Art & Photography / Culture Talks

John Derian on the Art of Collecting

Antique paper artefacts are collector John Derian’s raison d’être, as his beautiful new publication Picture Book demonstrates

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John Derian
Excerpted from John Derian Picture Book by John Derian (Artisan Books)© 2016, Stephen Kent Johnson

According to Anna Wintour, artist John Derian has “made the arcane practice of decoupage as relevant to today as taking a selfie”. And a vast collection of over 300 paper images, hailing from the 18th and 19th centuries – just a fraction of his collection – are bound together in his vivid and beautiful Picture Book to prove it. His three East Village stores in New York teem with objects from paperweights to glass plates and furniture, most of which are emblazoned with his sourced, antique illustrations – be they heaving yellow quinces, glistening frogs with human eyes, intricate botanical diagrams or faded blueprints for Victorian sailing ships. Derian’s designs and finds have made him a go-to for any New York-bound aesthete. Having just joined the New York Times Best Seller’s list, Derian tells AnOther how he goes with the flow when he’s foraging and how to listen to our inner creatives.  

On looking at what’s around you...
“I often say to people that I’m a ‘chef-to-table’ person – imagine that I go to the farmer’s market to see what’s available and then I make things. I’m always looking but it’s really all about what I can find. These things speak out to me; their colour, charm, and the subject, of course.”

On embracing fate...
“There was a woman at a Paris flea market who doesn’t usually sell prints. She had this torn print that was really beautiful, naïve and funny: a list of animals and their names. What I love about some of the imagery is that it’s pre-photography and it’s a bit naïve. Some of the animals have human eyes instead of animal eyes… and pretty faces! I started enlarging them full bleed, just as I was doing with my flower prints at the time and it was kind of fun! That print came at the right time: it became part of my life and changed my style in a way too.”

On teaching yourself....
“People have been asking me to make a book since the beginning but I’ve never said I’m an expert in decoupage, even though I do it. I’m self taught; I don’t belong to a league of decoupage people. It’s just about what inspires me most, and that’s the images.“

On going with your instincts...
“I definitely have a desire to share and I do love the images that I find. It’s about sharing those images. I’m not really a money person – I just do things because I like to do them.”

On finding your creative purpose, in remembering what you did as a kid...
“I guess it’s not that common to find something that you like to do. Collecting is just normal, natural and organic to me. I’ve been doing it since I was a small child; like rearranging furniture, drawing, making things. I still do it. I always say to people when they’re struggling, ‘What did you do as a kid!?’ The key is there, I guess.”

On paying attention to timing...
“Anna Wintour (a friend of a friend; loyal client and the author of the foreword to John Derian Picture Book) just emailed me and said, ‘Are you doing a book?’ and I said, ‘I’m not - should I?’ and she said, ‘Yes.’ I forwarded the email to my friend, a book agent, and thought, ‘OK maybe I should start thinking about a book now.’ Because if she somehow stood behind it, I thought, ‘maybe the timing’s right.’”

On not overlooking the power of touch...
“I don’t ever shop online really but I have on occasion visited this site called Panteek and they have a great selection of stuff. The reason why I don’t tend to do it is because it’s so forced – I like just finding things. We have so much stuff in store but The John Derian Company Inc. website is really limited – I don’t see how anyone could buy these pieces if they couldn’t see or touch them. But people do!”

On not forcing it...
“If I had to give advice on collecting and creating, it’s just whatever happens naturally or organically. I think if you have a particular interest, you’ll just be drawn to it and you’ll learn about it. That’s obvious, but some people do need to be reminded.”

John Derian Picture Book is out now, published by Artisan.

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