Studio Visit
Kneeland Co

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


Many of Williams’s finds are used by companies for embellishments: beadwork for a bridal gown, say, or an embroidered handbag panel. Recently Williams began designing her own samples as well. “I have them made in India because no one else can equal their craftsmanship or their supplies. Leopard-print sequins?”


A sketch for a new collection of fall swatches, inspired by Moroccan wedding blankets. "It's going to have patches of sequins and all this crazy yarn. I was so inspired by the insane color palettes there," she says.


More textiles from Morocco, where they would be used as pillowcases or cut up for chair cushions. A client might use it exclusively for the diamond pattern, but Williams wouldn't necessarily know: She takes pictures of everything she sells but doesn't ask that clients send her images of how her merchandise is used.


The backside of the same pillowcase shows the kind intricate craftsmanship that goes into each piece.


Often the thrill of the hunt is enough for Williams; she rarely keeps items for herself and says that when she does, they're more often leather goods or intricate pieces of jewelry. The rare exception? This rug, which she bargained for in Fez, now calls the Kneeland studio floor home.


In Morocco, Williams met up with a friend who lived there; having someone on the ground eventually led her to the caves of Immouzer and the village of Sefrou, where she encountered a women’s collective crafting these necklaces from caftan buttons. “It’s not like you can go as a tourist to these places, so I felt really lucky.”


The caftan necklaces were picked up by Anthropologie, a longtime client. The chain also often buys vintage jewelry from Williams for sale at its flagship stores and dedicated accessory boutiques.


Vintage Indian sari fabrics from the 1960s. "I lost my mind when I saw these. I could see it being used as a pillow or a dress or even just for color inspiration. A lot of clients will look at something and can see immediately what it will be."


Antique wallpapers purchased from a flea market in Paris.


1960s gouache artwork, also found at a flea market in Paris.


1920s decorative medallions. "I got these from a woman at the Rose Bowl Flea Market. She'd been married to an antique collector for years, and when they divorced he let her take everything. I thought I could sell each page; no one would want the whole book. But she wouldn’t go down on price for the longest time!"


Embroidery heat transfers from the 1930s, from the same booth at the Rose Bowl Flea Market.


Williams also sources garments, from sources as varied as a secret raghouse in Los Angeles to a fishing village in Turkey. This vintage embroidered butterfly caftan from Nigeria, says Williams, would be perfect for knitwear inspiration.


A 1960s vintage velvet skirt with a reindeer print from Italy.


"Sometimes I'll find an amazing dress with a beautiful pattern but a gnarly silhouette, so I'll just cut it up for print inspiration," says Williams. This dress is made from vintage Indian and Uzbeki fabrics.


1872 lithograph from a flea market in Paris. Kneeland Co is always open for appointments in Los Angeles, and Williams will be in New York from July 18–21. Email joanna [at] kneelandco [dot] com for an appointment.