Downtown Los Angeles with all of its gleam and glory of the golden days, is not your average city center. The streets err more on rough around the edges with sights, sounds, and smells diverging for your attention. But part of its charm is the beauty in the chaos. Broadway, a street once heralded for its architectural beauty houses the largest concentration of historic theaters in America. Beyond the colorful signs of grand archways of old movie theaters stands Formerly Yes, a thoughtful, curated design shop stocked with products that embody both form and function. In a neighborhood where it’s easier to locate counterfeit Rolex than a timeless tea kettle, by embodying good design principles, Formerly Yes acts both as a response and solution to retail in Los Angeles. We spoke to founders Jenna and Brad about their design principles and what it's like to live on a boat.
Tell us a little bit about your background.
Jenna: I studied fashion in college and knew that I wanted to own my own store someday. My background is in retail while Brad worked in advertising. One day, we decided we wanted to come together to create a business. Formerly Yes was a way for us to collaborate, and to take my operational, retail experience to merge with Brad’s eye for design. We both share a mutual love for design, and in that space we created Formerly Yes together.
Brad: Jenna’s background is in fashion and women and gender studies. My background is in graphic design.
How did you guys meet?
Brad: I was involved in the early start of Krochet Kids intl. in the mid 2000's. In 2010 Jenna came out to help with PR and marketing and we met that summer. She was coming from Chicago and I loved Wilco at the time. The first time I met her I asked if she liked Wilco, she said no and we didn't speak again for a couple weeks. Luckily we got over it ;)
Oddly enough a year earlier we were both in a small town in Africa at the same time for different reasons and had no idea. I often wonder if we saw each other.
What inspired the name Formerly Yes?
Initially our name was just "Yes". We always said that"yes" was the answer to the question: Can we find a way to blend work, life, and be creative together. Unfortunately, in our first couple weeks we ran into a couple other Yes's, and we decided that as time went on, it was in our best interest to change the name. We didn't want to lose what we had already built so we just made something fun of it. And Yes became Formerly Yes. We love the change, it's a helpful reminder of the way we want to run Formerly Yes together. A constant growing experiment, that has mistakes, evolves, and teaches us about ourselves.
What set of decisions led you to open Formerly Yes?
Jenna: While working in retail and Brad in advertising, I had a dream to own a store. One day, we wondered, why don’t we pull together our own ideas? Originally I thought we would do something in apparel, but with Brad’s involvement we decided to focus on products with functionality. Having lived on a sailboat, we experienced how much good design mattered. It just made sense. We wanted to create a unisex shopping experience that everyone would feel comfortable with. It’s neither feminine nor masculine. Initially I thought we would run an apparel store, but in our conversations, we realized that the things we value the most are timeless classic pieces, and it made sense to apply that to the way we run our shop. We don’t buy things all the time, we don’t cycle through products or mark things down, because we are bringing in products that are good and timeless.
Brad: I worked at Wieden and Kennedy 12 in Portland over 7 days a week with 15 hour days making ads. I would see Jenna maybe for an hour a day at a time. It caused some serious strain on our relationship, and it felt like our priorities were mixed up. So we decided to change. We moved to LA, where I started work at Media Arts Lab on Apple advertisements. I realized it became the same work I did at WK, with grueling hours and it didn't take long to realize it was the advertising industry as a whole. So we started making plans for a way out. We wanted to find a way to blend work and life, and have freedom in our creativity. If we were going to pull 80 hour weeks it might as well be for ourselves. Formerly Yes became the combined efforts of the things we love.
You mentioned that you had previously lived on a boat. How did that experience inform your lifestyle?
Brad: We had a little 1986 Islander Freeport Sailboat that we called our first home together. In a space that small, you have to be very intentional about the things you buy. Everything has to have a place and a specific function. It makes you care about a few good things. It made us look at products differently. Could we just lift the anchor and go or did we need to put things away first? Everything became a bit more special, something we wanted to keep, it changed the definition of "timeless" design for us.
Was location an important decision in choosing your storefront?
Brad: We looked for a long time at a bunch of different places before finally landing on Broadway in Downtown Los Angeles. We didn't have a huge budget. So we knew if we could find a place with cheaper rent we could afford to make the space really special. We found this space just driving by, it had a tiny little for rent sign on it. We met with Alma next door soon after and were so inspired by their process and vision of the area and left knowing this was our space. Since then, we've made Downtown our home. We live a couple blocks from the store. We can walk back and forth everyday, stopping by our neighbors shops and restaurants. It feels like something special down here that we are very proud to be a part of.
Why downtown LA?
Jenna: I grew up in Chicago, so I’ve always been drawn to urban neighborhoods. What I love about Downtown is the walkability of this area. I love that there are people here who really care about good design and the history of Broadway. We felt that Downtown could use a shop where people could purchase home goods and gifts, and we wanted to fulfill the need of that.
Brad: Downtown Los Angeles has it's problems. Parking, homelessness, the sidewalks, endless construction, traffic, etc. Where they're problems, there is a need for solutions. Can we, a small design centric home and office goods store be a small part of that solution? We are certainly going to try and be.
In an age of over saturation and noise, you and Brad have created one of the most cohesive shops in LA - how do you set yourself apart from other retail shops in the city?
Jenna: I guess what sets us apart is our message.. I think a lot of stores are interested in trends, but we’re really just interested in classic, timeless, pieces. We care about design and what goes into each product, and we want to portray that story all the way through. We keep the shop simple to allow the products speak for themselves. We also wanted to show that you have access to things from all over the world, whether it’s an item made in the US, Japan or Scandinavia. We have stuff designed in the 1950’s sitting next to products designed today. It’s exciting to show what good design can do, and we aim to be authentic in sharing those stories.
Brad: Aw, thank you. Our biggest difference is that we don't focus on carrying products that are design to be sold, but used. We are very knowledgable (though constantly learning everyday, even from our customers) about our products, the designers, and brands we carry. Every customer who comes in is going to meet us here, working everyday to make this little dream of ours a reality. That feeling is something we want people to feel when they come in. This is our life and we want people to come and be a part of it.
What is your buying process like?
Jenna: It’s really organic. There’s not a timeline, so we don’t mark things down on sale. We buy things that we love, things that we believe in, and if the customers are enjoying it, I’m happy to cater to that. Hasami is something that people come in to buy and are slowly building their collection. It’s something we’re going to stock all year. For example, the tea kettle is something we will carry from until the end of time. There’s no other tea kettle in our mind that we need to own. To refresh, we’ll trickle in books and magazines and any new brands that we stumble upon through our travels.
What do you look for in the brands you carry?
Jenna: We look at their overall vision, the way things are made, we look at sustainability. How it’s made, where it’s made and then we look at: is it long lasting?
What role does design play in your life?
Jenna: If something is designed correctly, you won’t even notice that it’s there. Functionality and design go hand in hand. And if something is designed poorly, then it will constantly be popping up to remind you. We hope that Formerly Yes, with it’s clean lines and curated inventory allow you to come off the streets of Downtown and offer a sense of peace. Good design is there to give you a sense of ease. It can be a therapy.
Brad: We’d argue, just about everything. Good design is more than a useful and beautiful product. It's being good to each other, it's constantly learning, it's sitting down and eating breakfast together, it's taking public transit to the park. If theirs something in our life that feels like it could be designed better, we work towards it.
What design principles do you live by?
Jenna: Dieter Rams 10 Core Principles, and less is more.
Brad: It’s evolving everyday and different for both of us. We learn from each other's point of view. The shop lives by Sori Yanagi's quote "products should be made to be used, not sold". We challenge that with pricinples by Bruno Munari, blend it with Dieter Rams ten commandments, and shake it with a bit of our own. Ask us again in 50 years, hopefully we will have defined our own by then ;).
Are you a minimalist?
What is your vision on the future of retail?
Brad: The future future??
Everyone will have a 3D printer in their home and office to print the latest trends without creating waste. Say, you are having a dinner party for 16 guests. Someone will go to their printer, buy a design of a dish set from the latest hip designer (most likely subscription based, ha.), print it all out and after dinner melt the molds all down again until the next time they're needed. Same for tools, furniture, office supplies, etc. Less storage, means smaller houses, means more humans living and working together. Community will be made at home again, not at the mall.
What publications are inspiring you right now?
Monocle: Dense, global, a bit high brow, but lovely studies on culture and cities. (even though they left us out of their city guide, we still love you ;))
Truck Nest: A book about an endlessly curious furniture maker and his family in Osaka Japan. This book inspired us deeply to open Formerly Yes and it's constantly something we go back to for inspiration.
The New York Times: Talk about a place to find inspiration. Every article full of bad news is an opportunity to make something good.
The Iteration of Color: Took me far too long in my designing career to read this book.
Kinfolk: What used to be a publication that had started to pigeon hole itself into it's own self inspired aesthetic has made a brave evolution into fashion, design, art, and culture that I look forward to reading every issue.
City you've traveled to that has most inspired you:
Jenna: It has got to be Tokyo, because everything is so efficient.
Brad: Tokyo, because it's perfect and Los Angeles because it's not.
Last but not least: What are 5 of your favorite places in LA? (Downtown or beyond.)
Lasa: In the Far East Plaza in China town.
Vista Hermosa Park: Secret Oasis in DTLA
The Pacific Ocean
Mexicali for the best flour tortilla tacos!