John Derian has built a beautiful business with his magpie eye. His decoupage line is built upon lovely snippets from prints, postcards, and other ephemera gleaned at flea markets around the world, and the weathered nineteenth-century furniture and rugs that he brings back from France and Morocco have defined a certain whimsical downtown-uptown elegance over the past two decades (and counting).
With the recent addition of a fourth shop—his first beyond the East Village in New York, if you don’t count the garage space attached to his weekend home in coastal Provincetown, Massachusetts—there’s even more wide-planked floor space to fill with his finds.
And so, several times a year, Derian travels to fairs, markets, and souks for stock and inspiration. As one can imagine, he is not only a seasoned flea-marketer with a well-honed eye—he’ll only pause if a few things wink at him from a booth as he rushes past—he is also an expert packer, of cars and carry-on bags alike.
Like his shops, his approach to travel and sourcing is elegantly eccentric, and always done with a sense of humor and style. We recently sat with him in the parlor of his new West Village store—surrounded by stacks of colorful textiles and rough linens, vases of exotic arrangements, and a three-foot-tall Steiff penguin—to learn more about his travels.
How do you hunt for treasures? My boyfriend says I’m much taller when I’m shopping for antiques because I’m super happy, excited and stand up straight like a little kid. When I go to a big fair for the store, I race through and look for big things, and then I go back for “smalls.” If you go too slow, you just lose all your energy.
What are your favorite flea markets and fairs? There’s a group of them in the South of France over a four-day period, usually in Avignon, Montpellier, and Bezier. In Paris, I always go to the Clignancourt flea market, of course, but Porte de Vanves is my favorite.
How do you know when you’ve found a great booth or shop? You just have to see a couple of things that click with you, and then you move in!
How do you build the rest of your day around sourcing? I try to pace myself and enjoy wherever I am, and try to eat something delicious nearby. At the Clignancourt market in Paris, I like Ma Cocotte restaurant, which is designed by Philippe Starck. It’s really trendy, but they have a good roast chicken and mashed potatoes.
How do you pack for these trips? I can’t openly say that I do much great, but I’m a really good packer. I don’t like wheelies and prefer to carry my bag, so I pack really light. Usually I’ll pack and then unpack and then pack again and see what’s happening. I always make sure to have a hat and a small umbrella, and I check the weather before going to see if I’ll need to bring shoes that can get wet. Then, on the return trip, I’ll make a note about what I didn’t wear, so I’m sure not to pack it again.
Where have you unexpectedly found great things? There’s an antiques co-op in New Bedford, Massachusetts, on the way to my store in Provincetown, where I always find something good.
Where was your last vacation? Miami. We spent a few days at the Standard with friends.
Where will your next vacation be? The Cape.
The thing you can’t travel without? A scarf. Protecting that part of my body always makes me feel safe.
Plane, train, or automobile? I do love a train: it’s comfortable, the view is great, and I can move around and catch up on nothing.
The people you’d most like to sit next to on a long-haul flight? My boyfriend, Stephen Kent Johnson. He’s a natural navigator and stress-free.
What is your in-flight ritual? Fussing with my things, filling my seat with everything I need, getting settled…then redoing it all—like a dog circling its bed, digging, pawing, adjusting until it’s comfortable.
The language you wish you spoke? English. Maybe if I were more secure, I’d mumble less.
When were you happiest on the road? I imagine as a kid I may have had a few happy moments on the way to the Cape. Funnily enough, as an adult, working my way back to my house in Provincetown makes me happy too. I usually take the train and the ferry. Both have great views: the train along the coast and the ferry through the Boston harbor with its tiny islands.
Desert island or downtown? Desert island: I’m too complicated to be around people.
If you could live at any hotel, which would it be? Beldi Country Club in Marrakesh. It has a great pool, a hammam, delicious food, and acres of roses.
What is your room service indulgence? Breakfast. For some reason I need to order the soft-boiled eggs, toast, fruit salad, yogurt, oatmeal, bacon, juice, and coffee.
The strangest place you’ve spent a night? Dow Cottage Inn, Bar Harbor, Maine. Sweet place, but too many ghosts.
What is your favorite market? Any market with the word “flea” in it.
If you could travel to any place in any epoch, which would it be? The eighteenth-century English countryside. As a woman.
What are the show-off spots in your hometown? Delicious Armenian bakeries in Watertown, Massachusetts—especially Massis.
Which places would you happily spend a weekend, a week, a month, and a year? Weekend: Copenhagen. Week: France. Month: Kyoto. Year: Italy.
Your biggest extravagance on the road? Fritos.
Describe a memorable meal from your travels. Juveniles in Paris is right across from where we exhibit on rue Richelieu. The most delicious steak I’ve ever had was there.
Travel hell is? Being stuck on the runway.
Where are you ashamed that you’ve never been? South America.
Three favorite stores on earth? Astier de Villatte in Paris, Tail of the Yak in Berkeley, and…I have to say mine!
Most treasured travel memento? A leather passport holder that my friend, Marrakesh decorator Corinne Bensimon, had made there.
Why do you travel? To experience.
Christine Muhlke is a food consultant and writer currently based in Woodstock, NY. A former editor at The New York Times and Bon Appétit and the founder of the Xtine newsletter, she has written books with chefs Eric Ripert of Le Bernardin, David Kinch of Manresa and Eric Werner of Hartwood Tulum. Her most recent books include Wine Simple with Le Bernardin’s Aldo Sohm and Signature Dishes That Matter.