It’s hard not to be mesmerized by the marble island that takes center stage in Australian designer Tamsin Johnson’s home in Sydney. Carved from a striking hunk of gray Bianco Gioia stone, the audacious design features a gravity-defying counter perched on plinths of marble stacked in a jagged-edge arrangement. The result may look like minimalist sculpture, but it’s not just for show. The island is fully kitted out with everything from drawers to power outlets. “I love spaces that are equal parts functional and beautiful,” Johnson says.
If her home has a fashionable feel, it’s by design. Both she and her husband, Patrick Johnson, have roots in fashion. Tamsin studied the subject in college and then interned with Stella McCartney in London before pivoting to interior design. The daughter of Melbourne antiques dealer Edward Clark, she has a showroom in Sydney where she sells vintage furnishings, mostly from Europe. Patrick, who grew up in Adelaide, worked as a tailor in London before founding his own custom tailoring business, P. Johnson Tailors, with showrooms—designed by his wife—in London, New York City, Sydney, and Melbourne.
When the pandemic started, the couple were living in Tamarama, a cove wedged between trendy Bondi and Coogee, not exactly looking to move. Why would you when your front yard is the beach? But knowing they’d be marooned at home with their young children, Arthur and Bunny, for the indefinite future, they were eager to throw themselves into a new project.
In Sydney, soaring apartment blocks have gradually replaced historic neighborhoods, and antique houses aren’t easy to come by. But the Johnsons got lucky, finding one for sale in Darling Point, a residential neighborhood overlooking Sydney Harbour. Built by a British army colonel, it had good bones but needed extensive work. Several rooms, including the kitchen and upstairs bathrooms, had been remodeled in the 1970s and were entirely gutted. Others required painstaking attention like stripping doorframes and floorboards that had been coated with varnish. “Anything that was original, we wanted to restore and bring back to its former glory,” Johnson says. “We wanted to respect the heritage of the property while making it contemporary.”
One of the biggest tasks was restoring the original leadlight windows, which had to be removed piece by piece and sent for repair to the only person in Australia they could find with the skills to fix them. Fortunately, the metalsmith, Chris Dankha, is a friend of her husband’s. “He’s Assyrian, from the north of Iraq, and a true artisan and magician with anything to do with metal,” says Johnson, adding that he also made the gates in the garden. The restoration team included a Calabrian plasterer and a blacksmith from Australia’s Blue Mountains region who was tasked with making door and cabinet hardware. The woodwork was refinished by artisans who restore Georgian furniture for her father. “It took them a month just to get the staircase back to its original condition,” she says. “They only worked at night, with opera blaring, usually Puccini.”
When it came time to furnish the home, Johnson, whose style leans eclectic, mixed contemporary pieces with vintage and antique furniture. The couple’s collections of rare Murano glassware and Daum vases are displayed on a vintage French baker’s stand in the dining room, which also has an antique Spanish table and Louis XV–style chairs. And then there is the statement lighting, for which she clearly has a penchant: In the kitchen, a Gio Ponti frosted–glass billiard light from the 1940s dangles above the island. There’s also a Venetian chandelier that hangs from a decorative ceiling in the restored stairwell, and a 19th-century crystal number in the living room that remains one of Johnson’s favorite pieces.
Of course, creating your own home when you are an interior designer can present endless opportunities and possibilities, but it can also lead to a sense of pressure. “You want to do something new, but you also need to practice restraint because you don’t want it to look overly designed,” Johnson says. Still, she couldn’t resist making a few statements—from the dramatic kitchen island to her bathroom, where she employed Zebrino marble for a trippy, modern effect. “The history of the house was there,” she observes. “And I tried to give it a new life.”
This story originally appeared in the April 2022 issue of ELLE DECOR. SUBSCRIBE
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