Tamsin Johnson’s work is almost impossible to replicate, and in this era of copycat interior styling, it places her well above the design-world norm. The prodigiously talented Australian designer brings seemingly disparate styles, forms and objects together into magnificent harmony. Fuelled by her love of antiques, history and travel, Johnson creates projects that are more than the sum of their parts, curating pieces that infuse her work with depth and meaning.
Her signature approach is strikingly evident in her interiors for iconic Byron Bay resort Raes on Wategos and her (equally stylish) husband Patrick Johnson’s tailoring showrooms – but even more so in her residential projects. We chatted to Johnson about her career trajectory, global travels, and how she creates those mesmerising interiors.
What design journey led to the founding of your studio?
My parents were antique dealers so I was always immersed in the aesthetic arts. I finished school and studied fashion design before realising my heart lay with interiors. I joined the very inspiring Sydney based interior design studio Meacham Nockles McQualter straight out of design school, and a few years later I decided I could do this alone. I think art and design is something broad-reaching and universal, so you fall in love with the wider aesthetic lived world, not just interiors. Travel builds this thirst. I think Australia was calling out for more interest in this area.
How do you achieve your signature mix of being layered and sophisticated with elements of surprise?
Coming from an antiques-focused viewpoint, you tend to realise the greater value of beautifully made, carefully designed and imaginatively conceived furnishings and how they build a richly human-oriented space. Contemporary design often attempts to strip back and reduce, which can be in opposition to the natural world and all the things as humans we respond more emotionally too. I want to endorse the detailed. I want to endorse the exciting and surprising.
How do you approach a new project?
For me, it is important to keep a rich bank of furniture and art on hand – things I have responded instinctively to. I know there will be a right place and time for them in all the projects thrown my way. I can then chain these objects together with bespoke pieces I design, harmonising the total effect.
How did your love for residential interiors inform your commercial work for iconic Byron Bay resort Raes On Wategos and jewellery designer Lucy Folk?
I think there is no reason for a commercial space not to be the comfortable and homely version of itself. There ought to be no reason to push people away from a space, and many retail spaces have an austerity that can be aloof and unwelcoming. The most inviting spaces are often homes because we build them over time – they occur more naturally that way. To create this effect in a commercial space can be so vital to the experience of the customer.
What would you consider your most successful projects to date?
My husband’s showrooms, always, with the P. Johnson Windsor showroom a particular favourite. Raes hotel. And it’s hard to pick a residential job as I love them all for different reasons.
What is your favoured means of sourcing one-off design pieces, and what qualities do you look for when selecting furniture and accessories?
I try to let myself be naturally engaged by a piece. A good designer I think isn’t thinking about what to design – they are simply producing a lot all the time – and out of that mass of work, their voice begins to come out in the pieces. They then create things that are instinctive to them, which can often be wonderfully perverse. So, I want to see that. It is that very unique viewpoint of a designer expressed in the pieces they make. Not just the old form-follows-function idea, which is often as banal as it sounds.
How do you source art?
Fine art I source as antiques from all over the world, and I source new art from contemporary galleries and directly form artists that I like. I try to give Australian artists a fair bit of wall space where it works.
I think my clients are veering away from a room that has been replicated from Pinterest or Instagram and trying to find their own way. I hope to help in achieving this.Tamsin Johnson, interior designer
Are you seeing any particular style requests trending among your clients?
Traditional antiques are certainly on the return. I think my clients are veering away from a room that has been replicated from Pinterest or Instagram and trying to find their own way. I hope to help in achieving this.
How has your work has evolved since the inception of your practice?
I think my work has become a little more mature, and by that I mean a little less graphic and perhaps more subtle in places. I think the art and furnishings have become more complex, and the materials I use are more changeable now. My more bespoke elements are gathering more momentum in my work, too – these in particular should take time to grow and happen naturally as they are needed. I have wider access to furnishings and I also have an ever-increasing bandwidth in my clients that puts necessary pressure on my design, resulting in a little more latitude. I don’t think I will ever forsake a sense of humour and surprise in my work. That is me.
You recently published a book that features your work to date. What are you hoping to share with readers in Spaces for Living?
I like the idea that we can cultivate taste in others – that this is something that can be learnt, and something that enriches our existence. I think something that is important to one person will of course find others who are interested and want to know more. It is a such a simple shared pleasure too, that many find distant. I want to bring it closer. And who doesn’t like a good book?
What are some of your go-to products or pieces?
Anything one-off is my general brief. The stranger the better.
Know when to kill your darlings, and know when to resuscitate themTamsin Johnson, interior designer
How do you source product while travelling globally and what have you been influenced by on your latest travels?
Europe always brings a lot of pleasure. There are so many layers. So many regions, so many villages with their own design oddities, periods that influenced them, the things they did best and the things they didn’t do as well as others. From a kitchen to a bathroom to a study to a pool. All the flavours are different and as an Australian there is the luxury of a very external viewpoint. So, it is about the opportunity of de-contextualisation of these objects and furnishings that I tend to find all over the ‘old world’, transporting these objects and ideas into other environments. You find the strangest things in the most mundane of places sometimes, and other times it takes the accoutrements of affluence to endow a place with some great things. It goes both ways. I always have my eyes open.
What’s the most important interior design lesson you’ve learnt?
Know when to kill your darlings, and know when to resuscitate them.
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