Long-time Shanghai entrepreneur honors designs of modern China

Yang Di
Linda Johnson's passion came to life in 2001 as the founder and curator of Madame Mao's Dowry, valuing the designs of modern China.
Yang Di
SSI ļʱ

Linda Johnson moved to Shanghai in 1998 after teaching law at the University of Hong Kong for a decade. Her passion came to life in 2001 as the founder and curator of Madame Mao's Dowry, valuing the designs of modern China. Johnson now has an online shop and a studio tucked away on Julu Road.

Long-time Shanghai entrepreneur honors designs of modern China

Linda Johnson moved to Shanghai in 1998. Her passion came to life in 2001 as the founder and curator of Madame Mao's Dowry, valuing the designs of modern China.

Before we talk about Madame Mao's Dowry, a design store inspired by the modern history of design in China – would you please introduce yourself?

I'm Linda Johnson. I first came to live in Shanghai in 1998 with my husband and three daughters. As a couple, we had met in Hong Kong in 1986, where we lived and worked for almost 10 years. I was a legal academic in those days and mainly interested in history, society, and the relationship between law and politics. There was a lot for me to think about in the region!

Why, after living in Shanghai for a few years, did you decide to strike out on your own to build up a business celebrating Chinese design?

We moved from London to Shanghai because of my husband's job, not an unusual story! I couldn't teach in a university here so I suggested to an old friend of ours, a Shanghainese artist, that we go into business together. I had an interest in antiques and had done some masters level courses on Chinese ceramics and archaeology, and he had recently established a contemporary art gallery in Shanghai.

We decided that our business should focus on design as there were no design stores in the city, lots of independent designers (local and foreign) with no outlet for their work, and no real appreciation of Chinese design beyond imperial design. We wanted to create an awareness of the historical and social connections within contemporary design in China and the aesthetic values it embodied.

Long-time Shanghai entrepreneur honors designs of modern China

Chinese vintage objects and contemporary designs are well curated inside the studio of Madame Mao's Dowry tucked away on Julu Road (House 6, Lane 820 Julu Road).

What makes Shanghai's business environment so remarkable?

At that time (we opened in 2001) Shanghai was a very different place from how it is today. We established a local small business so regulation was minimal. There were really no bars to opening a business. So set up costs were low, there was an eager international buying public and the promise of a big local customer base around the corner.

What were you trying to bring to the local community?

We wanted to make contemporary Chinese design attractive to international and local customers. So we wanted to use our own stock of vintage objects and provincial furniture to create an environment, a relevant backdrop, to a stable of contemporary designers working in Shanghai. To tell the story of contemporary design in Shanghai.

What are the biggest challenges setting up a business here? How do you stay motivated?

In the early days it was easy to find our own stock as we were focused on vintage objects, provincial furniture, and domestic everyday ceramics, and nobody else was buying those things. But we had a big challenge finding local designers who were building upon their own history, rather than importing popular aesthetics from outside of China. We literally had to find people working in their homes and persuade them to show their work in our space. As time went on designers proliferated and we were selecting from a massive pool but by that stage vintage stuff had become harder and much more expensive to source!

For some people, staffing has been a problem. We were lucky to employ fantastic staff and whilst our store is now very small, the women who work for me now have been with me for 20 years. That really makes the mechanics of the business a lot easier. We are a family and that's wonderful. Staying small has that benefit. We have always ran our business primarily as a social enterprise. We wanted to educate, to increase awareness, to provide a space for designers to be seen, and to provide a stable and pleasant workplace for our staff.

Changes in the market have made everything harder of course. Rents are much higher in the city and Covid, of course, was a killer challenge and unpredictable. I think the key is always to be adaptable. Doing business is an endless challenge when you're a small business.

What was the moment made you most proud?

Everyone likes affirmation for what they do, especially when it comes from people you admire. So having the great British designer Sir Terence Conrad visit us and buy things for his own stores, having the fashion designer John Galliano build a collection around our propaganda mirrors and posters, and having the V&A come to us to find designers for their China Now Exhibition all made me very proud.

Who doesn't want to see their name in Vogue magazine! But, perhaps the absolute best, was having a Shanghainese writer who has dedicated his life to researching and promoting modern design thank me for opening Madame Mao's Dowry and for supporting Chinese design.

Long-time Shanghai entrepreneur honors designs of modern China
Courtesy of Madame Mao's Dowry

The design objects from Madame Mao's Dowry are also available at 820 Julu Pop-up at The Middle House.

What are you working on?

Like everyone in the design field I'm always looking for a fresh idea. At the moment I am somewhat absorbed with mahjong.

My interest of course isn't in the gambling aspect but in the design and adaptation of a leisure activity with a sustained history in China. So I'm building a growing collection of vintage sets and designing bags using vintage fabrics to accommodate them. I'm also working on other products that carry the vintage mahjong theme.

Long-time Shanghai entrepreneur honors designs of modern China
Courtesy of Madame Mao's Dowry

Madame Mao's Dowry launched its own designed mahjong bags using vintage fabrics.

Who is a female role model that inspires you?

There are so many inspirational women, famous and known only to the people around them, it's hard to name just one. For now I'll say Georgia O'Keefe, the American modernist painter who moved beyond her training in fine art to innovate a style and form of painting, lyrical and heavy with sensuality, that was both unique to her and emblematic of modernism. She created something far bigger than herself, she advanced women in art, and she made everyday things iconic. She brought her own innovative style even into her way of living and was thoughtful and intelligent in what she said and wrote about her work and about women in society.

Do you have any advice for female entrepreneurs?

Keep moving forward. It's not enough to have one idea, you need to have an understanding of what you want to achieve but you also need to constantly reassess and take into account all the changing circumstances around you. Have confidence in yourself, and always keep an eye on your customer.

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