I sat down with my friend Sebastian Kaufmann to talk about his store, Kaufmann Mercantile, his philosophy behind choosing products, and the theme that we are constantly reminded of in our daily lives, the virtue of choosing well made over disposable. Kaufmann, born in Frankfurt, Germany, approaches the store with exacting high standards that are present in everything in the store: Timeless. Classic. Durable.
As as supplement to the store, there’s a blog written by Kaufmann and several other contributors (one of them, David Vega, shown below with Kaufmann), focusing on utilitarian household items, their materials and their construction techniques. The message is consistent: Well designed and constructed products will stand the test of time. It doesn’t have to be the most expensive choice, but it should be well made.
David Vega, left, and Sebastian Kaufmann, right.
BLTD: I remember a couple years ago before you actually opened KM, you were talking to me about opening a store and the very particular aesthetic you were going for. Can you tell me a little more your inspiration for KM?
One was specialty stores that used to exist 100 or so years ago, where salespeople were knowledgeable and took responsibility for what they sold. I want to bring these old values back to modern day shopping. I like to combine contrasts. Environmentally-conscious with luxury; vintage and new; beauty with utility. I’m also inspired by the movement of artisans towards real craftsmanship. I want to support people working with their hands again and creating things. An economy can’t live on ATM fees.
BLTD: Can you tell me a little about the selections?
The starting point for all our products is long-lasting quality. But the list of criteria is long, choosing a product takes time and there are a lot of things to consider. Among a lot of other things, I think about the way something looks and works, the materials it is made of, what makes it unique, who makes it and how. I’m happy if something fits the bill, and I add it to the store right away, no matter what it is: a pair of wooden snowshoes (handmade in Minnesota from raw hide and local trees), a wallet (handmade in Tokyo from deerskin leather and organic cotton) or a football (handmade in New Jersey). This is why our product range is so wide.
BLTD: How would you describe your design style?
I enjoy design that looks good and works well. I like a mix of materials, and materials are usually also the first thing I’m interested in. I also like balance between simplicity and complexity. But again, quality is my focus. KM often forces me to stretch my own sense of taste, because quality can be more important than aesthetics.
Stronghold Denim Apron, featured with other products from Kaufmann Mercantile
BLTD: What items in your life do you find you can’t live without?
There’s nothing I couldn’t leave behind if I had to. But I do enjoy the freedom of modern technology. I love traveling and the internet, my iPhone and laptop allow a flexibility that was unthinkable for any generation before ours.
BLTD: What would you say is the best value for the money item available at KM?
Value for money is what KM is really all about. We think that every item you buy should be a long term investment. For example, $59 for a pair of scissors might seem a lot. In fact you’ll have a hard time finding scissors for more than $30 anywhere in this country, even at art supply stores. But the Dovo scissors we sell aren’t made with cheap plastic handles in a low-standards factory. You won’t have to replace them when they get wobbly, because that will never happen. They are handmade in Germany and so sharp, it’s fun to cut. Your kids will still be using your Dovo scissors after they’ve buried you. That’s why $59 is a great value.
BLTD: What’s the hardest thing to keep in stock?
Two things: the canning jars and the flasks. The flasks are made of pewter by a company in England. They’re beautiful and sleek and keep you from looking like a wino when drinking alcohol on-the-go. They’re also good gifts, there should probably be one in every inside suit pocket in America. The canning jars are all-glass. Their mechanism makes canning feel a bit like a science experiment, which is fun. But their proportions and construction are great to look at, so you end up using them for storing and organizing all sorts of things.
To get more information, visit Kaufmann Mercantile.