what's in your toolbox

what’s in your toolbox: keith johnson

by Ginny

Today our interviewee, Keith Johnson, legendary buyer-at-large of is living my dream. Actually, THE dream. Actually, the dream of millions of guys and dolls around the world! Keith’s wanderlust certainly is satiated as , unearthing, discovering, and sniffing out treasures. From Thailand to Sweden, Keith explores new terrains and hand-selects the gems from antique shops, flea markets, and various art/craft/design stores. In addition to shopping the local stores, Keith visits with the communities’ local artists and artisans. He meets with Tunisian glass-blowers, South African blacksmiths, and Turkish kilim rug artists. Through his fieldwork he finds objects to sell in Anthropologie stores, and brings back inspirational material for their spectacular visuals/product development/design teams.

If you have ever stepped inside an Anthropologie store and wondered , “Where do all these delicious antiques and curiosities come from?” or “Who is the man behind the fabulous merchandising?” Wonder no more! Allow me to present to you, Mr. Keith Johnson! –

*P.S … Mr. Johnson, if you ever need a traveling aid, a pack mule (really, a pack rat) to carry all your findings, or a gal to hold your bags while you shop and mingle, I think I can swing it. I checked my summer calendar, and it is pretty free. You know, if you need someone to keep you company, other than the whole crew of.. call me.

1. Design*Droits-Humains: What is in your toolbox? What are the tools you can’t live without?

Keith Johnson: My toolbox is my passport, my suitcase, and my camera.

2. Design*Droits-Humains: Fill in the blank, “When I am in my studio, I feel inspired to travel“.

CLICK HERE for the rest of Keith’s interview (including the best advice he’s ever received, and his advice for young creatives) after the jump!

3. Design*Droits-Humains: What are on the top shelves of your inspiration library right now”?

Keith Johnson: I am addicted to art and design books right now. I left for Milan with books on Gio Ponti and Carlo Molino, two great Mid-Century Italian designers.

4. Design*Droits-Humains: How do you keep yourself organized? What are your tricks for time-management?

Keith Johnson: I keep a photographic record of everything. I am a very visual person. I review the photos constantly to make sure I remember everything!

5. Design*Droits-Humains: What is the most inspiring place you have visited?

Keith Johnson: I don’t wait for inspiration. I have to go out and find it. Nothing gets me as inspired as travel. I try to engage with the most interesting people I can find who have a unique style and point-of-view. I spent today with in Milan. I went with several members of the Anthropologie team. Nothing could have been more exciting than meeting with this woman who is so generous and supportive of the design community. Her shop would thrill even the most jaded shopper! I love to visit artists’ homes and studios. Tomorrow I’m heading to the studio of the great industrial designer, Castiglioni. It has been perfectly preserved and I’m hoping will give us clues into his extraordinary design process!

6. Design*Droits-Humains: What do you love to collect?

Keith Johnson: I’m not a disciplined collector. I respond to so many different things. I just bought a stack of 1930s Chinese paper lanterns at the flea market and today I bought a chair from a young Spanish designer who works in paper mâché.

7. Design*Droits-Humains: In addition to being an antiques buyer, gallery director, and TV host/travel guide to name a few, what would you like to conquer next?

Keith Johnson: I am currently working on putting together a book of my travels. It’s just great to look back at where I’ve been since traveling for !

8. Design*Droits-Humains: If you were stranded on an island, what 5 things would you want to have with you?

Keith Johnson: If I were stuck on a desert island, I would want my partner Glen and my dogs. I love all my stuff, but they are all that matters.

9. Design*Droits-Humains: What is the best advice you have ever received, and what is the one piece of advice you would give to young, aspiring creatives?

Keith Johnson: The best advice I would give for someone aspiring to have a creative life is to travel and learn to see the world through more lenses than your own. The best advice I’ve ever been given wasn’t really advice, it was that I received love and respect for what I had to offer. My advice is to surround yourself with people who see your talents, even when you don’t see them yourself.

10. Design*Droits-Humains: If you could make a master mix-tape of music that is inspiring you at the moment, what would it be?

Keith Johnson: I love new design, but I’m in a bit of a time warp with music. I find myself listening to my favorites from a million years ago like Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, and Chet Baker.

Keith Johnson-inspired tools:

, $9.

, $34.

, $188.

, $499.

, $100.

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  • SO inspiring. I love that he has the ultimate job shopping the globe, the most phenomenal taste, and yet counts his partner and his dogs as the most important “things” to have with him! Right on.

  • Neat! I love the Anthro vibe, but I just don’t buy things there b/c so much is made in China. If Keith truly shops the globe, why is so much sourced from China? Add the rather high price tags to the dodgy origins of Anthro products… not good.

    • jodi

      keith doesn’t source all the products sold at anthro- the things he does on the show are the pieces that decorate the amazing shops we’re always talking about here. those pieces aren’t made in china, and their sources (africa, europe, the middle east, etc) are documented on “man shops globe”.


  • A man with the dream job and still so down to earth. I have endless respect for someone that considers his partner and dog all that matters. Great interview!

  • His job sounds like the ultimate dream! The only reason I ever even step into Anthro is to see all the amazing pieces on display. Great work Keith!

  • I need to start watching Man Shops Globe! Is it available on hulu?

    Keith’s advice to travel is easier said than done, I’ve been hoping to be able to go on a trip to Buenos Aires for over a year now. Work, money, life, why does it seem so much more difficult to find time for yourself as you get older?

  • I’m curious about Keith’s background (fine arts, art history,etc?) How did he end up with this really neat gig at Anthro?

  • Maybe I am the last one to hear about him and this tv show that sounds delicious – wow where have I been? I am thrilled to see someone having their dream job accomplished, he must be a happy man!

    ps: I too would love to be his pack mule!

  • I’m going to be honest… I never saw the show although I’ve heard nothing but great things! (not much of a tv person) I am however an artist.. creative person.. graphic designer.. all in one lol and it’s nice to hear his perspective. I love that he is inspired by a plethora of artists including someone like Castiglioni. I couldn’t agree with him more… Surrounding yourself with others that support your work and creativity is extremely crucial in developing not only your “art” but your self.

  • Wonderful interview! I’m a huge fan of Anthropologie! I used to work right in front of a store in miami and everyday I stopped by to see the windows and display arrangements.

  • I’m laughing at that passport price, because I think I lost mine and the price just went up YESTERDAY to $135!!!!

  • My daughter and I (who worked for Anthro) love watching Man Shops Globe together and then watching them arrive in the stores! What a fun job!

  • oh ginny, wonderful article. Mr Johnson may be living your dream, but you are surely living many others’ dreams.

  • keith really does live the dream! his show is best! if he ever needs more assistants or travel partners pergolina is available!
    so great to have an interview with the man-behind-anthro on d*s – thanks!

  • I’m glad I’m not the only one — but I’m also curious why he’s praised for travelling the globe to get inspiration from “local artisans” who then have their lovely handicrafts re-designed and made in China. If you want lovely handicrafts from all exotic locales he travels, find them at a fair-trade store.

    • kd

      i understand your point, but that isn’t a fair or accurate statement about all antho goods. yes, there have been issues with reproducing things (which we’ve discussed here before), but there are a large number of smaller, artisan, and international artists represented on their site/in stores. i don’t think it’s fair to lump all of their products into the “made in china” category.


  • it’s been my dream to work for the Urban family of stores!! They are truly cutting edge as far as retailers and have so many different endeavors!!! (I’m a recent interior design graduate!!)

  • I absolutely adore everything about your site but this new Artist’s Toolbox feature is utterly brilliant. Truly.

    Understanding the mind of an artist and the tools of his or her trade helps inspire all of us artists. And I love the diversity of the folks you have featured to date.

    Keep going… I already can’t wait for the next one.

  • I have to say I truly appreciate people being so strong about taking a stand against countries with such poor support for the working class. BUT if you were to really look at the items you own right now, even the ones that say organic and fair trade, you will find that not all of it is organic and fair trade. part of it was probably made in a sweatshop and sent off to another country to be finalized thus getting that countries stamp of origin. not all of china’s manufacturing is bad.
    if you really want to take a stand against these countries and how they treat the working class, it will not help to just ban buying anything from china.
    This is a very in depth argument that would take too long to explain. just don’t take it out on those companies carrying the products here in the U.S. go farther than that.

  • KD,
    I work for anthropologie and keith is our Found Objects buyer. He has traveled the world to find our “found” items (antiques and limited quantity items from artisans around the globe) that we sell in stores. He doesnt get inspiration from the artisans for the company to re-produce their works, he buys pieces from the artisans to be sold in store which are usually one of a kind or a very limited quantity of their original artwork. Items that are designed and produced by the company are a completely separate process :-)

  • the company also does collaborate with specific artists (for example, Nathalie Lete… so awesome!) to design items that company itself will produce, but this also is a separate category from our Found Objects

  • I agree with that quote about surrounding ourselves with people who see our talents that everyone is praising over here. Its true, let our talent known ( be it photography or cooking) and people will come looking for you once the news has gone around.

  • Jody, being a modern global citizen, how can you call china as a dodgy origin? It’s not to say that there aren’t problems, but I can confidently say that those chinese workers create clothing products with a much higher quality and efficiency than as opposed to united states or mexico.

  • oops, forgot to comment upon the actual post! I really didn’t know much about Anthropologie so this really opened my eyes. Also, I love keith johnson’s red checked shirt.

  • What artist would not love a visit from Keith Johnson? Such a visionary. when I need inspration I go to Athropologie – never disappoints.
    Thanks Grace for this intervew!
    Was Keith’s camera identifyied?

  • Love Anthropologie, just can tafford most of it….so I head for the sale room. And you have to be really tiny to fit most of their clothes…..very cute designs, but a lot of it is poorly made.

  • Ok, I was really trying to keep it clean and not be overly PC on this topic (because I truly don’t want to rain on anyone’s parade) BUT-

    They quality of the clothes made in China may be better in some cases (I can’t say this is actually true across the board anywhere in the world) but I would have to argue that the quality of the conditions in which “those chinese workers” actually work is questionable in many, many cases.

    Honestly, I’m getting annoyed with how much (positive) publicity Anthropologie gets on here. I understand there are some connections between the writers here and the company. Anthro puts on a GREAT show and I love ogling their merch but when it comes right down to it I’d rather scavenge the second hand or consignment shops and find a good deal on something completely unique that I can afford. And yeah, ok, maybe I’m biased because I do it for a living!

    It’s just hard for me to rah rah a white guy who gets paid to collect goods from around the world for a huge corporation with a huge markup. Anthro and it’s subsidiaries (Urban Outfitters Inc. is the parent company) still have some major shady dealings when it comes to selling goods made or designed by independent designers and I don’t think anyone is arguing that.

    It’s good to hear that this is being addressed and they are hopefully working towards better business practices.

    I would like to see an article on an independent designer or business owner(someone from biz ladies, perhaps?) doing the same thing on a limited budget and really getting things done since that’s where it seems this blog’s roots are really from. Something sans-ipad, if you will. I could better relate to something like that.

    • eb

      i understand your concerns on many fronts, but wanted to ask for a bit more clarification on your last point. did you mean you want to see an indie biz that travels the globe for inspiration and shopping? I’ll see what sort of research we can find on smaller businesses that do that. it’s such an expensive way to research and shop that I think it’s often cost prohibitive for smaller companies to do- which is why a company like anthro, which has a parent Corp- can afford to send someone.

      Also, just to clarify- we don’t have any relationship with anthro behind some of us being big fans of their work and their creative teams that do window displays.


  • Grace,

    Thanks for your response!
    Your thoughtful correspondence and careful attention to comments are why I love this blog. (I don’t know how you have the time to respond so quickly-mad props for that)

    I’ve had a lot of coffee this morning so bare with my long-winded posts. To clarify, I understand that it would be difficult to find someone from a smaller company that travels in search of goods all over the world without having some kind of major funding to be jealous of. I know you guys put a good amount of research and effort into finding and reporting about business with good sustainable/ethical backgrounds and I like to see that.

    I don’t know if such a business exists but I think with this economic climate dragging on the way it is I’m just feeling the need for some love for the little guys (and gals) that have had difficulties but manage to keep on trucking-and their strategies. It would be great to see what’s in the toolbox of a young enterprise starting from the ground up and has had some successes as well as mistakes. Maybe there’s someone out there with the same concept as Keith but on a smaller scale (and budget!). Someone who travels across the country looking for unique goods made by individuals? Again, this is totally in my own self-interest and respect your decisions to post whatever you wish on d*s.

    • eb

      thanks for your thoughtful response-i can’t tell you how nice it is to get constructive feedback :)

      i will definitely keep your suggestions in mind for future columns. we do actually have a great string on independent artists (new, up-and-coming and older/established) coming up for this column. we wanted it to be a mix of people that you might recognize, and some that we hope you’ll grow to love like we do.


  • Keith Johnson is a never-ending inspiratons for me. He does his job very well however I´m sure this is not a job for him but also a dream. Good luck Keith! (I do envy you a bit)

  • Wow….it’s easy to be a critic but what I love the most about this post is this:

    “The best advice I’ve ever been given wasn’t really advice, it was that I received love and respect for what I had to offer. My advice is to surround yourself with people who see your talents…..”

    R-E-S-P-E-C-T……..to also appreciate our differences. I love that Anthropologie has the ability to expose so many to GREAT DESIGN when not everyone is able to travel the globe…..that also inspires me. Yes, in a perfect world, we’d all be sitting home knitting our own sweaters, throwing our own pottery and making homemade bread but our world is not PERFECT……

    Thanks for the post! LOVED it….

  • I hear what everyone is saying about where/how we source “found objects”.

    However, it would be nice to see a profile on someone who sources equally cool items from their local artists and artisans, yard sales, craigslist, backyard rehabs, and their local dumpster.

    Understandably, not a sexy as traveling the world, but much more creatively challenging.

    Make it as beautiful as Anthropologie does, but do it in your own neighborhood. Now that’s really a sustainable, fair trade story.

    For all you would-be world travellers, look around you.

    “discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes”

    My 4 year old daughter shows me this eveyr day!

    • marianne

      we profile people that do that on a regular basis. the before & after column every thursday is pretty much devoted to people who use found objects to create things for themselves or their businesses.


  • I loved reading this – what a nice break in the day!
    I couldn’t agree with him more about getting out in the world, even though I am stuck here!
    And O, stuck here making things in the US and barely making it because many people don’t understand the prices. Not the point-
    My point is we have a wealth of references, books, movies, internet, and the experiences of people like him who do get to go…
    Here is a quick snapshot of pieces I’ve just made that I am naming today – with influences from all over the world.
    (not naming the company, Grace! )

    I’m in a grubby location in jeans and a tank top, but it has never stopped me from dreaming big and roaming all over the place in my imagination.
    *& designers: you will not always have loving support. You have to learn to push through anyway, no matter what.

  • I have so appreciated your blog since finding it a short time ago, but never as much as today. Reading the intelligent conversations here in regard to this post has been heartwarming. I’m proud and humbled to be part of this community.

  • Thanks for the interview and good discussion. Just wanted to mention that a small bio can be found on the Man Shops Globe Site.

    Also, in regards to small businesses sourcing from crafts people, or found objects it can be a bit tricky because of budget, but is completely possible. For people who were curious here are a few quick ideas.

    Indie craft shows, are a great source, and many of the large gift shows now offer a handmade section. There are also great antique markets around, and Brimfield, which has been featured here is a great resource. It might not be as glamorous as India might seem, but it does well for those of us on a small scale budget.

  • Grace-

    Thanks, and thank you for listening. It’s good to know we can have a positive and productive conversation.

    Looking forward to your future articles on indie artists, etc. I totally agree that you need a good mix of both-examples of our fantasy jobs as well as the little guys out there making a difference and making/selling/buying awesome stuff-to have a nicely rounded blog. Kudos!

  • PS-
    One more thing, Grace:

    It would be fantastic to see some more examples outside of NYC, and I mean this in the best way. Thanks again!

  • I love visiting Anthro and I usually get tons of inspiration every time I visit. I also loved the interview with Keith….he came across as grounded and open and I so appreciate his advice.
    Grace, “thank you” and Keith for the interview.

  • Here’s his bio:

    Basically, he got the job because he knows about art, and because his life partner, Glen Senk, is the CEO. They’ve been together over 30 years.

  • Keith is GOD!!! I love him, his design esthetic is exactly the same as mine. And does he have the dream job or what!? I wish he would have a contest ( that i would when, of course) to have a person travel to a destination with him and look for great finds. Or his assistant just up and quits and I can take over!!! Im starting to babble over my love for this man, so I must go . Thanks always for a wonderful blog!

  • “It’s just hard for me to rah rah a white guy who gets paid to collect goods from around the world for a huge corporation with a huge markup.”

    But a small buyer with one shop, unless he or she lives in a place with very monied clients is going to have an even bigger mark-up. Anthropologie can afford to buy in bulk, and mark the stuff down if it’s not selling or they need more space for new stuff.

    Frankly, I applaud mass-merchants who bring unusual materials and items to the US–mass with class. Making a profit isn’t a crime, and Anthropologie hires more people and makes more jobs than 1 little gift store in Boca Raton or Stumptown or Ketchum.

    Mr. Johnson’s race and sex really aren’t applicable to this discussion. If the merch he selects doesn’t sell, he could be out of a job in a heartbeat, despite his personal relationships. That he
    “gets paid” for his work seems to really bother some posters.

    • belinda

      i’d never seen that observer piece- thanks for the link. i love the story of how keith and his partner met. so sweet :)


  • Many of anthro items that are collected from around the world and sold in stores give procedes back to the people that make them. For example: a hadmade throw from Africa made by a group of refugee women. Also, when sourcing items for displays, etc. Anthro is always giving their business to small mom and pop companies and individuals they meet along the way to drive the economy in those needy areas. As for the apparel, a lot of it is in house design.

    Ask any associate about any item and they will be happy to share product knowledge on that item. They have binders full of info so that they can share it with the customers because every item is special and carefully picked. They would not be willing to share all of this info if they were not proud of its origin.

    Those items that are found all over the world give the store soul and I am thankful that I am able to see collections I would not have otherwise been able to see since I cannot travel the world myself. Anthropologie provides that experience without having to even leave the city.

  • belinda, i had not seen that article either! as soon as i read the story of how they met, i immediately started to tear up. i am such a sucker for a good love story. so thank you :)

  • i think tail of the yak in berkeley might be an example of a similar kind of business model (travel/shopping for old and new)
    on a small scale, independent level
    i’ve never been…have only heard

  • I have followed the Anthropologie/Free People/Urban Outfitters umbrella for many years and believe they are one of the only large corporate retail groups that promote and recognize the value of handmade items.

    In addition to owning my own handmade business, I have been a buyer for a fine-craft retail gallery for 12+ years and over that time have found several artists that I carry also working with Anthropologie. I travel the US and abroad looking for new artists to work with and purchase their unique items to resell (Anthro does the same thing). These artists need our support for their survival as makers. There are so few brick and mortar retail stores that sell handmade items – where the vast majority of items sold in stores are being produced offshore. Anthro does purchase artists works to resell – at prices similar or equal to that artists regular retail price. The retail prices of these items are fair and reflect the income and workmanship of that maker. They also work with artists to create production lines based on their designs – at an affordable price. Their designs are licensed at a fair price and items are made in other countries at a low cost for maximum profit.
    Artists are also hired in all every corner of Anthro’s retail structure – from product designers to display merchandisers. I have known several people who have worked for Anthropologie wherein their creativity is an asset and a viable way to make a living. Creative jobs are scarce in the US and making a living in the arts can be very difficult.

    In truth, many handmade based retail stores include designed or international handmade production work in their product mix. Their low prices and repetitive sales help these small retailers to stay in business. Personally, I prefer not to purchase the items created offshore and actively choose to buy either from an artist or even from a store that sells their work. I support any mass-merchant who chooses to consistently include handmade and small-production goods in their merchandise. I have yet to meet an artist that has been ripped-off by Anthropologie. Plenty have been ripped off by other corporate retail. If you find yourself wanting to purchase an item that is unique, innovative or handmade please expect to pay a fair price to the designer, artist or store that is carrying it. These items have a soul – that’s why we connect with them on a deeper level – having these items means that you are enriching your life and the lives of their makers.

  • I buy probably too much stuff from Anthropologie, and I can’t think of one thing that has come from China. Almost every single thing I have, clothing and home goods, was made in India.

    Great article, and I’ll have to keep his advice in mind.

  • Courtney, would you care to explain how items from India would be better than items from China? I mean, is it safe to assume that you believe the items you own came to the US on the back of a levitating Himalayan mystic plying his ancient handmade trade instead of a shipping container from Guangzhou? You’re kidding yourself if you believe “Made in India” is somehow ethically better than “Made in China.” For all we know your items were made by a 10 year old girl who had to choose between slave labour or working the lucrative child prostitution industry in India.

  • I would love for Anthropologie to look at the storage baskets that we have brought from India! They are one of a kind. I know you won’t see them anywhere! To me it would be a shame to miss this opportunity. I have a great eye and a passion for the same thing keith is doing, I am all visual!.I have to say this is a world class hand made product.This basket is perfect for Anthropologie .

  • Keith,
    I am headed to the Springfield flea market next May… we should meet for a cup of coffee if you’re going … ( I like to plan ahead) feel free to check out my design page on Facebook Objectform-life, and my website objectform-life.com.

  • this is a hit show,keith keep doing what you are doing, finding things that really fascinate you, you are opening up a part of the furniture and home furnishing world that very few people know, that is a good thing. 90 % of the buying public knows what they like and don’t like, and when they see it (the stuff they like) they buy it. it usually cost more but they are enthusiastic about paying for things they like.

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