Her clients include Oprah and she learned her trade at Christie’s and Phillips, so it’s no surprise that Holly Johnson is one of the UK’s most respected decorative arts experts. Effect speaks to the co-founder of Holly Johnson Antiques & Design – the company she created with partner and husband Benjamin Aardewerk
At the spacious two-storey Holly Johnson emporium in Knutsford, Cheshire, clients encounter an eclectic display of furniture, glassware and art. Holly Johnson and her husband, Benjamin Aardewerk – who comes from a long line of Dutch antique dealers – opened their shop in 2020. Visitors enter an inspirational space: eight fully furnished rooms that help them to visualise how the pieces might look in their homes.
Customers might see paintings by LS Lowry typically depicting silhouetted human figures thronging industrial cityscapes, or finely crafted British Arts and Crafts furniture by the likes of William Morris, Gordon Russell or Robert and Dorothy Heritage. They might also spot the surreal yet elegant homeware of Milanese artist and designer Piero Fornasetti – Holly Johnson Antiques is one of the biggest dealers of his work. Or their eyes might be drawn to colourful glassware momentarily bursting into colour when hit by sunlight: Johnson designs her own glassware inspired by Ancient Roman and 1920s glass, all fabricated in Murano, Italy by such companies as Venini and Silvano Signoretto.
“Our shop stocks every facet of an interior,” says Johnson. “Customers can see how art, furniture and glassware work together.” Her taste has evolved organically over time and, though wide-ranging, is carefully curated. It’s her personal-yet-informed eye that clients buy into.
Johnson studied History of Art at Manchester University but found herself drawn more to furniture and the decorative arts, moving onto an MA on the history of the decorative arts at Christie’s in South Kensington. “We studied in the same building as the auction house,” she says. “It gave me a great grounding in antiques and it’s still a great entrée into the antiques business.”
Our shop stocks every facet of an interior. Customers can see how art, furniture and glassware work together.Holly Johnson
Johnson later worked at auction house Phillips in Chester as a ceramics specialist. “At the time, I was drawn more to furniture, ceramics and silver than to fine art. I was fascinated by their craftsmanship and functionality and preferred that to canvases you look at on a wall.”
Of course, today Johnson is an art enthusiast, particularly when it’s integrated into a domestic setting – or into the homely environment of the Knutsford shop, which holds four art exhibitions a year. It’s currently showing work by Scottish artist Jennifer Mackenzie (until May 28). Her vibrant paintings are inspired by the Scottish Colourists – a quartet of Scottish Post-Impressionist painters.
Johnson’s early appreciation of functional, accessible design perhaps explains why she was drawn to objects hailing from key periods when design was democratised – the 19th and 20th centuries. “I was mostly interested in manufacturers such as Wedgwood and ones that took part in The Great Exhibition of 1851,” she says. “Their goods were enjoyed by the growing middle classes. I also liked utilitarian pieces from the 1950s, which had a wider pool of customers. I was interested in Art Deco as well as late Arts and Crafts pieces from the 1920s to the 1960s by Gordon Russell, cabinet-maker Peter Waals and furniture maker Robert Thompson, also known as ‘Mousey’ Thompson because a mouse motif was carved into almost all his oak pieces.”
Her first job in the antiques business saw her work for flamboyant antiques dealer and TV presenter David Dickinson. In 1997, she established her business Holly Johnson Antiques. “I started out selling relatively traditional pieces by cabinet-makers such as Gillows of Lancaster and London, and Holland & Sons,” she says.
By the late 1990s, she was regularly participating in major fairs, such as LAPADA, organised by The Association of Art & Antique Dealers, BADA (The British Antique Dealers’ Fair) and at Olympia. “I travelled to auctions all over the country six days a week to find special pieces to buy between fairs.”
Johnson also participated in fairs Stateside – in Chicago, San Francisco and Palm Beach, Florida. “I was mainly selling signed design pieces from the 19thcentury – works by Fornasetti and some Art Deco.” Johnson also had a shop in the New York Design Center on Lexington Avenue for two years which attracted a starry following. “Clients included Oprah Winfrey, Janet Jackson and Woody Allen. Attending the fairs was very glamorous – sociable and fun. They held big charities and galas.”
But for all its high-octane glamour, trading in the US had its setbacks. “Transportation costs shot up,” recalls Johnson. “The pieces had to be very collectible. Dealers had to adapt quickly in terms of what they sold.” She then began to sell her pieces online: “This meant we didn’t need to travel to the US anymore.” Selling online also “plugged the gap”, she says, when she and Aardewerk – who met 15 years ago – were unable to show at fairs due to the pandemic.
Today, fans of their aesthetic can also buy into another arm of their business – an interior design firm that restores and decorates clients’ homes. “Many dealers have interior design firms,” says Johnson. “Their clients often like their taste and ask them to do up their homes. Dealers can draw on their knowledge of particular periods and advise on period details. We work a lot on country houses in conjunction with planners and Historic England.” The couple also have a company called Ben and Holly’s Hideaways – rental holiday homes occupying period cottages in Anglesey, Wales.
Johnson says that Knutsford is a good spot for her shop: “It’s located between Manchester and Liverpool. It’s a wealthy area – a lot of footballers live here. It’s a sort of mini Harrogate with a farmer’s market. Novelist Elizabeth Gaskell based her novel Cranford on Knutsford, where she grew up. It’s a bit like Petworth in Sussex, although it has fewer antique shops.”
While Johnson continues to stock mid-century Italian design, she now focuses on the late Arts and Crafts period she cherished when she started out. She also sells pieces by Sidney Barnsley and his son, Edward. “These pieces were as well made as earlier Arts and Crafts furniture but their style was more relaxed. They were made of paler woods and had lighter lines. There were a few makers manufacturing them, such as Heal’s. We sell them in the UK, Europe and US. Our customers enjoy these simpler designs made from wonderful timbers.”
Effect Magazine is brought to you by The Bruno Effect