If you’ve ever spent an afternoon gazing out the window, futilely hoping that design inspiration might strike, you’ve probably wished you knew someone like Joanna Williams. As the proprietor of Kneeland Co., a Los Angeles–based, appointment-only studio that sources vintage prints, textiles, garments, and jewelry for the fashion and interiors industries, it’s Williams’s job to scour the globe, bringing back creative inspiration for sale. In Williams’s world, a book of early 20th-century decorative medallions, snagged from Pasadena’s legendary Rose Bowl Flea Market, might serve as inspiration for a new tile pattern, and the striped detail from a Moroccan wedding blanket might one day mutate into a maxidress for Anthropologie. As glamorous a life as that might sound, Williams concedes that it’s still a lot of hard work: “You’re definitely always searching and looking, trying to meet the right people, and making sure you don’t get ripped off,” she told me when I visited her new Atwater Village studio earlier this month.
But while Kneeland Co. is only a year old, Williams already had many of the contacts that would make her solo venture a success. Long obsessed with images — she has thick binders of tear sheets and editorials dating back to the ’90s, stacked tidily in bookcases — she started out in advertising back home in Texas and moved into styling once she’d relocated to Los Angeles. The turning point came with a job at Stylesight, the trend-forecasting service for whom she was a West Coast and South America correspondent for three years. “It was incredible because I got to travel a lot,” she says. “But I eventually burned out on the trend thing. I’d been collecting things for so long, and I’d been shopping vintage since junior high. I was good at finding amazing things. I’d been working a lot with Steve Madden at the time and I saw the print studios that would come into the office. I thought I could do that, but on a different level.”
Williams wasn’t born into a creative family, but Kneeland — her mother’s maiden name — channels the adventurous spirit of three generations. Her grandfather was a Merchant Marine who built an 85-foot schooner and sailed around the world; her mother grew up in a strict Catholic household in Mexico City and when she and her sisters turned 18, they fled to different parts of the world. “I have one aunt in Gautemala, another in Bali, and one in Germany,” Williams says. Which means that while Williams takes one major scouting trip per year, she can often turn jaunts to see the family — like an upcoming reunion in Mexico City — into work trips. When I visited, she had just returned from Morocco, armed with piles of rugs, blankets, and necklaces, handcrafted by a women’s cooperative from caftan buttons, that were recently picked up by Anthropologie. Williams shared some of her recent finds with Sight Unseen in the slideshow at right as well as a list of her top five secret sources for uncovering vintage finds below:
1. Estate sales in Pasadena, California. I search high and low on Craig’s List, but usually I find out by word of mouth.
2. Long Beach Flea Market in Long Beach, California, held the third Sunday of every month
3. Value Village thrift stores in Houston, Texas as well as Vancouver, Canada
4. The small fishing village of Kas on the Mediterranean coast of Turkey
5. Paris’s Clignancourt Flea Market