop all concept designs together and, once we settle on an overall aesthetic, we present our ideas to each other and then have a healthy debate. Once the concept design is approved, one of us will take the reins. We’ve deliberately resisted growing the studio because we want to control every design decision no matter how small, and find it difficult to trust anyone except each other. Gillian: Tania has a very cohesive, glamorous interior style which takes real rigour to execute. Tania: I admire Gillian’s encyclopaedic knowledge of historical design references and her determination to make every project more interesting than the last. 

Bold And Beautiful: top, the airy sun room photographed by Michael Wickham; above, the apartment features clever touches such as a hand-stenciled pastel border on the ceiling in the sun room and paneling in the entrance foyer. Tania's daughter, Harper wears a Mabo dress and a cardigan hand-knitted by her grandmother; above right, Handelsmann wears Roland Mouret and Khaw wears Valentino. Beside them stands an African wood carving of a Senufo bird.

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  2. Are you both immediately quite decisive about a space upon consultation? How does your mind balance the client’s needs with your own viewpoints and aesthetics? Yes, we are quite decisive. Clarity and the ability to edit is the greatest value we can offer our clients. We look to satisfy the practical requirements and overall aesthetic vision, but we aim to give more than what our clients intially want. We’ve learned to be upfront if we disagree with the direction a project is going in. It saves time and ultimately, clients appreciate the honesty. 
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    In your minds, which qualities make for a perfectly designed room? Gillian: Proportion, witty composition, unique details. Tania: The right balance of materials, textures and old and new. Also when each individual element contributes faithfully to the overall feel.
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  5. Art Park: above left and below, a painting by Oliver Watts provides the perfect exclamation mark in the dining room which features Thonet chairs from Dedece and a Parker table; right, a French 1940s buffet, which was a Parisian flea market find, holds treasured photos of Khaw's mother, a papier-mâché owl by Lee Power, vase from Meizai and a lamp from The Country Trader; below, Eve and Harper take tea, Eve wears a Jacadi top and Country Road overalls, Harper wears a Mabo dress.

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  2. As mothers yourselves, I’m interested in how you advise young families on design – is it possible to still live chicly with children? Absolutely. You cannot let practicality win. Children force us, in a good way, to not be too precious about furniture and objects, to actually accept that things wear with use and age. Buy that collectable chair and let the children jump on it, that’s far cooler than keeping it out of bounds in the ‘good room’.

Gillian, can you tell me about your wonderful home and what makes it so special to you? I can’t lie, my place is a random accumulation of things I have dragged from one apartment to another. Because I live in an older building, it was important to furnish it minimally and in a contemporary way. So belongings have been edited down to only things with sentimental attachment. 

Enchanted Garden: above, Khaw's master bedroom features a Zuber wallpaper screen in Grisaille and a Reitveld Zig Zag chair as side table; below, Eve wears a Stella McCartney vest with Muji shorts and blouse, Harper wears Bonpoint.

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  2. And as working mothers, how do you both aim for work-life-family balance? Gillian: We both keep strict office hours and we don’t call each other out of hours. Our kids are roughly the same age so the mutual empathy helps. Tania: After working from home for a few years after my children were born, getting an office space has been life changing. That’s not to say I never bring work home, but pulling my laptop out after the kids are in bed is not as stressful as living with a dining table covered in presentation boards and samples.
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  4. What would you pinpoint as the secret to your success? Listening and communicating with your clients is key. Creating a home is a very intimate process and our role is one of friend and counsellor as much as designer. 

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Child's Play: Eve's bedroom features a commisoned  illustration on the wall; below left, Khaw in her black-lacquered kitchen wearing Bella Freud; and below right, Handelsmann wears Acne Studio with Gucci.

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  2. What is your viewpoint on motherhood? Gillian: Tiring and delightful. Tania: There is no doubt that being a working mother can be a source of guilt (my three year old daughter recently yelled at me to get off the phone and watch her swimming lesson) but I try to keep things in perspective. I know that my children never doubt my love for them and the guidance and support they get from me far outweighs a bit of extra screen time or a doughnut for breakfast. 
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  4. How do you treat yourselves at the end of a busy week? Gillian: We try to get out of Sydney on Friday evening and along the way I stop with the children at a secret ice cream shop. Eating that particular ice cream heralds that the weekend has begun. Tania: Spending time with my family in all its forms is my weekend indulgence - that ideally includes lots of laughs and cuddles with the kids, stealing a little time alone with my husband and chaotic lunches at my parents’ house with the extended family.