Designer Spotlight

American Expat Thomas Hamel Welcomes us inside All Three of his Striking Australian Homes

Thomas Hamel

Interior designer Thomas Hamel’s various Australian residences exemplify his philosophy that your home should display “the souvenirs of your life.” Top: In Hamel’s Sydney apartment, a work by California artist Gabriel Rivera hangs behind an antique bronze Buddha on an 18th-century English giltwood console table with a stone top. The Venetian armchair in green silk velvet is from London. All photos by Matt Lowden

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Long based in Australia, American-born Thomas Hamel is known for his stylish, sophisticated approach to interior design and for his global aesthetic. Nowhere is this more evident than in his own residences: elegant apartments in Sydney and Melbourne and a character-filled beach house on the New South Wales coast. Listening to Hamel chat about his properties, one soon learns there is no such thing as simply a piece of furniture or a decorative object. Each item has a history — its own personality and enticing tale to tell — and each is treasured and loved by both Hamel and his partner, George Massar. “They’ve become our friends,” says Hamel. And as with friends, the story of how each piece came into their lives is rich with memory and meaning.

“The first time I had Thomas to my home for dinner, I pulled out this old ‘Village Ming’ pottery as part of the table setting,” recalls Massar, CEO and creative director of design giants Kneedler Fauchère and Gregorius Pineo. “I have a collection of about twenty-five…”

Thomas Hamel Sydney apartment

The apartment offers sweeping views of Sydney Harbour and St. Mary’s Cathedral, with the iconic Sydney Opera House in the background. The living room includes an armless sofa designed by Hamel and a vintage bamboo chair from Kazari.

“ . . . and I have forty of them!” Hamel finishes with a smile. His collection, sourced in Hong Kong, resides in their Sydney apartment, while Massar’s remains in Los Angeles, where they also have a home. Housed separately, the collections nevertheless remain a strong symbol of the couple’s shared passions. Then, there are the white Vietnamese bowls and plates that took them five round-trips on bicycle to transport from the local village to the resort they were staying at in Hoi An; the 18th-century Venetian chair that Hamel once purchased for a client who, having downsized, recently offered it back as “a special present”; and two antique carved wooden Japanese temple dogs that remind Hamel of the Brussels griffon pooches he used to own and that have “followed me ’round” like his former pets.

Hamel is a charming and eloquent advocate for allowing your home to display “the souvenirs of your life,” pieces that recall precious personal experiences. “I always say to clients that everything has a home — buy it if it means something to you,” he says. To view Hamel and Massar’s residences is to witness this philosophy in action.

Thomas Hamel Sydney living and dining rooms

Left: A John Bartlett painting is mounted above the fireplace; the bowl on the floor was made by Sydney artist Ruth Levine using recycled materials. The African headpiece is from Kazari. Right: The dining area features a table by Hamel’s partner, George Massar, for Gregorius Pineo. The bamboo chair is from Kazari, and the white Chinese porcelain stool is from Graham Geddes.

Born in Virginia and trained at the prestigious New York interior design firm Parish-Hadley, Hamel moved in 1990 to Australia, where he established Thomas Hamel & Associates. Celebrated for his cross-pollinating approach, in which international styles and cultures harmoniously share design space with local finds, Hamel has brought his global vision to some of Australia’s most distinguished residences. Along the way, he’s forged close personal and professional relationships that have continued far beyond any one project. Today, Hamel and his Sydney-based team of 30 are busier than ever, working on clients’ houses not only in Australia but also overseas, with current ventures in London, Austria, Switzerland, Japan and across the U.S., in New York City, Chicago, Los Angeles and Vero Beach, Florida.

Thomas Hamel entrance hall

A pair of antique red lacquer Chinese cabinets from Graham Geddes houses a collection of antique porcelain and stone objects from around the world. Hanging above an English Regency bench to the left of the cabinets is a 1981 photograph of Andy Warhol by Robert Levin from Maison Gerard. The rug was bought from a roadside vendor in Jordan. The wooden Japanese temple dogs at the end of the hall are from Kazari.

As Hamel’s client base and business have grown, he and Massar have joyfully spread their roots in Australian soil. After selling their previous Sydney residence, an apartment that evoked classic New York Park Avenue style, the pair snapped up a very different space in a glamorous high-rise that enjoys extensive views of neighboring Hyde Park, the Botanic Gardens Sydney, the city and the harbor.

It was the interplay of light, openness and outdoor spaces this apartment offered that appealed to the pair, not to mention the expanse of green park extending from their doorstep. “We wanted to embrace and enhance that view, inside and out,” says Hamel. Large potted jade plants adorn the terraces, and tall fiddle-leaf fig trees grow in the conservatory. The verdant palette continues indoors via subtle echoing shades in the furnishings — the Venetian chair’s original green silk velvet upholstery serving as an exquisite case in point.

Thomas Hamel Otford living room

Hamel and Massar’s beach house in Otford, on the southern coast of New South Wales, was designed around a massive sandstone boulder. The living room features a sofa by Hamel and a rug made of seagrass matting. The woven-rush armchairs are from Gregorius Pineo, and the bronze African table next to the coffee table is from Kazari.

The decor is a carefully edited mix of antique furniture and contemporary art and sculpture. “We wanted a very curated atmosphere so as not to distract from the magic of the harbor, but at the same time it required layers of detail and personality,” says Hamel. Carved wooden warrior figures from Africa and a woven cane ritual mask from Papua New Guinea sit alongside red lacquer Chinese cabinets; a Thai bronze Buddha; an abstract painting by contemporary artist Gabriel Rivera from Colin Fisher Studios, in Palm Springs; and a 1980s photograph of Andy Warhol from Maison Gerard, in New York City. The apartment is a tribute to the power of cross-pollination that is sure to convince any skeptical client.

Otford living space and outdoor area

Left: This informal dining space features a table with an organic modern base, surrounded by woven-cane chairs with Pierre Frey–fabric cushions and topped by a vintage wooden temple house. Top right: In the corner of the living room is a vintage sculpture by Leo de Vries, purchased in Amsterdam. A vintage Japanese engraving from Kazari is on the mantel. Bottom right: A trio of sculptural chairs blends in with the rocky landscape outside.

Hamel’s homes have always provided an opportunity to enlighten his clients on the boundless options in interior design, functioning as stylish laboratories for his professional practice. “I endeavor to show clients all the options available to them on a global scale,” he says. “Then, they can make much more educated decisions. I also spend a great deal of time learning how they will live in the various spaces and what they would like to achieve in each room. It’s extremely important to me that, in the end, they feel completely at ease in their home.”

Thomas Hamel Otford living room

A Japanese lacquer cabinet from Kazari houses Hamel’s collection of shells and is topped with shell ornaments. “I am passionate about shells so the collection has been amassed over years from all parts of the globe,” he says. The African sculptural table was purchased in Amsterdam.

A very different space presented itself to Hamel and Massar with their purchase of a spectacular beach house in Otford, on the scenic southern coast of New South Wales. The five-bedroom residence, endearingly described in one publication as “the Boulders and the Beautiful,” is just an hour’s drive from Sydney and shares its singular setting with sprawling bush land and giant sandstone boulders. One eye-catching rock commands center stage viewed through the house’s ample glass windows, which offer glittering Pacific Ocean vistas.

“It looks like a dinosaur has thrown a boulder at the house,” says Hamel, who has created an interior very much in harmony with the house’s surroundings. The palette is earthy, and the focus is on natural textures while remaining in tune with the modern architecture. “We wanted a home for our collection of primitive and tribal art as well as contemporary paintings and sculpture. There was certainly a more ethnic approach to furnishing this home.”

Thomas Hamel Otford master bedroom

Of the master bedroom, Hamel says, “The ceiling was preexisting and we adored the feeling — a bit of St. Barts in the Pacific.” Hamel found the cane chair in Sydney and the throw blanket in Los Angeles.

Outside, seats carved from Asian acacia wood lend their organic curves to a serendipitously arrayed cluster of rocks. In the living area, a bronze and timber sculpture by the late Dutch artist Leo de Vries visually links indoors and out, seeming, for Hamel, to echo the landscape. Every piece appears to have found its rightful place, infusing serenity into the setting, which lures Hamel and Massar here every weekend when they’re residing in Sydney. “I love coming back to our nature reserve,” says Hamel. “It’s transformed us.”

The pair regularly transport artworks and furniture between their residences, seeking to find homes for them all. It’s an enjoyable challenge, and a constant one, because they’re continually bringing home wonderful new pieces from the international travels that serve as an ongoing inspiration for their work and life. With all the moving between countries, cities and houses, their possessions are almost as well traveled as the men themselves. “They do have mileage,” admits Hamel. “It’s important that you buy things you like, and then you can move them around. I think you can have blurrier edges, rather than those strict definitions of what works in each place. All the items need is to evoke passion.”

Thomas Hamel Hawksburn home

Clockwise from left: The antique Italian gilt-and-gesso console is one of a pair (the other is in storage) that prompted Hamel and Massar to look for a residence in Melbourne; a reflective artwork by Jérôme Robbe hangs above a bench by Massar; an antique Chinese cabinet — one of a pair, from Graham Geddes — sits diagonally opposite a dresser displaying a white sculpture by Dan Schneiger.

Two much-loved antique Italian gilt-and-gesso consoles, highlights from their previous Sydney apartment that were languishing in storage, guided the pair’s search for another residence. “No one has ever gone shopping for real estate with two pieces of furniture in mind,” Hamel says with a laugh. As far as location, the natural choice was Melbourne, source of half his design commissions and to which he was traveling at least twice a month. An added benefit: An apartment there would offer clients a local showroom “where they could come and experience the furniture, the accessories, the art and see the way we bring them all together,” he says.

Thomas Hamel Melbourne master bath

The Melbourne master bath features a vintage stool and terrazzo-tiled tub. The artwork is by Jean Marc Louis.

While the Sydney apartment is light and contemporary and the Otford one ethnic and textural, the Melbourne residence, in the fashionable Hawksburn suburb, is decidedly urban. In place of an exterior focus, it has interiors of introspective sophistication, where platinum toning and hints of lavender, pink and blue green complement the artworks, and the patina of age on antiques blends with the sumptuous polish and custom finish of bespoke modern pieces.

While only one console ended up fitting into the space (the other remains in storage, awaiting its next abode), it still set the tone for the apartment’s design with its formal lines and luxurious finish. Darkened floors balance the dramatic black lacquer of an armoire in the living room, while a sea-blue molded acrylic work by French artist Jérôme Robbe gives a wonderful reflective quality to the space. “We also used sheen and silk textures to convey the glamorous city home feeling,” explains Hamel. “We’ve taken a simple box and turned it into a jewel-like living experience.”

Back in Sydney, Hamel must find a place for his most recent purchase, a 1960s abstract painting by a local artist, which will necessitate transferring one of the Sydney pieces to Otford. For Hamel and Massar, it’s another acquisition to treasure, another souvenir of their lives, another story.

Thomas Hamel’s Quick Picks

Pair of white globe and brass sconces, ca. 2010, offered by disegno Karina Gentinetta, llc Shop Now
Pair of white globe and brass sconces, ca. 2010, offered by disegno Karina Gentinetta, llc

“I see a great many light fittings, but this model is a first for me. With their great sculptural form, these pieces would make a perfect powder-room statement.”

Tove & Edvard Kind-Larsen for Thorald Madsen rare set of six dining chairs, 1960, offered by Collage 20th Century Classics Shop Now
Tove & Edvard Kind-Larsen for Thorald Madsen rare set of six dining chairs, 1960, offered by Collage 20th Century Classics

“ ‘Rare’ is a great description for these pieces. I am always searching for unique sets of chairs for projects, and these are a fantastic option.”

Carl Öjerstam for IKEA Storvik rattan lounge chair, 2001–05, offered by Mid Century and Co. Shop Now
Carl Öjerstam for IKEA Storvik rattan lounge chair, 2001–05, offered by Mid Century and Co.

“Wow, something from IKEA and so special! The organic form of this is amazing and in my favorite medium: woven rattan.”

Mark Brazier-Jones agate and labradorite console table, 2014, offered by Michele Hayem Shop Now
Mark Brazier-Jones agate and labradorite console table, 2014, offered by Michele Hayem

“I have followed the career and creations of Mark Brazier-Jones and used his light fittings, but seeing this great console makes me want to use it in a project immediately.”

Achille Salvagni Shield cabinet, 2013, offered by Maison Gerard Shop Now
Achille Salvagni Shield cabinet, 2013, offered by Maison Gerard

“I am fortunate to include Achille as a friend after meeting him in Rome years ago. He has the most seductive stories for each of his pieces. A very special man, and I love the clean, graphic quality of this cabinet.”

Braided wool sculptural rug, new, offered by Grain Shop Now
Braided wool sculptural rug, new, offered by Grain

“This is a fabulous wall hanging — art and texture in one. I can envision this as the centerpiece of a large stone wall in a gallery or entrance hall.”

<i>Queen Elizabeth II of the United Kingdom (FS II.335)</i>, 1985, by Andy Warhol, offered by Revolver Gallery Shop Now
Queen Elizabeth II of the United Kingdom (FS II.335), 1985, by Andy Warhol, offered by Revolver Gallery

“My dream is to have a Warhol. They transform a room with their magnetic power. And what better subject could there be than HRH Queen Elizabeth II?”

Harry Bertoia gold-plated bronze Sonambient sculpture, 1965, offered by Century Design Ltd. Shop Now
Harry Bertoia gold-plated bronze Sonambient sculpture, 1965, offered by Century Design Ltd.

“A Bertoia sculpture is also a dream purchase. The scale of this piece is wonderful, yet it is the subtle movements that make the piece come alive.”

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