Designer Spotlight

Designer Tamsin Johnson Is Not Afraid to Go Bold When Mixing Old and New

Tamsin Johnson has a passion for rattan. Also cane, bamboo, rope and sisal. She uses all these materials in her serene interior designs, in part because of their richly tactile quality. But other elements are at play as well. “I love their ability to calm down a space,” she says. “They’re unpretentious, complementing rather than competing with other pieces. You can have moments of glamour with finishes like velvet and high-gloss metals. You can have fine linen and bouclé. And then, some rattan in the mix will pull it all back a notch.”

Portrait of Tamsin Johnson
In the living room of the home of fashion-industry clients in Sydney’s Woollahra neighborhood (top), Australian interior designer Tamsin Johnson (portrait © Sean Fennessy) placed a pair of custom curving green-linen–covered sofas. These sit nicely with the custom concrete side tables and the travertine and concrete coffee table from the Window. Mounted above the mantel is a gilt French mirror, while a brass Italian chandelier hangs from the ceiling; both are antiques. All photos by Anson Smart unless otherwise noted

A sense of calm is something the Australian interior designer evokes with appropriate ease, as well as boundless style, in the spaces she creates — and the specific mix of materials she uses plays a big role in that. 

A rattan tray might rest on a mid-century French ebonized-oak bar cabinet; concrete side tables might flank linen sofas; an antique Turkish marble basin might sit beneath a Gio Ponti mirror. This dialogue between organic and structured, textural and smooth, old and new gives her interiors their unique sensibility. “I call it ‘tactful disharmony,’ ” says Johnson. “That unexpected combination of different pieces to achieve a space that is at once beautiful and livable.”

It’s hardly surprising that Johnson is in her element working in diverse styles and eras. She grew up visiting her father’s various antiques stores, located across the state of Victoria, in southeast Australia. 

From the age of four, Johnson accompanied her parents on European buying trips, heading out to fairs in the early hours. “I distinctly recall the intermingled smells of furniture wax, cigarette smoke and pain au chocolat when we entered those fairs,” she says. “It was an exotic mix.”

Studying fashion at Victoria’s RMIT University in the early 2000s and then interning at Stella McCartney in London, Johnson further cultivated her affinity for beautiful objects. It was on holiday in Italy with her parents — on another buying trip — that she decided she wanted to express that affinity in interior design. After a year at London’s Inchbald School of Design, she joined a Sydney-based design firm, working there for five years before starting her eponymous business in 2013.

Corner designed by Tamsin Johnson

A Pierre Jeanneret desk chair occupies a corner next to another childhood keepsake: a 19th-century French carved-wood trunk. The large green vessel atop the trunk is by Daimon Downey.

Her firm allows Johnson ample outlet for her love of fine objects, as does the elegant store she opened in the Sydney suburb of Paddington. And when she speaks of these pieces — whether the Daum crystal vases, mid-century furniture and Murano wall sconces that often grace her projects or the objects arrayed in her shop — it is as if they are dear friends.

That’s something I discovered while collaborating with her on her new book, Spaces for Living (Rizzoli), which offers insight into Johnson’s aesthetic through some of her favorite interiors projects. It showcases the refined yet relaxed style that characterizes her work and reveals her personal approach to buying and designing. 

Living and dining area designed by Tamsin Johnson
The home’s large, flowing living, dining and kitchen area opens to a long terrace overlooking the ocean. The room’s furnishings include a pair of rope chairs, a Gervasoni sofa and Italian coffee tables. Johnson designed the wooden chair in the back right, inspired by the work of Gerrit Rietveld, while the seats surrounding the Milo Baughman dining table are from Nickey Kehoe.

That style, and her expert design eye, have been feted in magazines in Australia and beyond, displayed in international commissions that include an apartment in Paris, a small farm in Ibiza, a townhouse in Notting Hill, an apartment in Manhattan’s West Village and ongoing projects in Los Angeles. In addition to this residential work, Johnson has designed the interiors of two hotels in Dubai; the New York showroom of P. Johnson, her husband’s tailoring business; and, closer to home, the famous Raes on Wategos hotel in Australia’s iconic Byron Bay, as well as Sydney boutiques for fashion brands Lucy Folk and SIR the Label.

Her own home has long acted as a second showroom for her business. She constantly sources new pieces, and the ones that don’t go straight to clients or to her store will often stay in her house until she finds the right forever home for them. “I’d never buy something for a client that I wouldn’t have in my own place,” explains Johnson. “But I’m always thinking about where they’d be the happiest fit.”

Among the pieces that sojourned in her previous home — overlooking the surf in the Sydney neighborhood of Tamarama — before traveling elsewhere was a pair of rope chairs that she placed in the living area. These fit into a color scheme Johnson created emphasizing cool coastal blues, sandy hues and white surfaces, with dramatic contrast provided by a black USM cabinet under an ever-changing display of artworks. “I wanted lots of natural materials and colors that weren’t too out there,” says Johnson. “The backdrop of the ocean offers its own colors.”

After their stay in the Tamarama home, the rope chairs then headed to another iconic Sydney beach, coming to rest in a small Bondi bungalow whose mix of materials is also built upon a white palette. Here, Johnson crafted a laid-back beachside look with rope, rattan and sisal, pairing these materials with sleeker finishes: Marcel Breuer rattan and steel dining chairs cluster around a Milo Baughman burl-veneer table; the rope chairs sit beneath a pair of Venetian glass mirrors. In the bedroom, a 1930s French tapestry resides comfortably with a sisal rug and crisp black and white bedlinen. The mix of smooth and textural succeeds because of the neutral palette and a certain restraint displayed by the individual pieces — nothing appears fussy or precious, and the layout is appealing without being overworked.

Living room of Johnson's sister's house
In the living room of Johnson’s sister’s house, in Melbourne’s South Yarra neighborhood, the spheres of a Jacques Adnet hat rack echo those of a brass floor lamp and the cushions on the window seat. A Curtis Jere chandelier, Murano glass sconces and Gaetano Pesce coffee table join mid-century cane lounge seating. Photo by Sean Fennessy

While Johnson developed her schemes for these beachside homes from the outside view inward, she took the opposite approach for her sister’s house, in the leafy Melbourne neighborhood of South Yarra. There, she reconfigured a mid-century building, integrating it with its garden by creating a series of open tiered living spaces on the ground floor that spill into one another and out onto the courtyard beyond. The addition of a skylight and floor-to-ceiling windows enhances the flow of light. 

An irreverent mélange of decorating touches celebrates the family’s vibrant lifestyle. In the breakfast nook, a custom bench covered in a red-and-white-striped Ralph Lauren fabric sits beneath striking Bill Henson photographs and opposite 1950s Italian dining chairs in a print that is faded yet still lively. Mid-century lighting contributes to the playful spirit of spaces like the living room, where metallic and glass fittings are anchored by a gray marble fireplace and calmed down by a reupholstered cane sofa set.

“Reupholstering older pieces gives them another life,” says Johnson. “They assume a new identity.” That’s beautifully illustrated in a grand Victorian-era house she designed in Sydney’s Woollahra neighborhood, for which she restored a set of cane chairs that now sport white bouclé cushions with black piping. They sit in a gorgeous conservatory where rattan planters and verdant palms channel Raffles, the iconic 1920s Singapore hotel. 

Conservatory of a Sydney home
Singapore’s Raffles hotel inspired Johnson’s design for the conservatory in the Sydney home of the fashion-industry clients. Her scheme includes an antique dark-green-leather Josef Hoffmann Cube sofa, mid-century cane seating, silk Versace cushions and an antique Venetian mirrored coffee table.

Johnson amped up the glamour factor even further for the fashion-industry owners of this house with sumptuous finishes and fabrics. Versace silk cushions sit on the chairs, while in the living area, a Pucci rug lies beside a rustic blue-and-white kilim. Amid a palette inspired by the surrounding greenery, that tactful disharmony of earthy and polished, traditional and contemporary brings a reviving, decidedly present-day energy to the house’s old-world charms.

Zinc vessels from the 1930s top a 19th-century Spanish side table in front of a Sean Wadey artwork
Zinc vessels from the 1930s top a 19th-century Spanish side table in front of a Sean Wadey artwork, and an antique sconce hangs above a velvet-upholstered armchair. The rug on the left is a kilim, while the one on the right is a vintage Emilio Pucci.

Johnson and her husband and two children recently moved into a 1920s harborside home in the exclusive Sydney suburb of Darling Point. She found a perfect spot for a pair of sofas in her beloved cane in the sunroom before selling them, that is, to a grateful client. “I miss them already,” she admits. 

The grand proportions of the lodge-style house have enabled her to incorporate other treasured pieces that have been waiting in the wings, such as an impressive collection of Daum, Lalique and Seguso Murano glass that includes some large-scale chandeliers. The mix of classic and contemporary is mindful of the era in which the house was built, yet it also very much reflects Johnson’s bold, fresh approach — allowing for just enough rattan amid all that refinement.

Tamsin Johnson’s Quick Picks

Savonarola director chairs, 20th century, offered by Automaton
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Savonarola director chairs, 20th century, offered by Automaton

“I love the combination of the soft leather patina and curved legs with the strong brass and black iron.”

Jean Royère for Maison Gouffé wall shelves, 1930s, offered by This Place
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Jean Royère for Maison Gouffé wall shelves, 1930s, offered by This Place

“The look of the cerused finish, which highlights the grain of the wood, is one of those things you just can’t replicate. I’d celebrate the simplicity of these pieces’ beautiful form by placing them against a plain wall, offset with just a few books and objects.”

Jean Gouffé bar, ca. 1935, offered by Avant-Garde Gallery by Pierre Bosche
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Jean Gouffé bar, ca. 1935, offered by Avant-Garde Gallery by Pierre Bosche

“I’m very fond of burl veneer, and I think a bar cabinet is always a fun and interesting piece to own. This is a standout design that will sit beautifully by itself.”

Paul Frankl Cloud coffee tables, ca. 1951, offered by 20CDesign.com
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Paul Frankl Cloud coffee tables, ca. 1951, offered by 20CDesign.com

“The unexpected materials of these iconic pieces are so attractive — and I do love a curved silhouette. These tables would bring a soft counterpoint to stronger lines and more-polished finishes in an interior.”

Faye Toogood Roly-Poly chair, new, designed 2019, offered by Side-Gallery
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Faye Toogood Roly-Poly chair, new, designed 2019, offered by Side-Gallery

“Toogood is amazing as both a sculptor and a furniture creator, and the endearingly squat form and inviting curves of this design make it an appealing little character as much as a chair.”

Jacques Adnet for Hermès decanter set, 1950, offered by Milord Antiques
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Jacques Adnet for Hermès decanter set, 1950, offered by Milord Antiques

“It’s all about the details for me: that cherry-red leather, the signature saddle seat that is iconic to both Adnet and Hermès. It’s as if the two speak in the same design language, united by that horse-bit motif.”

Games table in the style of Karl Springer, mid-20th century, offered by Horseman Antiques Inc.
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Games table in the style of Karl Springer, mid-20th century, offered by Horseman Antiques Inc.

“Those soft green and white inlays have a coastal feel to them. I’d almost expect to see this piece in a Slim Aarons photograph.”

Table lamp attributed to Edgar Brandt, 1920s–30s, offered by Iconic Snob Gallery
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Table lamp attributed to Edgar Brandt, 1920s–30s, offered by Iconic Snob Gallery

“I’m currently fascinated with the work of Edgar Brandt. There’s something almost contemporary about this piece, and I love the contrast of the etched glass shade with the sculptural bronze base.”

Guillerme et Chambron for Votre Maison extending table, 1966, offered by AFD Warehouse
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Guillerme et Chambron for Votre Maison extending table, 1966, offered by AFD Warehouse

“Guillerme et Chambron designs may be quite prolific, yet I love the fact that you never seem to see the same two pieces. The slightly farmhouse feel combined with the mid-century detailing appeals to me, especially that lip around the side.”

Adrien Audoux and Frida Minet side chair, 1950s, offered by Akanthos Eclectic Interiors
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Adrien Audoux and Frida Minet side chair, 1950s, offered by Akanthos Eclectic Interiors

“This is such a sweet piece, one that could sit in the corner of a room or beside the sofa for putting your feet up on. It’s more of a lovely little object than a chair, and I could imagine it following you around the house.”

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