'Man Shops Globe': An Inventory of Malarkey

By Hank Stuever
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 7, 2009

In "Man Shops Globe," Keith Johnson is the man, and the globe exists mainly to cough up 19th-century settees and sideboards, handcrafted sparkly objects, Uzbek suzani fabrics and all the other exotic accessories that wind up in the 120 Anthropologie clothing stores in the United States and Britain.

This eight-week series, premiering Wednesday on the Sundance Channel, follows longtime Anthropologie buyer Johnson to France, in the first episode, and then on to South Africa, Turkey and other far-flung locales in the weeks ahead, where his eye ceaselessly searches for "scale" and "a big statement," he says; "something enormous" and "important"; elusive, distressed objects that are "huge, incredible."

We are told over and over how exciting this is, traveling beyond the mere state of retail inventory and into the higher realm of object curation; how Johnson's "heart stops beating" when he senses a find around the corner in a Parisian flea market or an Istanbul bazaar.

"Man Shops Globe" tries to come off with "Amazing Race" urgency tempered by the cool style of a Tim Gunn type, but Johnson's suitcase (an old-fashioned hard-sided piece of luggage with leather straps) is more interesting than he is. Johnson needn't be another reality-TV narcissist, but he lacks the personality around which to build engaging TV.

Maybe that's because the mistitled "Man Shops Globe" earnestly desires to be about the finds instead of the finder, which turns the show into a protracted ad for Anthropologie. We are searching for the big, one-of-kind furniture that populates Anthropologie stores (it can be yours, for mere thousands of dollars), but we're also searching for the small and the cute, keeping in mind the pretty, pretty Anthropologie women who loyally shop there. The chain store wants them to be forever young, thin, original, creative and all but churning their own butter.

In other words, Anthropologie is a world populated by women who want to be the actress Zooey Deschanel -- bangs, wide eyes, fresh flowers in their bicycle baskets, their beds spread with bird-motif sheets, and an artisanal bun always in their oven. But we've all walked around in an Anthropologie store, which is corporately owned by Urban Outfitters (Johnson is the life partner of Urban Outfitters' CEO). Its loveliness can bring on a conflicted case of consumer envy along with a case of shopaholic hives. "Man Shops Globe" gives Anthropologie's overpriced inventory an authentic sheen, but it's also suffused with the very sort of twee malarkey that led the American shopper to a ruinous fantasy.

Johnson has nothing to say about that, except to articulate the store's utter devotion to its aesthetic ideal, which is: Almost anything goes. "It's almost like you can put anything and anything together," he marvels, standing beneath the frenzied, patterned array of tile work inside Istanbul's 15th-century Topkapi Palace.

The world flashes by as merely a place to plunder and talk down in price, if respectfully so; elusive objects must please or delight Johnson in a particular way, which is not easy. He's seen it all. In Africa, everything looks too much like "traditional African handicraft -- it's difficult to get excited about it," because it looks, frankly, like the giraffes and masks you could find in most Adams Morgan apartments of the young and worldly.

In France, Johnson meets "Madame Flea" in a rural antique shop and voilĂ : an intricate, white, metal bed frame that "screams French, '30s glamour. It hits every button right." It hits every button so right that Johnson has it cloned in factories and sent to Anthropologies in malls hither and yon, screaming its originality to the masses.

Man Shops Globe (30 minutes) premieres Wednesday at 10 p.m. on the Sundance Channel.

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