Interview: Handelsmann + Khaw

  • Tania Handelsmann and Gillian Khaw are one dynamic duo. Both talented designers, businesswomen and mums, they share an innate understanding of what makes a space special. As Handelsmann + Khaw, their interiors are elegant, timeless and always on point.

    After admiring previous works like the North Sydney House and including them in our Design Directory, we sat down with these two inspiring women to distill their wisdom on everything from global design trends to why some of Sydney’s best coffee can be found in Vaucluse.

    Tell us about your individual career backgrounds and when you decided to join forces and found Handelsmann + Khaw

    Tania Handelsmann: My father is a builder so I grew up around construction sites and ended up studying Architecture at university. After working as a junior in various architecture firms I landed an interior design job at BKH, where Iain Halliday and David Katon gave me the most thorough education I could hope for. I’ve been hooked on interiors ever since. After several years at BKH in Sydney, I moved to NY to establish their first international office. Three years later I returned to Sydney to start a family and set up my own interior design practice.

    Gillian Khaw: I came to interior design via Investment Banking (!) a decade ago and consequently realised I needed international experience and some formidable training grounds to catch up with my contemporaries. I started my practice while studying Interior Design at Enmore Design Centre, then went to work for Anouska Hempel in London and BKH in Sydney.

    We met many years ago through our future husbands who are old school friends but it took a while for the idea of Handelsmann + Khaw to percolate. To say we decided to join forces at the beginning of 2016 isn’t quite true, we’d worked together on projects previously but it took us a while to realise that a partnership combined all the benefits of practising solo with the support, infrastructure and creative tension of an organisation.

    Talk us through your creative process and how you work together:

    After receiving the brief, meeting the client and inspecting the site, there’s an initial exchange of ideas which are our instant, almost emotional reactions to the project. We then let these lay fallow and revisit the discussion a week later armed with clearer visions: sketches, inspiration images. One of us will lead the project but the development of the concept is very much a collaborative process. The creative dimension of our partnership is one of the most enjoyable aspects of our work.

    Do you ever disagree throughout the design process, and if so how do you work through it?

    While our vision for each project is generally aligned, we do sometimes disagree on things. That said, we find that actually helps the creative process: we’re forced to justify our views and challenge our concepts. It would be a little dull if we always shared the same opinion.

    Having both lived and worked overseas, what do you think is different about the industry here? 

    Interior designers in Australia have to be much more focused on spatial planning and  the interior architecture because we have so many new builds, single dwellings and a comparative lack of heritage restrictions. This is a good thing, as Australian designers think both architecturally and decoratively and rarely just the latter.

    Elegance is a word that gets tossed around a lot but can be hard to pull off authentically. What does elegance mean to you?

    An elegant interior is one that eschews trends and is spare, thoughtful, serene, composed of materials that are honest and has the ability to age gracefully.

    What is something clients tend to forget or overlook in the design process, and how do you overcome it?

    Scale is a very easy thing to overlook, in that the objects filling a space dictate your perception of its proportions and are therefore there to be manipulated. Playing with scale is something clients are less attuned to and we do routinely have to persuade clients to be brave. On a more practical level, clients often do fall in love with an aesthetic that doesn’t always match their budget or the architectural style of their home. Luckily, we relish the challenge of giving clients the best possible solution they can afford!

    Who are some local designers and creatives that inspire you? Why?

    Tracey Deep. Her shop is a crazy magical bower of not so much flowers, but beautiful leaves, sticks, nuts and berries. She is the Willy Wonka of twigs. Anna Charlesworth is another favourite: These days, lighting is one of the last places you expect to see the mark of an artisan and her work needs to be admired up close just like a sculpture.

    George Livissianis‘ hospitality interiors bear the hallmarks of his (and our) former employer BKH overlaid with a style entirely his own. His work is a more textural, intellectual take on contemporary and always surprises.

    Where do you live in Sydney and what do you love most about it?

    Gillian: Bellevue Hill. I like the proximity to the water, I like hearing the ferries pulling out of the wharf and the fireworks going off in the harbour on a near weekly basis!

    Tania: Paddington. I love the village atmosphere with front doors left open for kids to run between houses, the rows of pretty Victorian terraces, the jasmine and wisteria growing over back lane fences and its proximity to everywhere I needed to be five minutes ago.

    Favourite places to eat: We both love Alimentari in Paddington and Fratelli Paradiso in Potts Point. Also Two Chaps in Marrickville for breakfast.

    Favourite places to drink: 

    Gillian: Morning coffee at the Vaucluse House tea rooms is a little escape from the eastern suburbs crowds into the 19th century. La Renaissance Patisserie in The Rocks makes the best croissants to go with your coffee and has a little hidden courtyard to read the paper.

    Tania: Alimentari for coffee and Charlie Parker’s for cocktails.

    Favourite places to shop:

    Gillian: These days I tend to shop online or when overseas, but in Sydney I do like visiting The Cross Art & Books, APC and Muji.

    Tania: Parlour X for me, Hello 1234 for the kids, Orient House and Shapiro for clients.

    Weekly local rituals:

    Gillian: Because we live in an apartment, we try and get out of the city every second week or so, so the kids can go feral. The quiet of the Hawkesbury River as well as Palm Beach, particularly the kiddies corner is a favourite.

    Tania: The kids spend most Friday nights with their grandparents so Saturday morning sleep-ins and breakfasts out with my husband are how we recharge before the whirlwind of weekend activities.

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