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He fills shops with treasures of far shores

Anthropologie buyer travels the world to gather its wondrous wares.

Keith Johnson, found-objects buyer for Anthropologie stores, decorates his own home with objects he has discovered, including a stone dog from Ireland and an English tavern clock. Once used as French textile presses, these panels are sold for a new purpose: Wall art.
Keith Johnson, found-objects buyer for Anthropologie stores, decorates his own home with objects he has discovered, including a stone dog from Ireland and an English tavern clock. Once used as French textile presses, these panels are sold for a new purpose: Wall art.Read moreMichael S. Wirtz / Staff Photographer

As the found-objects buyer for Anthropologie stores, Keith Johnson combs flea markets, antiques stores, art shows, and bazaars around the world for marvelous things.

He spends six months of the year in Europe, with periodic jaunts to Asia, buying up old furniture and bric-a-brac, searching out artisans with unique wares.

In other words, he gets paid to travel and shop.

"It really is a fantastic job," says Johnson, whose finds serve variously as store fixtures, limited-run products, or inspiration for new Anthropologie home-furnishings offerings.

"If there is something I want to see, I can just wake up and get on a plane," says Johnson, who is on the prowl for ideas as well as objects. His most recent excursions included a trek to Amsterdam to check out that city's hot modern-design scene and an early December jaunt to Art Basel in Miami, an international art fair.

Glamorous as that may sound, "the job isn't for everyone," he says. "You have to be a hunter-gatherer in your soul. You really have to be driven."

Thanks to Johnson's keen hunting instincts, Anthropologie stores across the land display their $4 latte bowls and $88 ruffle-necked sweaters not on mere shelving, but on massive old French farm tables, weathered garden furniture, and turn-of-the-previous century painted wooden cupboards.

All of it is for sale, of course - from the $13,000 zinc soda fountain, to the $4,800 circa-1890 iron armoire.

Johnson once bought up hundreds of carved-wood panels used for flocking velvet at a French textile factory and, in a genius stroke of repurposing, sent them into the stores to be sold as wall art.

Among his countless other scores: A metal hook he spied in a French hotel became a best-seller as an Anthropologie reproduction (no longer available); a Gothic-looking wooden gate he bought in a London shop inspired a headboard (Gate Bed, $1,348 to $1,548); and a British furniture-maker he discovered was tapped to design a chest whose unusual surface finish makes it look as if it's covered in fabric (Petite Patchwork dresser, $1,498).

As if his current duties weren't enough, he will take on the role of curator when Anthropologie opens an art gallery as part of its new Rockefeller Center store, set to open in the spring. For Johnson, the gallery is another way to promote artisans whose work does not lend itself to the kind of mass production needed to supply a major retailing chain.

Like, perhaps, the woman he met on his last trip to London's Spitalfields market who makes retro-looking stoneware fish platters.

"She does goldfish to sharks," Johnson says. "I envision a whole wall of these at the stores, but she's used to making one or two at a time. If it seems like getting her to make so many changes them, I'll just take what she can make.

"You have to be careful with creative people. They could lose what you loved about what they do."

An artist and former furniture designer, Johnson started his global shopping excursions soon after his partner, Glen Senk, a former Williams-Sonoma retailing executive, took over the Anthropologie helm in 1994. Senk was tapped by Richard Hayne, founder of Urban Outfitters, to help build the new concept, which brought upscale women's apparel and home furnishings under one roof.

Senk enlisted Johnson to help with the fledgling chain's two stores in Wayne and Rockville, Md. Part of the Anthropologie plan was to feature sophisticated, constantly changing store interiors to lure the target customer - a well-educated, well-traveled 30- to 40-year-old female - with an "evocative environment."

Using striking antique furniture as display fixtures seemed like a great idea. But there was a problem.

"We learned that people don't want to come into a store and find something is not for sale, and if we wanted to create change, we had to keep bringing in new fixtures," Johnson says.

"I grew up with an art-dealer father who would spend months every year in Europe buying art. I never imagined I would find myself doing the same thing. "

These days, he finds most of the antiques he buys in France, England and Belgium, where he's built a network of scouts and has a team of agents who document the pieces and arrange for shipping to Anthropologie's Gap, Pa., warehouse.

One thing Johnson has learned is to travel light.

"I always tease him because he keeps everything in his pocket," says Wendy Wurtzburger, Anthropologie's merchandise manager. "He's got his digital camera and his phone, and phone numbers on scraps of paper."

"There is a lot of competition out there," Johnson says. "If a market opens at 7, you want to be there at 6. At some of these places, there are thousands of people waiting, and when the gates open there is this war cry and you have to run like a madman."

His recent finds include: the art-nouveau interior of a notions shop in Barcelona, Spain, including a 20-foot-tall cast-iron balcony; it all ended up in a Newport Beach, Calif., store.

The kind of quirky old objects and furnishings Johnson favors are on vivid display in the sprawling Chestnut Hill home he shares with Senk. (The couple also have a Manhattan apartment and a Palm Beach, Fla., place.)

There's an old French radiator mounted over one fireplace. Over another, he's hung the rusted trunk lid of a 1927 Citroen. In the living room, Johnson has hung instructional panels from a French driving school and turned a folding metal lounge chair into a coffee table.

A cork beehive from Portugal sits in one corner. In another, a huge empty frame with rococo carvings of birds and flowers leans against a wall.

"I bought hundreds of those in an old gilding factory, and we put mirrors in them and used them in store dressing rooms," Johnson says. "They were never gilded so they got that wonderful, white weathered look. If they had been gilded they wouldn't have been as interesting to me.

"We've periodically tried building store fixtures, but they don't have the soul of the old pieces. The old things give a life and resonance to the stores that just can't be replaced."