10 Questions for Paul Johnson of Johnson Trading.

Gallery Spotlight: Johnson Trading Company

By Anna Carnick

For our very first “Gallery Spotlight”—a new series of conversations with esteemed gallerists across the globe—we sat down with Paul Johnson, the man behind Johnson Trading Gallery, a New York staple for vintage and contemporary design lovers. In another life, Paul Johnson studied business and worked in the financial industry. But that was before he completely shifted gears and found himself working as a “picker” (an art world label for one who scours markets and shops for special pieces) in Manhattan. As Johnson puts it, “I became entrenched in New York City’s underground 20th century design picker and dealer world . . . I always call my first gallery the 10' x 10' booth I had at the Chelsea flea market in 2000. It was an exciting time for me. I was learning and educating myself a lot. I loved it.”

Johnson began tirelessly traveling the globe in search of rare 20th century pieces. Soon after, he opened a private showroom, working mainly with other dealers. By 2004, he’d opened his first gallery, and in 2005, he began producing pieces with rising contemporary design stars like Aranda/Lasch and Max Lamb.

About ten years in, Johnson has opened a location in L.A., and, this past year, the New York team moved from Manhattan to a relatively sleepy street in Queens, settling in an unmarked, massive, 5,500-square-foot former cinema. The bright, open space was built in the 1940s, and Johnson’s transformed the old projector room into his office and the old theater into his showroom. The gallery hosts a playful mix of vintage pieces by everyone from Frank Lloyd Wright and Arne Jacobsen to Robert Loughlin, plus fresh work by a small, carefully curated roster of contemporary designers like Kwangho Lee, Ben Jones, and Jack Craig.

Paul Johnson spoke with us from Seoul. 

Anna Carnick: For the uninitiated, how would you describe Johnson Trading Gallery’s mission and specialty? What makes it unique?

Paul Johnson: Johnson Trading Gallery has always strived to be a gallery that represents both historical and contemporary design. I think the common thread is that we try to show work that is not only unique, but also very soulful I would say.

I think the work has always been a labor of love for the designers, and it shows in the pieces. We don’t really follow trends or make it easy for people to buy from us unfortunately, but we try our best to not only give our clients something unique, but also a good investment, especially in the historical work.

I’m a student of the market, and I try to find value for my clients as much as I can. That carries through to the contemporary work; I try to keep the prices at a level where the client can make a profit in the future. I feel if they are brave enough to venture into one-off contemporary design by a young designer, then they should be rewarded with a good price and some value for the future. I think the pricing in the contemporary market is just crazy right now.

AC: What can you tell us about your latest show, Furniture 2013?

PJ: The show was a way to launch the new designers the gallery has been working with—and the first attempt at having people out to the new space. It felt like the right time to do it, and the work really came together. Also, it was a way to show a lot of inventory we have had buried away for a few years. The response was tremendous, and everybody was so into the work and the space. I was really pleased.

AC: The show also introduces a few new designers to your roster. What can you tell us briefly about Jack Craig, Chris Schanck, and Katie Stout? What drew you to these three?

PJ: I was attracted to working with all three of these designers not only because I was interested in their work, but also because I was interested in working with them as people. After having been involved in contemporary design for a while, I seem to be more interested in a designer’s vision for their work and their personality. If these seem to be in line with my vision and personality, then I just give them the freedom to do the work and I’m happy to represent them. All three of these designers are committed to their craft and are so talented that I don’t really get involved too much in the work; I just give them a platform to show it.

AC: What’s it like to work with emerging talent?

PJ: It is very exciting and keeps me honest. They are so hardworking and determined that I can’t relax for a second; you have to stay on top of everything.

AC: In your opinion, who are the most promising young designers working today?

PJ: Tough question: I think there are so many talented people out there in so many different levels of design, it’s hard to pick individuals out.

AC: How do you choose work? 

PJ: With my gut and my trained eyes I guess. My historical knowledge helps a lot in knowing about past designers and their careers, so I try to base new talent along the historical trends of the type of work they are doing. It’s a little confusing, but it works for me.

AC: How do you approach your relationship with the designers you work with? 

PJ: It has to be very natural and easy-going. I think a good working relationship and easy vibes are good for the work and the soul.

AC: In your opinion, what’s the most undervalued work right now—both in vintage and contemporary selections? Who should people be looking at or investing in?

PJ: You gotta pay me to tell you that . . . [laughing]

AC: What’s the biggest difference in the design world today versus when you were starting out?

PJ: I think the size of the market has changed, and the pricing. People have gotten away from finding undervalued design and now chase trends a little too much.

AC: If you had one piece of advice for a new design collector, what would it be?

PJ: Find someone you trust to teach you about the market and the history, and then look at the market with your gut and see what you are attracted to. Then use the knowledge of an expert to guide you towards the right path. But most importantly, buy what you like and try to find true value.

Don’t get caught up in paying too much for things. Find value. It’s out there.


*This interview has been edited and condensed.

  • Text and Interview by

    • Anna Carnick

      Anna Carnick

      Anna is Pamono’s Managing Editor. Her writing has appeared in several arts and culture publications, and she's edited over 20 books. Anna loves celebrating great artists, and seriously enjoys a good picnic.