Long before Sebastian Kaufmann was a top purveyor of heirloom-quality products, he was busy producing ads and music videos for the likes of TV on the Radio, Chris Cornell, and Bad Religion. But four years in, he grew weary of the media game and sold the company, Draw Pictures, launching Kaufmann Mercantile in the fall of 2009. Originally conceived as a blog, the site quickly became a resource on top-grade materials, featuring interviews with pioneering craftsmen making everything from artisan-level hammers to must-have beeswax leather treatments. "I was always in love with well-made things and my shopping habits were much more focused on buying less, but buying better things — always," says Kaufmann, who was living in Los Angeles when he first started the company, which is now located in New York. "There’s so many of these super stores in LA, from Home Depot to Office Depot to Staples, and I was so annoyed that it was so hard to find nice things whether it was products for the office or for gardening. I saw it as an opportunity because I thought other people must be annoyed to not be able to find nice things." Four years on, KM now carries everything from choice grooming and kitchen gear to his first clothing items, curated from the Todd Snyder + Champion collection. As part of their collaboration, Todd selected a group of Kaufmann-endorsed items to be sold at the City Gym store, and Kaufmann will also be with us at the Pop Up Flea in Soho this weekend with some new must-have items.
Pop Up Flea open December 6-8, 82 Mercer Street (between Spring & Broome).
What were the first few things you wanted to sell when you launched the site?
We started the store in summer 2010, but I’d started the blog in October 2009. The store started selling with only eight products. One of them was this Estwing hammer, which we’re still selling today. Very early on I was selling this beeswax leather conditioner. We were selling this stapler very early on. I was really annoyed by office products always breaking.
So what made you go into all these different directions?
When I first started people were like, “What the hell are you thinking? First you should do accessories or something specific.” The idea wasn’t so much about category, but quality no matter what category. So the idea to keep really broad categories was with us from the beginning. Back then the store wasn’t even organized into categories, there wasn’t even a menu, you just showed the eight products. But we’re always growing in size, so we’re always launching new products. Every week we launch six new products.
Do you ever want your own brick and mortar store?
Never say never, but it’s not on our highest agenda right now. But we love working with Todd Snyder, and we’ll also be with you at the Pop Up Flea. So that’s cool for us right now, one step at a time.
How did the City Gym collaboration come about?
We were discussing about what cool companies we could team up with. We don’t really sell any fashion and Todd’s products are the first real clothing items we’ve sold. When you usually look at a store that sells tools, it’s typically really far away in its aesthetic from stores that sell fashion. Even though we sell tools and a lot of other things that are far away from fashion we always had a high affinity to fashion and the visual aesthetic of fashion, so it was only a matter of time until we reached out to a fashion company and Todd with his Champion collection seemed like the ideal partner for us in terms of being really focused on well-made nice things and the heritage of Champion’s brand. It really made them an amazing partner.
Tell me about the products in the City Gym store?
Todd chose all of them. There’s this jump rope that’s just really beautifully made. It’s got a leather rope, it’s made in France, it’s got these wooden handles with ball bearings inside. It’s just an extremely well-functioning and reasonably-priced item made by an interesting company. The ID bracelets are also really cool. They’re made by a friend of ours here in New York. We’d been working with her for a long time, but we wanted to do a piece of jewelry, but our items are very functional. For example, we have a necklace with a knife hanging from it, so the ID bracelet was formed out of this idea that you could put your name on it so it’s got function while being a piece of jewelry.
Are you bringing anything cool to the Pop Up Flea?
One item which we’re really excited about is this LED flashlight that we haven’t carried for a long time because it isn’t easy to get. It’s such an amazing flashlight. It’s made by this really bright guy in Arizona who is an obsessed spelunker. He was even involved in discovering caves. There are so many incredible things about it. He said, “The worst thing that could happen in a cave is to run out of light.” Even if this light runs completely out of batteries it still stays lit for an incredible amount of time, like 24 hours. Even with one-fourth of the battery it will stay lit for seven days. It’s a really incredible item.
With all the interviews with designers and how-to’s the site is much more than just a store. What do you ultimately want it to be going forward?
We have this reference section and very detailed product descriptions so the idea is to grow that out even more and if I had to describe the store in one word it’s quality. Quality is the overriding goal in everything, so we have a one-stop source for high-quality items, no matter what it is in any area, but there’s also a resource for how products are made, about materials, I’d say one-third of the articles on our site are all about materials. The goal is to really be a glossary about what makes a good quality product where you can learn about great design — not just in terms of fashion, architecture or graphics — but the design of everyday products. Much of the original idea came from me having an environmental background and how terribly “green stores” were tackling this issue. Having a quality product means we don’t throw it away in a landfill because it can be replaced, it can be repaired. And the resource section is to help educate people to make more sophisticated purchasing decisions.