Briton finds comfort in arty abode and architectural simplicity
Linda Johnson has crafted a soulful home where architectural simplicity and an arty vibe inspired by Chinese culture and design go hand in hand.
Johnson, originally from Manchester, the United Kingdom, moved to Shanghai in 1998 after teaching law at Hong Kong University for a decade. When a chance to open a gallery in Shanghai emerged, she jumped at it. Her passion came to life in 2001 as the founder and curator of Madame Mao's Dowry, which values the design of modern China. After more than two decades of running the design store, Johnson now has an online shop (WeChat account: MadameMaosDowry 毛太设计) and a studio tucked away on Julu Road.
Johnson naturally has an eye for exploring beauty, from provincial furniture and antique stones to contemporary Chinese designs. She has a passion for discovery and, above all, a taste for the unpretentious. These aesthetics apply to her four-level lane house on the quiet, leafy Shaoxing Road.
A decade ago, she and her husband wanted to purchase a property in the city that they could design and decorate to their own taste and style. The house's history is also a draw, as they wanted an old lane house that is typical of Shanghai.
They found one with a courtyard garden that had space for four bedrooms and met their budget.
"It didn't have too many historic features that would be hard to incorporate into a modern home. Besides, it's located on one of our favorite streets, Shaoxing Road, with abundant natural light in most of the rooms," Johnson said.
She added that the best thing about living in the neighborhood is that it is both quiet and convenient to the areas where the couple spends most of their time.
When they took over the house, it was being used as shared commercial space.
"We changed almost everything that the rules allowed us to change. So the exterior is the same and we preserved the staircase, but we did a lot of work improving the strength of the structure and making the house much more energy-efficient," she said.
In the redesign process, Johnson transformed the home into a modern, open, efficient home with Chinese characteristics, especially in the materials they selected.
"I would say the highlights of this home is the use of space and light," she said.
The ground floor is a single open area with light from the courtyard and the under-stairs areas are all used for storage for appliances. All the windows are double glazed and the walls are insulated to make it a very energy-efficient home.
"We have a lot of artworks so all the walls are kept neutral and as high as possible to maximize natural light. We paired this with natural materials such as wood floors and cabinetry, floor-to-ceiling wardrobes with doors covered in natural suede fabric, as well as built-in shelving and beds to maximize the feeling of space," Johnson said.
"Home means everything to me," she said. "We created this home after our three daughters left for university and we made it suitable for us to use as a couple but adaptable for a family when the girls come to visit."
Two rooms upstairs are multi-use spaces which become bedrooms when the girls are home. When they are not in Shanghai, the rooms are transformed into work spaces for the couple.
The ground floor is the area they use the most, and its open kitchen has everything within easy reach as Johnson loves to cook. "I also like to be sociable so its openness allows me to cook and socialize at the same time.
"Our home is not about an identifiable style but to reflect our aesthetics," Johnson said.
With her eyes for design and beauty, this is something Johnson is no stranger to – she specialized in selecting fun design objects, and adding her personal touch to them.
The design features an eclectic mix of old and new, as well as some energetic stamps of color. Johnson loves to mix high and low, vintage and contemporary, modern and old-world design.
Several antique pieces of furniture complement the contemporary art on the walls.
"All of our furniture collection, apart from two sofas, come from my store Madame Mao's Dowry, so it is all antique and in provincial style," she said.
Johnson pointed to her favorite pieces: the golden brick tables her store makes from authentic Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) bricks found in Suzhou back in 2003 through an antique dealer. The bricks each took several months to make, using traditional methods and were fired in specially designed kilns.
"It's a joy to me to rescue these bricks and recycle them into beautiful coffee tables which we make use of everyday. They add history, beauty and character to our home," she said.
All of the artworks are from China as well.
"I began collecting Chinese contemporary art in 2002 and have many pieces by Shanghai local artists as well as artists from other parts of China. Our living room is dominated by three of my favorite Shanghai artists – He Saibang, Qin Yifeng and Pan Jianfeng."
"I always look for good work that has something to say about contemporary China, literally or metaphorically, rather than work that is directed at the overseas market. I'm also particularly drawn to conceptual artists who are always building on their work, having new ideas and mastering new ways of expressing them," she said.
Her home displays quite a few works in different media from women artists.
"The market, like everywhere, is dominated by men and, as with all professional work, women have to struggle so much more for recognition. I think all of these factors leads me to women artists making good, meaningful work. The work will often have a much clearer trace of women's lives and their struggles within it, and as 'women hold up half the sky,' an honest collection needs that balance."