Finding true beauty these days can be tough. But Denise Portman of Merchant Modern finds it everywhere she goes— “there’s always something somewhere,” she laughs. In fact, she tends to find so much of it that she’s made it her business.
Bubbly and wearing vintage overalls, sporting tight curls atop her head and a London accent, it’s easy to see why the masses have been coming to her for years for style advice. She exudes fun, is positive, and has a soft spot for the unique finds of the world, scouting flea markets for vintage mid-century furniture, hunting for rare rugs in Morocco, and then, mixing her findings with current—but interesting—one-of-a-kind gems from local designers.
Two years ago, inspired by her mum who had just passed, she sold her popular vintage shop in Venice Beach, Gotta Have It. She had owned it for 23 years and decided it was time to try something new. “My mother was a really big advocate of living your dream and enjoying your life. I just thought, maybe it’s time I take her advice. It was my middle age crisis.”
In came her new venture, Merchant, located on Lincoln Blvd in Santa Monica. Originally started as a gallery—just paintings and rugs—she soon realized she didn’t want to just sit in a gallery all day… so along came the furniture. Just as they had previously been drawn to her vintage clothing, people were immediately drawn to her eclectic home furnishings. A year later she found that she’d outgrown her little shop. She needed to expand– to find a place to show more of her pieces– so she decided to play around with yet another idea she had been flirting with. She bought a nearby house in Venice and set everything up just so, in order for her customers to see the inventory in its intended state. She named it Merchant House.
“Now you can just shop the house!” she explains. “I take my clients there that like my style. That’s where all the big stuff is.” The house is a popular venue for hosting events, photo shoots, and is often rented out to friends, or friends of friends… or even, if you’re lucky, the occasional Airbnb-er.
Her style is enlightened by her travels. “The culture, the people, the food… every country has its own thing that it brings to the table so I think it’s nice to mix different cultures into a space so you don’t feel generic.” She’s passed this logic on to her daughter, the artist Sara Marlowe Hall, a lovely girl of 25 with the same tight curls and just a slightly different accent, having grown up in both the US and throughout Europe. Together they’ve recently opened the third part of the Merchant triangle, the Yard.
Filled with architectural pottery, plants, and elaborate macramé’s, “It’s a space where we can show people how to do their gardens,” Denise explains. “Sometimes it’s stuff that you wouldn’t necessarily put outdoors, but for us it’s an element of color and placement,” Sara adds.
The mother and daughter team have different styles but a similar aesthetic. “That’s what’s important about the Merchant umbrella,” continues Sara. “It’s really our eye. It’s the two of us together… a mixture of the both of us. It’s not ever sterile.”
Indeed, their eye for the unusual is proving to be another successful venture for the mother-daughter duo. Popular on social media they are regularly approached by designers who want their work associated with the Merchant brand. They are also often commissioned by clients who want them to style their entire homes.
“What I truly want is to love what I do and do what I love. I just want to live my life and try to make people happy with nice things,” says Denise. And judging by all the laughter and positive vibes permeating through the Merchant spaces, it’s safe to say she’s accomplished her goal.
Mum would be proud.
Lindsay DeLong is the Managing Editor of The Fullest. Find her at firstname.lastname@example.org or on social media via @lindizzaster. (If she’s not answering, she’s probably trying to move all her stuff into Merchant House.)
Photographs by: Marielena Verdugo.