Conversation with Denise Portmans and Sara Marlowe Hall of Merchant House
Head east out of Los Angeles and before long you’ll hit the arid landscape of the California high desert. It is seductive terrain, increasingly popular with Angelenos looking to escape the big city as well as international travelers wanting to experience a little Wild West cool. And it’s there, in the Morongo Valley, en route to Joshua Tree National Park, that you’ll find Merchant House — a creative space brought to life by stylist and visual artist Denise Portmans and her artist daughter Sara Marlowe Hall.
The British mother-daughter team, who own the side-by-side shop and gallery Merchant on LA’s Lincoln Boulevard, had been looking for a desert home for some time. In early 2019 a friend tipped them off about this adobe post-and-beam beauty, and everything fell into place.
They set about creating Merchant House as a desert escape for themselves and guests, an extension of their work as curators. It’s filled with their favorite things – a collection of contemporary art works and vintage pieces gathered in their travels. Art, they say, shouldn’t be seen in isolation. So when you book a stay at Merchant House, you’re invited to immerse yourself in objects that tell stories. If you like what you see, you can visit their LA shop and gallery (a treasure trove of mid-century pieces, vintage Moroccan rugs, art books and works by contemporary artists) to take some pieces home with you.
But the Merchant brand is about more than just great style. It’s a deeply personal project, created in tribute to Denise’s free-spirited artist mother, Yvonne Dayan. After she passed away six years ago, Denise set up Merchant. Sara, who studied art in London and Leipzig, returned to LA to help her mother with the new venture. The result is a vintage family business with contemporary flair.
We met up with Denise and Sara to find out more about their story and the evolution of Merchant House.
WHAT’S IT LIKE WORKING TOGETHER AS MOTHER AND DAUGHTER?
Denise Portmans: “Sara grew up with me. She knows me inside out. But what I love about working with her is she brings fresh eyes to the table.”
Sara Marlowe Hall: “In this day and age, it’s not common to have family businesses, but Merchant was created in homage to my grandmother. It’s truly us, the things we love, the artists that we want to support. It’s amazing because we really share the same interests. So, we just have fun. We travel and we go on adventures, and we curate the shop 50 times a day! So it’s really special.”
Denise: “My mum was a full-time artist and ceramicist. I learned everything from her. She taught Sara how to paint so was a huge part of her life. The reason I started Merchant was because she was a big advocate of ‘do what you love, love what you do’.”
WHAT DREW YOU TO THE DESERT HOUSE?
Denise: “The exterior was very European looking, and I fell in love with the yellow doors. The woman who owned it had exquisite taste and had renovated it before me. It was really just a case of painting and furnishing the interiors. But I did a lot of exterior additions: a dipping pool, cowboy tub, outdoor shower, a lovely deck.”
HOW DID YOU FILL THE SPACE?
Denise: “I really wanted it to feel like the minute you step in, you’re away, you’re in another world but you’re still here. A lot of my influences are European, and then there are the Moroccan vintage rugs, which Sara and I pick by hand. We’ve also incorporated a lot of the artists from the gallery into the house. So it’s a real mix of vintage and contemporary.”
YOU TRAVEL TO MOROCCO ONCE A YEAR TO SOURCE RUGS. WHAT’S THAT LIKE?
Denise: “Mental! It really is truly mental. We go on these treks in the middle of nowhere with a guide, and we literally think we might never come home again. They take you to a village that’s 14 hours away in a car, on a winding road. To get three rugs.”
Sara: “We’ve been to some incredible places. Recently, we’ve been going to Mexico City for inspiration. Since we’ve been doing interior design, we’ve been really drawn to Luis Barragán, his use of color, and his art placement. I think, living in LA, it’s really important to leave, to bring the outside world in. And Merchant is that – it’s things from all over the world.”
WHAT CAN GUESTS TAKE HOME FROM MERCHANT HOUSE?
Denise: “A lot of the artists that are in the house, you can come and buy at the shop: Sara Marlowe Hall, Amy Dov, Pascale Vaquette and Janelle Pietrzak. So the idea is that you can pretty much get anything from there at the shop. Except the vintage, but I can source that.”
Sara: “Art needs to be livable. It shouldn’t be in a white cube. You should be at home with things that you love. I really want people to take something and see it next to a chair, in that special place on a shelf and really live with it.
“We’re living in a world where everything is digital, and it’s so important to experience the thing you’re buying before you get it. So that is what Merchant is.”
To experience the livable art of Denise Portmans and Sara Marlowe Hall, book a stay in the high desert at Merchant House. The property is also available for shoots; please inquire.
Photographs by Kate Berry @katebe_