Gillies was an interior designer/decorator who apprenticed with the architect and interior designer Frederick Deane's practice in Sydney known as Deane and Hall (Don). In the 1950s, Gillies and Deane combined their practice in Edgecliff, a Sydney suburb as "Thomas Gillies". Gillies continued the practice under his name as various locations. In the 1970s, he moved to Burleigh Heads, Qld, then back to Sydney.
The interior decorator Thomas Gillies was a contemporary of such notable Sydney designers and decorators as Marion Hall Best, Deric Deane, Meryl du Boulay and Florence Broadhurst. While Tom (as he was more commonly known) valued privacy, he moved effortlessly amongst his clientele where he became known for his ability to mix and match old and new furnishings to provide ease as well as style. “I don’t like the impossible,” he said in a recorded 2010 interview, “where you don’t know where to sit down and be comfortable.”
Tom Gillies was born in Glen Innes, NSW. The district is known for livestock and his father, Bruce Gillies, was a successful stock and station agent and his mother Edna attended Teachers College. Mrs Gillies’s teacher training proved crucial to the family after Bruce Gillies’s death in 1941.
Gillies was educated in Glen Innes and had no early design training or exposure to the arts. In 1945, he was placed in a clerical position into the local Commonwealth Bank. Three years later, he asked for a transfer to a Sydney branch. He mentioned a Sydney placement, he said, because he had visited the city once with his father.
Soon restless with clerking, he took up an opportunity in the furnishings department of McDowell’s department store at King and George Streets. Shortly afterward, he met the interior decorator and architect Deric (Frederick) Deane who ran a well-known antique shop in Rowe Street and later, an interior decorating studio known as Deane and Hall in the Trust Building, King and Castlereagh Streets. Deric Deane and his partner Don Hall introduced him to the profession of interior decoration.
Deric Deane was Sydney’s pre-imminent interior decorator as well as a registered architect and Deane and Hall had an impressive clientele including such figures as Sir Alfred Davidson, the head of the Bank of NSW and Mr and Mrs Robert Brash, the chairman of the Sydney Stock Exchange. After a year with Deric Deane, Gillies decided that he needed to do a design course at the East Sydney Technical College but Deane and his associates tried to discourage it, telling him it was a waste of time. But he persisted and took courses with Phyllis Shillito, the noted colourist, who trained him in colour mixing. Her theories, he said, allowed him to mix any colour a client wanted, even matching colours that had been on the walls for thirty years.
In the 1950s, Deric Deane folded the practice in the city and Deane and Gillies established a new practice in Edgecliff advertised under the name “Thomas Gillies”. The practice was successful enough to earn attract Taubmans paints who featured Thomas Gillies interiors in a series of colour advertisements. Deane died in 1960 and Gillies then began to practice independently from a new Edgecliff shop, later moving to Bay Street, Double Bay and other locations in the eastern suburbs.
Many of Gillies’s early clients were well-known NSW families who continued to rely on Thomas Gillies through two generations. He maintained that he had done hundreds of country houses. While reluctant to identify clientele, he noted professional relationships with Lady Pagan [Sir Jock and Lady Marjorie Pagan], Dame Helen Blaxland, and provided designs for “The Lodge”, Canberra for Hon. Malcolm and Tammy Fraser. He developed an interior design scheme for Government House, Parramatta for the National Trust of Australia (NSW) and “Clydebank” in The Rocks for Caroline Simpson.
As an interior designer, Gillies was a soothing but shrewd practitioner. “If you’ve got ideas and you want your client to have them, quite often you’ve got to be very diplomatic how you present them,” he said in a recent interview. “If they want a black and white and yellow room, you might do a yellow room with black and white. But they think they’ve got a black and white and yellow room. It was a good way to put things together.” But at the same time, he respected the client’s taste. “You can’t just thrust your personality onto them; you’ve got to step back. Your client is the most important person.”
Unlike contemporary interior designers, Gillies did no drawings or colour boards at all. He simply took three metre samples of textiles to the client and a hatful of ideas and presented his thoughts about decor in their living room. He also resisted floor plans, insisting that furniture should always be moved about, considering that fixed schemes for rooms were anathema, arguing that rooms should change for the seasons.
Gillies continued to practice in Sydney with an interlude in Burley Heads, Queensland in the 1970s when he explored flower painting with exhibitions at the Macquarie Galleries in Canberra, Victor Mace, Brisbane and the Painters Gallery, Burton Street. Then after five years in the tropics, he returned to interior decoration to re-launch his career in Double Bay.
He considered his interior decoration for the 19th century Government House in Darwin to be one of his most exciting commissions. The house’s gabled rooms open onto the cane furniture of a screened verandah that circles the white-painted building. “I gave them simple things,” he said. “So I thought, it’s the tropics, so I gave them big simple sofas covered in printed linens, simple striped curtains and nice clear colours.”
In his later years, he kept up with his friends and acquaintances, worked with the late Caroline Simpson, one of his oldest and closest friends, on her house and museum, “Clydebank” in The Rocks, Sydney and auctioned his collection in 2008 through Sotheby’s as “The connoisseur’s spring collection: including the private collection of Colin Lennox and Tom Gillies, John Stephens and the late John Klinger.” He maintained his creativity by executing tapestry work to his own designs. His career is now commemorated with the annual Thomas Gillies Scholarship for Interior Design and Decoration students at Design Centre, Enmore sponsored by Radford Furnishings.
Michael Bogle with Annalisa Capurro who interviewed Thomas Gillies in December 2010. Thanks also to interior decorator Malcolm Forbes for valuable information regarding the career of Deric Deane.
[Prepared as an obituary, published in the Sydney Morning Herald, 13 March 2012]