Talking About Design with Formerly Yes

September 10, 2015

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Formerly Yes was created as a brand that hides behind it’s products. Their main focus – great design, and great service. The company started as a website with an array of items that looks more like a museum than a store. A short while ago, Brad Holdgrafer, and his wife Jenna, set out to create a physical version of their website. We’re big fans of the site and we admire their taste in design and couldn’t wait to visit their new shop in Downtown LA.

There are lots of reasons for wanting to open a retail location, but they narrowed it down to wanting a place to live, work, and design together – everyday. Both Brad and Jenna are passionate about product design, function, and living with less. So after taking a few photos of their amazing space, we talked to them about why design plays such an important role in the retail environment.

What are your individual experiences and perspectives on the senses in terms of being a retailer, and how does that play into the products you decide to carry?

When you are a retailer you have an important role in creating a space that not just encourages people to buy things, but feel something personal while interacting with a product. When we select products for the store it doesn’t just matter how it looks, but how it feels in your hands, and most importantly how it makes you feel. Can you learn from it? Does it have a function? Or is it simply beautiful? A majority of the products we carry are all made by designers that I’ve looked up to for a while. People like Morrison, Yanagi, Rams, and Aalto who have dedicated their lives to what it means to live a life dedicated to design. It’s important to find a real emotional attachment to the design of a product because of what it taught me about living better. We can only hope the customers can find the same emotion as they spend time with it.

Jenna’s background is in fashion design which is completely different than product design. In fashion you are constantly finding ways to express yourself through new and different fabrics, colors, and styles. Where in product design your role is to almost avoid those things. Create something that is meant to be used forever. So the store became a balance of the two of us. In fashion you showcase your products from a runway, as the models walk passed seated guests. In retail and product design it’s the opposite. You have guests walking by the product and our job as the shop owner is to watch the customer and see which product peaks their interest, makes their eyes light up, and eventually makes them walk over and pick it up. It’s like the product is almost shopping for the perfect person to come home with. It feels good, when you can find the perfect connection.

The store is very minimal and filled with a lot of light. What sort of reaction were you going for when designing your store?

We get a lot of natural light in the shop. It’s a rare thing to be in a downtown and not have buildings blocking the sun from filling the space with afternoon light. It’s like an entirely different store as the sun sets. Makes you look at the products differently, and really changes the lines in the store. It’s really almost like having two stores in one.
We designed the space very much from our own aesthetic. It’s not minimal for the sake of being minimal, it’s minimal because that is how a retail experience should be, unobtrusive. For the first time in our lives we had complete freedom in regards to the interior design, and spent countless hours honing in on what we thought would make people feel the most at home. It was important to us to create a space where customers can come in, feel at home, and have space, both physically and visually, to relax. It’s important to feel at home while shopping for your home.

Downtown Los Angeles is in the middle of a visual growth spurt. And with growth spurts you also get a bit of an unorganized mess. Loud trucks, construction, trash, interesting people, and gritty textures. We love the juxtaposition of the interior of the store and the outside of the streets. We intentionally left the space untreated, to add to that juxtaposition. The white oak tables and shelves have no stain and the concrete floors aren’t sealed. It was super important to us to make the space feel as natural as possible as people experienced it. When you look at the concrete floor, you see the concrete floor, not a reflection from the lights above. And when you run your hands over the table, you feel the wood grains on your finger tips without the interruption of stain or sealant. It seems like a rare occasion when you get to experience those materials in their natural state. It feels beautiful.

How do the senses play into the experience of shopping in a retail store versus online?

Online vs. an actual store was always a huge debate for us. Do we push towards progress and do everything online, or is that what progress is. We started on line 6 months before we opened our physical location. We missed not having the ability to interact with our customers. Learn about what they are looking for, and suggest a product for them. See what attracts them, or which ones the pick up and play with. We just were’t getting that from the .com. We could see who looked at what products and how long they stayed on certain pages, but we couldn’t share our passion with them. It’s made all the difference for us, falling in love with the store, and customers being able to experience our brand. People seem to feel more attached to a product they buy in store. Maybe it’s because they get to hold it, and see how it works in first person, so they become a bit attached. It becomes more of a moment. Online is convinent and the future or retail. You can’t argue that. And you still get the feeling of getting the package, opening the box, seeing it in your house and seeing if it works or not on a more personal level. I guess when it really comes down to it, we wanted a place to call home for Formerly Yes, so we made one.

On your website, you mention spending time on a sailboat inspired you to own less. What about that experience led you to that?

Definitely inspired us to own less. On a sailboat you have 36ft to fit your entire life in little cubbies and compartments. We learned very fast not to hold onto things that don’t have a function or are not designed for smaller living. Space became something a product had to earn. It made us appreciate how little you actually need to live happy or be inspired. It really made us realize we didn’t need a bigger house for more stuff, just less stuff. Products designed to allow people to live comfortably in smaller homes is the future for Formerly Yes.

Where else do you go to get inspired?

Restaurants! I think Chef’s are the most inspiring designers, if they even consider themselves that. The freedom they have to experiment with combinations only to have their design be eaten 15 minutes later. We enjoy museums too. Artists get to break the rules that designers make for themselves, we hope to instill some of that in the store. And our home. We have a little home, with a little patio on the hill in Echo Park. But, the best place to get inspired (I think) is in a notebook late in the night after everyone has gone to bed.

Huge thanks to Brad & Jenna for allowing us to come by and talk design. Stop by their shop next time you’re in the area.

Formerly Yes
954 S Broadway
Los Angeles, CA 90015

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