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The whimsy of decoupage artist John Derian

Putting it together: The art of John Derian
Putting it together: The art of John Derian 05:25

"What's Old Is New" is the principle that guides the craftsman who turns classic prints into... well, we'll let Erin Moriarty of "48 Hours" explain:

John Derian is on a treasure hunt in New York City.

"You never know -- it's like making a new discovery," he said, entering a century-old establishment on the Lower East Side named, aptly enough, The Old Print Shop.

He'll spend hours digging through piles of 18th and 19th century etchings and lithographs.

John Derian looking for inspiration at The Old Print Shop in New York City. CBS News

"There's something about the charm, the way things are rendered," he said.

And what does Derian do with these expensive images? He cuts them up -- turning these long-forgotten pictures into 21st century collectibles.

Instead of a brush, this artist's tool is a pair of scissors. CBS News

Moriarty asked, "Are you a collagist? Are you an artist? Are you an artisan?"

"It's so weird, sometimes I don't really know what to call myself," Derian replied. "I just love sharing all this stuff."

Evident in bowls, plates, paperweights sold in his own shops, and at more than 600 stores around the world.

John Derian collectibles at his Lower East Side store. CBS News

"It's sort of like reverse painting," he said. "You'll have one image that goes on first, and then behind it is another image." 

With the same precision that Derian selects his patterns, his hand-picked staff of artisans follows his vision ("We have to draw a little diagram of where it goes on and what piece goes on first," Derian explained), gluing high-quality prints of the original images to various pieces of glassware.

Every piece reflects Derian's unique sense of whimsy.

"I think it's super-funny that it's, like, a bat that has a human face!" he said of one old print now gracing a dish ... and there's the couple clothed in pea pods. 

These old images take on new life as John Derian dishes. CBS News

There are more traditional images, of course. "Horses are popular," he said.

So what doesn't sell as well? "People."

Derian, now 55, grew up in Watertown, Massachusetts, getting lost in old books and movies.

"Did you ever think when you were growing up that this is what you'd be doing?" asked Moriarty.

John Derian. CBS News

"No. I'm the youngest of six. And I was sort of a freak because I was the quiet one that made things, And my dad was, like, 'What do we do with him?'"

"I get the impression they really didn't really understand what you were doing?"

"Yeah, in my mid-twenties, my dad had this idea that I could lease a milk truck and deliver milk somehow," Derian said. "Like, he was kind of very clueless to what I did, and who I was."

As a young man, he did study art for a bit … painted and collected buttons. Lots of buttons.

He showed Moriarty his stash of buttons -- filling five suitcases.

"They look like gems," said Moriarty. "So, you're still thinking about doing something with all these buttons?"

"They're in the back of my brain, yeah," he replied.

Bunches and bunches of buttons. CBS News

And what flickers in Derian's brain could fill rooms -- and in fact does. Rooms inside three side-by-side Manhattan stores. The first one opened in 1995.

Everything here is handmade.

"Do some people just come in here and just look?" Moriarty asked.

"It's fine with me. I think just looking is great, I really do," he replied.

That may be all you can afford to do, with paperweights selling for $60. 

Paperweights. CBS News

And every object is placed just so. "I will go in there and move something an inch," Derian said. "It is part of my life. I live sort of in those stores, in a way, like my home."

He's not kidding -- he lives right above one of his shops, where he turned an old cabinet into the entrance doorway, and replaced a wall with a wooden structure that is 250 years old. "I had this wall in storage for, like, 16 years and when I got the space, it fit it perfectly," he said.

A wall installation at John Derian's home. CBS News

In 2016, Derian collected the images he loves most and put them in a book, published by Artisan.


And he says, it's just fine if you want to cut it up. "Yes, please, go right ahead and do it!" he said. "I hope that people will keep one book for themselves and maybe get another one to cut up!"

"When you're suggesting that people actually cut out some of these images, what do you do with 'em?"

"I like the idea of framing them," he said, "and hanging them in a group."

John Derian has discovered the beauty of living in the past. "It's as if someone else planned my life. And I just woke up and I was like, 'Oh, this is my life!' I definitely feel lucky. I don't really know how all this happened."

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