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Interview: Sebastian Kaufmann

The Kaufman Mercantile founder on curiosity, aesthetics and the rigorous selection process behind his online shop

by CH Contributor in Design on 22 February 2013

By Paul Cantagallo

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It all started with a stapler. Sebastian Kaufmann of Kaufmann Mercantile, a Brooklyn-based online store specializing in all things beautiful, functional and durable, had been working in film production in Los Angeles for seven years when yet another cheap stapler found its way onto his desk. He couldn't take it anymore. With his enthusiasm for filmmaking waning, and fed up with low-quality office supplies destined to turn into trash, he began researching objects and materials he could imagine himself spending a lifetime using. What began as a blog that would help Kaufmann and his followers educate themselves to make better and more environmentally-friendly purchasing decisions, soon became a highly-successful speciality shop.

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While the shop continues to expand and diversify, Kaufmann and his team haven't stopped the research and writing. Dozens of articles await the curious visitor on Kaufmann Mercantile's References page, providing culture to back up the commerce. We recently spoke to Kaufmann about his journey from filmmaker to purveyor of heirlooms for the future.

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With Brooklyn being such a hotbed for artisanal products and shops, how has Kaufmann Mercantile distinguished itself from the competition?

What sets us apart is that we never chase trends, but rather we're committed to setting the standard for bringing together more criteria than other similar companies when selecting our goods and products. In other words, we have more boxes to check. Not only do we look for products that are locally-made, green and durable, but we also place tremendous emphasis on aesthetics, beauty and design. Ultimately, what we are looking for is "the best." Products never leave our store unless they are sold out or we find a product that's better. But we make sure we keep evolving by using aesthetics that clash and push the limits of what people think of as our particular "taste" or "brand." To stay fresh and relevant, you must always challenge your own vision.

How do you source your products?

It used to be that we would exhaustively search for products and companies that fit our rigorous criteria. But more and more, we are being approached by producers and, rather than purchasing goods as they are, we are looking to collaborate with artisans, designers and companies. A few of our most exciting upcoming collaborations are with Imperial Barber, Archival Clothing and Roberta's.

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What's one product you haven't been able to find yet?

A good-looking bicycle helmet. Something safe, eco-friendly and good-looking.

What's the future? Sell to a larger company?

Companies like Warby Parker have proved that there's a way to create companies unlike those from the '50s (no concern for environment and ethics with a strict hierarchy) and the '80s (sole focus on profits, shareholders and aggressive mergers and acquisitions behavior during Regan era). As long as we are able to satisfy all our criteria—environment, ethics, aesthetics—we will stay relevant and credible and we will continue to grow. We want our idea to shine through rather than be seen as a mere shop pushing products. Our concept and our commitment can be communicated at any scale.

Kaufmann Mercantile visitors who sign up for the super informative, twice-weekly newsletter will get $7 off their first purchase. Images courtesy of Kaufmann Mercantile.

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