Conversations around Los Angeles these days tend to veer towards the topic of the city being in the midst of a creative renaissance. New eateries, retail stores, and community-driven events are popping up daily, though with the influx of development has also come an overlap of ideas, often resulting in the same experience from one restaurant or store to the next. Even with something new to captivate an Angeleno’s attention on any given week, it feels somewhat rare to stumble upon a space that feels completely unique in its concept, and puts as much as of an emphasis on customer service as it does its offerings. Enter, Formerly Yes.
My first visit to the space caught my attention not only for its meticulous curation of design-minded products, but also for its unique location, tucked away on a quiet corner on South Broadway, and for the infectious energy of its co-owner, Jenna Holdgrafer. The store feels a bit like a best-of-the-best from every museum gift shop I’ve ever visited, and offers beautiful home goods ranging from glassware and literature, to kitchen essentials and office supplies. Suffice to say, the experience made an impact, and the store has stuck in my mind ever since as an example of retail done right. We recently had a chance to sit down with Brad Holdgrafer — Jenna’s husband — to discuss the story behind Formerly Yes, life on a boat, and how meeting your heroes is better than you might imagine.
1. Your store is such a wonderful addition to the thriving Downtown LA environment. Can you tell us a little bit about your background and why you decided to open up a retail space?
Thank you! My (Brad) background is in graphic design, and Jenna’s is in management and customer service.
Before the retail space, Formerly Yes was online only. We had the entire inventory in our one bedroom house, and did everything from there. Being ‘online only’ was great — the freedom, the hours — but it was missing a way to interact with people. We didn’t feel like we were a part of or bringing any value to the idea of good design in Los Angeles. The retail space was a way for us to start to become a part of the identity, a place to go everyday, an excuse to design a space, practice design in different mediums, and a place for customers to be hands-on with the product. It’s pretty much become our home.
2. We love the overall ethos that your store supports. Was there a specific experience or moment that helped shape your idea of buying less, but buying better?
When we first got married, we lived on a small sailboat. Our time on the boat really gave us an understanding of what functional design looks like. If the product doesn’t serve a function on a boat, there’s no room for it on the boat. Applying that thinking now that we live back on land has had a huge impact on how we live. That, plus studying designers like Sori Yanagi, Jasper Morrison, and Dieter Rams has shaped how not only making it functional, but also beautiful adds to the life of the product in someones home.
3. The design of your space perfectly mirrors your mission statement with its open floor plan and minimal approach to displaying product. Was it difficult to design a retail space that encapsulated the notion of buying less, while still making the store feel warm and inviting?
It was a ton of pressure to be honest. We didn’t take the challenge lightly, and it’s so easy to overthink something like this. We knew we’d be shelving some of our design heroes products. So when we approached the design of the space, we wanted to treat it like a product. A product that was designed to showcase products. To warm people’s experience, we make sure that either Jenna or myself is always at the shop; we also have a cute little dog named Ernest that immediately breaks the ice, and if that doesn’t work, a little D’Angelo on the speakers does the trick.
4. We’ve noticed that many stores these days no only sell products, but also foster a sense of community by hosting launch parties, pop-ups and workshops. Is this an important element to Formerly Yes? Do you find it challenging to create a community in such a sprawling and evolving city?
We love that other stores do this, and so many stores in Los Angeles do it better than we ever would. If I’m being completely honest here, we aren’t really event people. We’ve never really enjoyed going to events personally, so doing them at Formerly Yes always felt a bit off. If it’s a friend, we love hosting, but in terms of marketing, we knew we could find other ways to connect with people.
5. Lastly, what are five of your favorite people, places or things that are currently influencing Formerly Yes?
I’ve have to say the food scene in LA is a huge inspiration right now — it embodies the diversity and creative spirit of Los Angeles. Mexico, Central America, and South America, and the influence it has on Los Angeles. Our community of friends who are photographers, architects, chefs, designers, writers, all doing something, involved, and loving this city. In this climate, writers like Ta-Nehisi Coates give us perspective into a world we would be naïve to say we understand. This is immensely more important than Formerly Yes, but we make it a priority to continue to read, recognize, listen, learn, and participate.
I had no formal education in design, so every one of my design heroes was a professor to me. Reading their books and practicing their methods was the only way I learned. I recently had the opportunity to have lunch with Jasper Morrison in London. I was so nervous. They say never meet one of your heroes, but that’s never been true to me. Meeting Jasper showed me how important it is to put your personality into your work. He’s a great industrial artist and an even better person.