When I first met Brad Holdgrafer last year, it was as though I’d known him for years. Brad and his wife, Jenna, are the individuals behind one of my favorite homegoods shops in Los Angeles, Formerly Yes. In getting to know him, I am so moved by his passion in design and his discerning eye for art direction. Having recently relocated to the west coast, I am fortunate to have him closer and to feed off his energy. Below are a few questions from a recent conversation.
I admire Formerly Yes for it’s strong vision and curation of well-made essentials. Your mission statement is a store “for people who want to buy less, but better.” How do you execute this vision? What is your approach?
We try and execute that vision not only in the quality of products we carry or the aesthetics, but also its function. We’ve found that if you strip away a product to it’s basic function, and make that product well, it’s general aesthetic all sits very well together. No matter the year it was made, the country it was designed in, or even the culture it was designed for. We try and find products that fit that mold, we tried to design a web store that feels as stripped away as possible but still puts products and a customers experience first, a retail store that treats its product like museum pieces that are made to be used and customer service that’s very honest and warm, and as we push Formerly Yes and start to think about what it looks like to make products, doing it in a way that’s not just re-designing something for the sake of re-designing it, but what can we make that makes living a little better.
What has been your favorite experience in opening the shop?
I think my favorite experience is a pretty simple one. It’s finally being able to take something my wife and I are deeply passionate and turning that something into a reality. Knowing what we want that something to look like, have a vision for it, and being able to take small steps towards that vision everyday.
What has been the biggest challenge?
The biggest challenge is also knowing what we want it to look like, having a vision for it, and not always having the resources to take steps towards the vision everyday. We are trying to build Formerly Yes as responsible as possible. Believing in good design also means treating running a good business, like good design. To us that means being responsible both financially, with our own time and other people’s time too. I still have an entire other full time job to help build Formerly Yes into the brand we want. Jenna works the shop every single day by herself, runs the numbers and after hours we pack online orders after we close. Anything creative is just extra credit. We are very appreciative of having those things, and honestly it’s not the biggest challenge to have to work hard. I would say the biggest challenge is knowing what we want Formerly Yes to be, not quite getting their yet. The ability to work very hard towards that, is an absolute joy.
What attracted you to Los Angeles? How has LA played a part in the identity of Formerly Yes?
The funny thing about LA is that growing up on the central coast the adults around me would always grumble to me about how bad Los Angeles is. So I always had this preconceived idea about the city. Jenna and I started spending more and more time here while living on the sailboat down in Newport, and grew to love the different neighborhoods. Every time we visited it felt like a new city with it’s own culture made up of hundreds of little cultures. When we finally moved here a few years ago, we knew we needed to open Formerly Yes here. As the city keeps growing and growing so did the need for good design. Everything from city structure to the tea kettle on our stove top. That excited us. Downtown has a ton of momentum right now, and as vertical housing becomes more and more prominent in the city so does the need for ways to live better in smaller living spaces.
Los Angeles is very diverse. Every neighborhood has it’s own stories. The best parts of Los Angeles feel like being in another country. You get pockets of culture that all make up one city. At Formerly Yes we try and carry products that also are very diverse. We are made up of some of the best designed products from a bunch of different countries to make up a tiny little store in Downtown Los Angeles.
Do you remember the moment that made you want to do Formerly Yes?
Jenna had always wanted a store and I had always wanted to work for myself. We both knew we made a good team, and knew what kinda store we wanted. We thought we’d finally get around to opening something when we turned 40 or something long after we had kids and they left the house or something. One day after back to back months of 80 hour weeks at work, we decided that if we were going to work that hard for something, it may as well be something we can call our own. So now when we pull those kind of hours we have no one to blame but ourselves.
What are some of your biggest sources of inspiration?
Love finding inspiration in other areas of design. Inspiration in web design from a good city structure, architecture inspired by furniture, etc. etc. Spending time with people who have a vision, or even those who don’t but have an itch for something. Also, finding a design problem that needs some solving. But, above all, some of the best inspiration comes from just sitting down and getting to work. ■
954 S Broadway, Los Angeles, CA 90015
Interviewed in March, 2016