Shopping for a Living
Keith Johnson has always had an eye for antique, vintage and artistic home furnishings, but it wasn't until 1994, when his partner, Glen Senk, took over as president of Anthropologie—a women's retail and home goods store—that Johnson found his passion for shopping the globe.
Johnson was hired to find unique furnishings for the first Anthropologie retail store in Wanye, Pennsylvania. Soon, he was taking shopping trips overseas not only to find special chests of drawers and vintage shelves for merchandise, but also to discover artists in far-flung corners of the world. These artists began creating one-of-a-kind pieces for Anthropologie's growing customer base of female shoppers. "People love to see things they haven't seen, and it's easier when you are traveling overseas to surprise people," Johnson says.
Today, Johnson is the buyer-at-large for Anthropologie's more than 100 retail stores and he often travels six months a year to keep up with the demand for Anthropologie's special style of home furnishings and decorative items. His fascinating job is the focus of the Sundance Channel's reality TV series Man Shops Globe. Follow along as Keith describes some of his shopping trips featured on the series.
Shopping in France
Usually when Johnson travels, he takes someone with a good eye for design along for the trip. If he doesn't bring an employee from one of the Anthropologie stores, he often brings his partner's sister Pam Senk. "We've gone to flea markets together over the years, and she's a very energetic shopper and she's also a very observant shopper, so she is fun to have along," Johnson says.
Inside Paris Flea Markets
France is a must-go-to country for vintage and antique shopping, but no matter how much time you schedule in, you'll never make it though all the flea markets in Paris, Johnson says. "France was a huge powerhouse of manufacturing in the 19th century, so there are so many textiles and so much great furniture," Johnson says.
Competition between shoppers can be fierce, but Johnson says there is always something fabulous to buy at a Paris flea market. "There is also such a culture of design there, and there are so many people interested in it they keep beating the bushes and finding more and more stuff. Just when you think there can't be something else coming out of France, somebody finds something that is really, really cool and exciting," Johnson says.
The Grand Bazaar in Turkey
The miles and miles of shops and booths in Istanbul, Turkey's Grand Bazaar can be overwhelming to most, but a seasoned shopper like Johnson can navigate his way between junk and souvenirs and spot treasures quickly. "If you do what I do, for as many years as I do, you really learn how to edit out anything that is not interesting," Johnson says. "You can spot out of the corner of your eye the one thing in the back of the booth that looks interesting, and you will zero in it."
Special textiles and fabrics were on Johnson's list during this trip, and he found materials and a local artist to create pillows for the Anthropologie stores.
Finding Treasures in South Africa
South Africa is a breeding ground of great design right now, and Johnson says there are many reasons for its recent artistic renaissance. "People really make do with what they have, so there are a lot of people creating things for themselves and it is not so automated. It is not a place where everything is made by the millions," Johnson says.
On a recent trip, Johnson spotted a man making and selling chairs in a roadside shop. He stopped, loved what he saw and placed a large order. "He said to me that he was hoping somebody would get a bonus and be able to come along and buy one of his chairs," Johnson says. "For me, that's the best part of the job. I can see something and love something and be able to buy it and he is happy and I'm happy. What is better than that?"
Another fantastic find during his trip to South Africa was dozens of beaded animal sculptures. "I just flipped out [for the sculptures]—it was like being on a safari and suddenly every animal in the world in the world is right there," Johnson says. "And these guys, they all made them themselves, and again they were hanging out by the side of the road hoping somebody would come by and buy some. I came by and bought all of them, which caused quite a stir!"
Shopping in Holland
In almost every country he visits, Johnson says he has a contact person—an antiques dealer or someone well-connected to the arts and crafts scene. In Holland, his go-to contact is Leslie Oschmann, an American and former Anthropologie employee who is making her life in Amsterdam. "She is of Dutch heritage, and she had a dream that she was going to move back to where her parents were born, in Amsterdam," Johnson says. "She had this fantasy and she made it happen. She is so creative and she comes up with so many great ideas, and I'm able to help her stay there by buying from her."
Some of Oschmann's most recent creations are school chairs that she upholsters with old canvas paintings. "They are very successful. People love it and she loves it," Johnson says. "She is endlessly creative and she so knows who we are."
Creating Something New in India
There are many new decorative items and pieces of furniture coming out of India, but Johnson says he's more interested in some of the older items and small trinkets for sale in the vast outdoor markets. "There are these markets that are enormous, like football fields filled with building parts," Johnson says. "There are opportunities to make things with a lot of old pieces, so it is a fantasy for a designer because you can go there and pretty much use materials to make all kinds of cool things. It's a blast for me!"
Using old figurines, plastic toys, knickknacks, bracelets and other pieces from the Indian markets, Johnson created a one-of-a-kind "found objects" chandelier for Anthropologie.
Unique Ceramics in Argentina
There are times when Johnson says he feels like he's seen everything, but he was taken by surprise in Argentina when he stepped into Angeles Castro Corbat's ceramic studio. "When I saw her stuff, I had never seen anything like it, and it's such a charge when you see something that you love and you have never seen before." Johnson says.
Shopping in the U.S.A.
Most of Keith's travels are to locations overseas, but he says he plans to explore the artists and craftsmen in the United States in the coming months. "I'm hoping to go with the show to New Orleans because it is a hotbed of design right now, and I'm going to make an effort this year to discover as many people as I can right here," Johnson says.