Our interview with Thomas Hamel of Thomas Hamel & Associates
Ahead of our sell-out Sydney Masterclass with Thomas Hamel in February, we sat down with the man who has been referred to by his peers as the gentleman of the industry. In all of our dealings with Thomas, we have indeed been impressed by his gentle, kind and considered approach. An approach that is immediately apparent in the exquisite interiors he has been commissioned to create.
On Saturday 13th February Thomas will open the doors to his newly renovated Surry Hills studio to a group of very fortunate designers, all keen to absorb a little of the wisdom of this revered designer who has forged a name for himself across the globe. His unique designs have graced the cover of magazines for many years, and the legacy of his work will inspire designers for decades to come.
As Thomas shares in his chat with us, his love for travel and passion for discovery has led to the distinctly international design style for which he is now widely recognized. In this interview we learn a little about what drives this successful industry icon and find out about the exciting things on the horizon.
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TDC : Thanks for speaking with us today, Thomas. We’re incredibly excited to have you launch our Sydney Masterclass series! Welcome back to the office for a new year of creating beautiful interiors.
We are in awe of the uniquely international style you curate in your interiors. As someone who travels so frequently to source beautiful items for your projects, how have you adapted to staying in Australia this past year?
TH: Originally, it was such a shock, and I wondered, “How on earth am I going to manage not being on a plane?” I used to travel five to six times a year, but I think now I could cut the travelling. Two trips per year would be plenty. It’s much easier to do all the different stops over two trips because it’s a long time away. Just the effort that used to go into planning trips was extraordinary. And then, at the same time, all my local clients miss me while I’m away! It’s always a juggle how much time I can be away from the office.
So, in hindsight, it’s been very positive. I think we’ve all found new ways of getting inspiration. It’s not the same. I know that for sure. But luckily, I’ve travelled enough to know that I can use all the resources and people I know overseas - do Zoom walkthroughs, scour auction catalogues and so forth.
Over the past year, the most significant thing is that we’ve established such an incredible office library that we don’t actually need to visit showrooms so frequently. It makes everything so much more accessible. And all the showrooms will do a Zoom and send you samples immediately. So, it’s not the same, but we’re surviving. We’re managing.
Image: Anson Smart
TDC: You have offices in Sydney and Melbourne but also work internationally. Can you tell us about some of the most interesting places you have been fortunate enough to work over the course of your career?
TH: I’ve been so fortunate. And I can say that most of it is because Australians travel so much. Most of my projects in exotic locations are from existing clients here in Australia that have places overseas.
We do random projects all over the place. It’s exhilarating. But a few standouts come to mind. Over the past couple of years, we’ve worked on a wonderful old farmhouse in Tyrol in Austria—the owner is now involved with us here in Australia. Around 15 years ago, I worked on an amazing 18th-century palace in Potsdam for a German/ New Zealand client that was really very special because it had all its original painting and trompe l’oeil done by an Italian artist. And I always love London projects—Australians have such a bond with London, so I’ve worked on many projects there.
I designed a ski house in Hokkaido recently for a student of the famous Japanese architect Tadao Ando, which was a completely different sort of brief and experience to most of our other projects. And then I do lots of work in Singapore, which can be complicated because the client is an Anglophile. You know, you can’t have gas fireplaces and all of that in Singapore—they don’t exist. We had to develop these very specialised electric ones through a UK company.
And then, of course, we work in the US. We finished a big project in Telluride in Colorado two years ago built from the ground up. It was just amazing to see the materials you can get there—particularly the timbers and stonework. It’s so different to what we have here.
When you get to work in new places and have different materials to base your designs on, it’s always like learning a new language. I’ve become multilingual in design speak.
Image: Anson Smart
TDC: Much of your formative years in the design industry were spent in New York City. How do Sydney and Melbourne compare to New York, and how have you seen our industry develop over the past 30 years since you launched your business here?
TH: All I can say is it’s developed enormously. That says it all. When I first arrived here at the end of the 80s, everything in New York was bigger than Ben-Hur. We used to go into apartments and say, “Oh, well, you know, each window treatment is going to be $10,000.” When I got to Australia, that was the entire house’s budget. Sydney and Melbourne were so very different then. It was quite an eye-opener for me.
Australians are so interested in the whole world. They’re very educated and experienced, and their thirst for knowledge is wonderful. And I’ve always found that so interesting and lovely, compared to working with Americans, who’ll very happily think that they’re at the centre of the universe.
Image: Anson Smart
I started the business in Sydney, but Melbourne is equally intriguing because clients focus more on their homes, gardens and living experience, because it’s not just all about the views. The work I do there is much more like what I was used to doing in the States. The ceiling heights are also much taller in Melbourne —you get much more space to work with than in Sydney where everyone’s looking over the top of each other. And Melbourne doesn’t have the same requirements in terms of construction and building. At the same time, I love the two cities equally, and I’m so very lucky to get the chance to work here.
Another thing that’s changed is that everyone has unique pieces. Nowadays, designers are like editors because clients are much more informed about their choices. After they look at all of these images on Pinterest and Instagram, etcetera, they get confused because there are almost too many options. The problem becomes, how do you hone all of those details into the correct look? So, they turn to us to amalgamate all of their ideas into something that’s successful.
Image: Anson Smart
TDC: Your partner George is an incredibly accomplished interior designer, and you incorporate many of his pieces in your work. Tell us a little about how you met and describe the dynamic of living and working together.
TH: George owns Kneedler Fauchere, with showrooms in Los Angeles, San Francisco and Denver. He also designs and markets a collection of furniture called Gregorius Pineo. I’d been a longstanding client of both. When we got together, we just had so many similar tastes—the things in his home were exactly the same things I had in my home here. So, it was sort of an instant thing. We always like to joke that we’re 98% on target with each other, and on the rare occasion we’re ever in doubt, we always say, “Oh, that’s the other 2% is coming up!”
It’s so wonderful to have someone to talk to that has a similar way of seeing things. He works with me when he’s designing his new collections. And it’s marvellous when he’s in Australia, and I can have him work with my teams and talk about his factories and workshops’ custom abilities. We’re always doing bespoke pieces of furniture for clients. It keeps us very busy. We’ll always have a project in mind or thinking about the next one: “So, what should we focus on today?”
Image: Anson Smart
TDC: With a large portfolio of work across the globe, you have developed a particularly unique style that draws upon specific skills, including “cross pollination” and “intelligent editing”. Can you explain to us how you developed this distinct method of design?
TH: I think the biggest part of this comes from knowledge. As I said, I’m so fortunate I have projects going on worldwide, and I get to go to showrooms and markets and see things everywhere.
An essential part of the process is educating my clients on what’s out there. I tell clients I’ll start by showing them everything that exists around the globe. We’ll now use our new library to show them something that costs this and something that costs that, so at least they can see the difference and decide what’s worth prioritising.
Every project has a budget, no matter how large or small. Everyone has different price points and all of what I show them might not be to their liking, but I believe they should know all their options to make informed decisions about their interiors. Seeing everything available allows them to set priorities.
I remember, during a project in Provence, we sent all the light fittings from Los Angeles because they were better made and suited the design. So, not everything has to come from the place you live in. It’s about appropriateness and finding the right materials, no matter where you (or they) are.
Image: Anson Smart
TDC: You moved into your stunning studio space in Surry Hills last year, amid the disruption of the global pandemic. We are excited to (hopefully) enjoy the space during your upcoming Masterclass in February. How difficult was it being client and designer at the same time and what do you love most about the new space?
TH: Good question! It’s not easy because, of course, you just want everything for yourself. As I said, you have to make educated decisions and prioritise. I’ve learned that’s not always as easy as it seems, so it’s actually helped how I approach clients.
The most significant complications we had here were heritage-based. Because it’s an 1860s building, we had issues with modern tech things required, such as sprinkler systems, air conditioners, and handicap access. You always think, “No! I don’t want it that way,” but we had to compromise. And we worked through it.
The thing I love most about the office is that it’s in Surry Hills. It’s the first office I’ve ever had for myself. I’ve always just been part of the design floor, but I finally have a little space that I can go and catch my breath and have a quiet moment before I go back out. My problem now is that I’ve stacked it with all of my new influences. Soon I won’t be able to fit. But it is nice to have that space of my own.
Image: Trevor Tondro
TDC: You’re a strong believer in giving back to the industry and the community as a whole, which we admire greatly. As part of the Masterclass in February you are helping to raise funds for The Prince’s Trust Australia, of which you are an ambassador, with colleague Paul Bangay. Can you tell us a bit about your involvement in The Prince’s Trust, and why it’s important to you?
TH: Giving back to the industry is so important to me. I feel blessed that I had experiences in New York that very few people get to have—such as learning the tools of the trade by being around interior designers and experiencing what that meant. And I find that what happens is that design schools teach the basics, but the layers and details of what I do stem from that experience. That’s why we’re very much about tutoring and mentoring. We’ve always got young students here in the office learning just from experiencing firsthand what we do. It’s important to me.
The Prince’s Trust is the perfect kind of charity for my passions. His Royal Highness Prince Charles is so enlightened and always has been. When it came to global issues such as sustainable building and education principles, he drew attention to these things 20 years ago. He’s also highlighted classical architecture and what we can learn from it—you know, you don’t have to reinvent everything. Classical architecture can teach us things about sustainability, too. I believe you need to understand past design principles before doing contemporary design.
The charity also does great work with mental health, veterans and other crucial services. And I love that it’s a Commonwealth of people working together in such a nice way.
Image: Trevor Tondro
TDC: We are living and working in quite uncertain times, but there are many things to be grateful for and much to look forward to. What exciting professional and/or personal things are in store for you and/or Thomas Hamel and Associates in 2021?
TH: I’m loving being in Australia and getting more closely involved with clients. But I just need the borders open—we’ve got marvellous projects underway at the moment in Perth and Queensland, and we just bought some amazing things at an auction in New York, so I can’t wait to get moving on them.
We’ve been asked to look at an extraordinary 1880s homestead in the Darling Downs that’s being turned into a boutique hotel, three hours west of Brisbane. Now that we can’t travel overseas, I think everyone realises we need to create these kinds of beautiful destinations at home. So, I’m very excited about getting started on that project as soon as I can get Queensland. But first, we just need for Australia to be safe.
Everything’s just that little bit more complicated at the moment. But we’re so blessed here. And once we get that travel bubble, we’ll be so lucky.
Image: Anson Smart
We are incredibly grateful to have the opportunity to create the experience of connecting Thomas with our TDC members and look forward to what is sure to be a day full of insights and inspiration.
To find out more about our past and future Masterclasses, have a look at our website.
If you have a favourite designer that you would like us to include in our series, we’d love to hear from you at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Time & Location
Masterclass: Thomas Hamel of Thomas Hamel & Associates
Mastering International Style : The Art of Realising A Truly Global Interior
Saturday 13 February 2021
Class: 10.30 am—12.30 pm (Doors open 10 am)
Lunch: 12.30 pm—1.30 pm
Thomas Hamel Studio, 98 Foveaux St, Surry Hills NSW 2010
Please note that due to COVID-19, event details may change.