Q&A with Johanna Lowe of Martyn George

Q&A with Johanna Lowe of Martyn George

By Jessica Herman
London native Johanna Lowe came into food and prop styling after finishing up a career as a photographer. “I was working for Sur la Table as a prop stylist and for lack of budget, they asked me if I would try my hand at food styling, which I did and discovered I was a natural,” says Lowe. Turns out she was not only a natural at styling for photo shoots. Last June, she opened Martyn George, a charming vintage housewares shop in Chicago outfitted with inspirational, unexpected vignettes of kitchen tools and entertaining pieces.

Lucky for us, Lowe recently branched out from her brick and mortar business to open an e-commerce site as well. Customers can now shop her quirky, curated selection of wire egg-collecting baskets and elegant English lunch plates from across the globe.

"Solid utilitarian stoneware with a zen neutrality. They are good for pickles, potted shrimp, duck rillette, or Yottam Ottolenghi's dip. Go ahead and bake in them, too."

So how did you move from photography to styling and then to opening a shop?

"The company Le Cousances, founded in 1553, was acquired by Le Creuset in 1957. This beautiful grey Le Cousances fondue set is immaculate and precious. It's perfect for a honeymoon in Alaska."

I switched from being a photographer to being a stylist seven years ago. I wasn’t interested in the the technical aspects of being a photographer, but I was interested in what you put into the picture. The shop came about because I’m constantly looking for things to put in photographs: beautiful objects. I started to amass a collection of things and found that you have to root through a lot of rubbish to find them. I made a comment to my boyfriend that I should have my own shop, and then I didn’t think about it. I just did it. Opening the shop was a natural progression and augmentation of my business as a stylist. Food, objects and the look of them combined are completely alluring to me.

"An Illinois company, Houpt, designed this revolving doughnut cutter."

How much of the merchandise came from your own collection versus pieces you picked up specifically to sell?

"Himalayan, truffle, citrus or Szechuan, even your basic salt and pepper are special in these Japanese Mid-Century lotus petal-shape pots."

I started with maybe a third of the stuff from my own collection. I shopped and shopped and shopped. I did a road trip to Texas and back and filled the car until I couldn’t get any more in it. I would also go to and from Chicago to my house in Michigan, to antique malls, thrift stores, estate sales.

"Serve your coffee or hot cot. Or lose the cup holder, and get a wine glass."

How often are you on the hunt?

"This tin scoop probably shifted a whole load of grain back in the day. I like to see it in the kitchen filled with onions or apples. Or line it with paper and fill it with popcorn on a game night."

Any free time I have, I am always looking. I find it to be the most relaxing thing to do. It calms me.

"Since the late 1600s, the tureen has held an important place on the table. To quote Alice in Wonderland, 'Beautiful soup, so rich, and green/Waiting in a hot tureen.' A century apart, these two white tureens, one in the Eva Zeisal style and the other an English classic from the 19th century, are ready set to serve green beans, pilaf, or a massive amount of candy."

Were you raised hunting for antiques?

"Whatever your eau de vie, these Mid-Century items add a little more joie de vivre to the bar cart."

Throughout my childhood, my mother worked voluntarily at the local charity shop, which is the equivalent to thrift stores in the U.S. They sold anything from clothing to housewares before the days when vintage was cool. I spent my life in there sifting through bags and boxes, learning how to search with my mother who has a very discerning eye.

"Sure, enamel tin cups do well in the woods on camping trips, but they’re also great for preparing individual pot pies or panna cotta at home. The versatile Enamelware is conducive to baking and freezing."

Do you attempt to inspire that hunting instinct at Martyn George?

"This vintage soda fountain flaunts clean lines, gleaming white stoneware and shiny chrome."

Part of me wishes I could have a minimalist shop with everything stamped in its own glory, but I just can't do it. I feel happier with a sense of discovery around me. The way I display things provides a bit of that searching feeling. I gather things together in little vignettes. People have often commented that every time they walk around the room, they see something different. They can linger for a while and have a discovery the fourth time around.

What qualities do you look for in your products?

Good quality and condition, a certain charm, an element of curiosity.

How do you decide what to keep for yourself and what to put in the shop?

I don’t need to keep anything for my home. I try not to have too much décor around because I would be constantly rearranging it! Also, I have so many props at hand in my storage room that I can pull them out and use them at whim.

Do you to try to inspire creativity by virtue of the way you display items in the shop?

Well, a bowl doesn’t have to be used just like a bowl. For instance, a colander can be used to plant herbs or pansies in, or turned upside down into a light shade. A champagne coupe can be used for a chocolate mousse. I like the Magritte approach, "c'est n'est pas une pipe".

Can you ever just casually serve a meal at home without putting much thought into the presentation?

There’s always an element of presentation. It brings me joy to arrange food on the plate much like the way I am calm when shopping. I don’t know how or why I’m like that, but it’s partly because I can really focus in on something and the world goes away. Whatever is troubling you, that all disappears. Plus, when you’re cooking for friends or partners or family, it’s a lovely thing to present something delightful.


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