What They Bought
Brooks Hudson Thomas of Specific Merchandise

I’d known about the Los Angeles design shop Specific Merchandise for nearly a year before I figured out that its name was a play on the idea of the general store. “I wanted to have a huge range of things, but when I started thinking about it, I liked the idea of flipping that and being specific rather than general,” says Brooks Hudson Thomas, the former Blackman Cruz manager who set out his own shingle at the beginning of last year on a stretch of Beverly Boulevard that includes Lawson-Fenning, L.A. Eyeworks, and the former digs of TenOverSix. “One model I had in mind was a museum shop, but sort of trying to kick its ass. The other was stores like Moss, Matter, and The Future Perfect, which also have that blurry store/gallery vibe.” It’s a shop model that’s only recently begun to take hold in Los Angeles with stores like TenOverSix and Iko Iko, and Thomas isn’t totally sure if people are catching on. “I think the context I show things in can be confusing to people,” he says. “I change over the stock a lot, and it goes from being quilts to chairs to paintings. A lot of times people will say, ‘Hey, what happened to that little shop?’”

Thomas has a master’s in painting from UCLA, and it’s true the store is both more cerebral and more conceptual than your average L.A. design shop. (The name also makes reference to the Donald Judd essay “Specific Objects” and a conversational trope from a Lawrence Weiner film called Water in Milk Exists — “basically a porn with studio assistants having sex and talking about philosophy,” Thomas says. “There is this funny part where these kids are having sex and one of them says, ‘Is this general or is it specific?’And I was like, ‘Oh! That’s it!’”) Last year, Thomas redid the shop six times, clearing out the space and replacing it wholesale with new exhibitions every few months. “I didn’t realize when I first opened that it would end up being run like a gallery where I would really change over everything depending on what I was finding and what it needed to be shown with,” he says. “But when I started talking to people I wanted to work with, like Workstead in Brooklyn or Todosomething in Los Angeles, it became more attractive to them when it became a featured exhibition with a party. And I suddenly realized, “Oh, I can run this like a gallery. I can consign things.”

Thomas spent much of his original capital acquiring vintage inventory that now lives on a 1stdibs page, but he soon found that the vintage — a market that’s oversaturated enough in Los Angeles without the addition of sites like Etsy — wasn’t selling for the most part, and that his other focus — work made by artists or designers or architects he knew from L.A. or found through scouting — was beginning to interest him more in any case. And so an aesthetic began to evolve — one that mixed the old and new, that focused on color and mixed materials, and that clearly stemmed from the passion of a guy who appreciates finding beauty in the high and low. (The offerings range from four-figure French wirework lamps to tiny packets of classical literature that come stuffed in cigarette boxes and cost under 20 bucks.) “One reason I personally run my shop this way is that I’m not really interested in having something if someone else has it, in part because a lot of my friends are shopkeepers and I don’t want to compete with them,” says Thomas.

The odd retail model has had its drawbacks, though, and Thomas plans this year to be a bit less ambitious in terms of turnover. He’s also contemplating a move to a collective space on La Cienega. Before he abandons the quirky narrow footprint he occupies on Beverly, we take you on a tour to find out more.

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Specific hosted six exhibitions last year, beginning last spring with the industrial chic lamps of Brooklyn architects Workstead, and wire sculptures and rubber-stamp art by L.A. artist Jamison Carter. “We had 10 of Workstead’s wall lamps and a huge 6-arm, 84-inch drop version of their 3-arm chandelier, and it all sold, which was kind of amazing,” Thomas says. “Jamison Carter did this huge wire sculpture on the wall that also sold to a guy in New York. The stamp he installed directly onto the shop wall didn’t sell, though, and we ended up painting over it.”

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For another show, Thomas worked with L.A. furniture makers Todosomething, who installed 40 versions of their A(Plus) chair in the shop this summer. “They had plywood, solid walnut, arms, no arms, some were laminated with Formica, some had a gray wash that was a nod to some Rudolf Schindler furniture,” says Thomas.

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“A lot of them didn’t sell, though. That’s one of my crosses to bear: When it’s just two guys building a chair, you have to retail it at like $950, and nobody was going for that. I would love to get into the manufacturing end to bring the cost of things like that down, but right now it would require capital I don’t have.”

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For the pièce de résistance last year, Thomas managed to convince artist Andrea Zittel to host an opening and dinner with Portland, Oregon, collective Von Tundra at A-Z West, her desert studio and home out in Joshua Tree. “They wanted to bring their Rockwell Table and Prairie Chairs here and they wanted to have a meal, and I thought it having it out at Andrea’s place would be so much more beautiful.” The table, which is made from found shipping pallets that have been sanded to an improbably lovely finish, is one of Thomas’s favorite items. “All three guys went to an applied arts school, one of them has an MFA in sculpture, and I’m blown away by the way they work together; the way they think and talk is really inspiring.”

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When I visited the week after Christmas, the shop was packed. “I knew for the holidays, it needed to be more gifty and the sparseness wasn’t working,” says Thomas. He had the idea that he should use the loft to host a sort of affordable art fair with work by his friends, none of which would cost more than $300. “I think I asked about 150 people, 100 said yes, and about 70 showed up,” he says, including Jason Rosenberg, Julie Burleigh, and Sandeep Mukhergee. “Some of it was worth way more than $300,” he says.

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Included in the show was L.A. artist Clare Graham, who collected these doll parts and built the cages as well. “He has an amazing studio in Highland Park near Occidental College,” says Thomas. “He and his partner bought what used to be an grocery store in the ’80s and there’s a gallery in front and a studio in back. I had heard about it before, and when I finally did go, I was like I can’t believe no one insisted that this be the next thing I do. He does this wonderful button art as well. In the ’80s, somebody offered him for just a couple of bucks a 40-foot container full of vintage buttons. They’re still pulling the buttons off of cards when they watch TV at night.”

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You can’t actually see it in this picture, but these wires attach to a cement pedestal, inside of which the artist Michael Dodge cast 48 batteries that were originally meant to illuminate the LEDs. “It’s called Account Bucket Cosmic Drop, and he made it for the show,” says Thomas. “The batteries have all died but I think that was sort of the point. I’m sure casting them didn’t do them much good either.” In the background is a beaded Nigerian armchair, one of Thomas’s 1stdibs items.

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Another friend of Thomas’s, Kevin Beer, created this assemblage of found Italian pipes in briarwood. “He’s like an artist/picker/interior decorator, and he does a lot of collections of things like this. For years he’s been doing weird little bell jar dioramas, like dolls with birds heads. He’ll take things he found and sell them as they are, or he’ll do something like this, where he puts it on a wire armature. I like the texture, it looks like faux bois,” Thomas laughs.

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During my visit, the loft was chock full of wall art as well, either commissioned or donated for the show. This one, a cement, dirt, and mixed media piece, is by Allison Miller, an ACME Gallery artist who went to school with Thomas. “The work I’ve seen by her is almost always on panel, so I think this is an experiment for her, working on paper. The metal is coins that she smashed on a train track. She puts coins in different configurations on the tracks and experiments with what happens, which is probably totally illegal. But I think the color and the composition are really beautiful.”

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Shown here, the only work that Thomas himself designed for the shop. “At first I did a club chair, I had one from the 1960s and I upholstered it in this reversed denim. The first fabric I was looking at had a little bit of a selvedge line but not enough to make the detail I was thinking of. I actually had on a pair of khakis that had a red overlock seam at the time, and I asked the woman I was working with if she could do that. It came out great; it probably could have been a disaster. It literally sold the first day I opened, so I made a really great reproduction of it and the sofa as well.”

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Downstairs is a mix of found objects and work Thomas has come across in either his travels or online scouting. The Philadelphia-based sculptor and furniture-maker Tim Lewis, who created these walnut and nylon Strap Chairs, was one of the first designers Thomas found by simply reading a blog and taking the opportunity to reach out. “It’s exciting to find things like that. This guy could be making furniture on his sun porch for all you know, but I’ve got a space and he’s got a thing and none of us have a lot of money. We can do something together.”

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Thomas goes with his husband each summer to Mexico, where friends of theirs have a house, and it’s there he came across this Mexican Talavera pottery done in collaboration with the graphic designer Germán Montalvo. “Talavera originally came from Spain, and it’s defined by the type of clay and the low temperature used for firing and the chemicals used to make glazes. At this point, there is an official Mexican Talavera that comes out of Puebla. Mostly what they do is reproduce these historical patterns, but they’ve started bringing in designers to update and collaborate. I love these because they would never have done some of these patterns, and they definitely would never have married them like that. And as contemporary as this is, it still feels related to history of Mexico.”

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A set of vintage German paper accordions. “I found the big one in an antique store in Santa Fe and the other two sort of fell in my lap after that, which is funny because I’ve looked on eBay and 1stdibs and can’t find anything similar,” says Thomas. “That sort of thing has actually happened twice now. After I bought a Russel Wright chair and put it on 1stdibs, a friend of a friend called me and had a lot of 10 of them, so now we’re sort of joining forces. That was one of the nice things about this past year — lots of weird things like that happened.”

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Pieces of trash, hand-carved in mahogany, by the Los Angeles artist Morgan Maclean. “The works are all named after the streets he originally picked the pieces up on in Brooklyn — Henry, Sackett, Warren, Bergen,” says Thomas. “I like that he uses this really old-fashioned craftsmanship, working with chisels and rasps, everything by hand.”

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Maclean’s “contemporary artifacts” include everything from crushed water bottles to cigarette stubs. Thomas was introduced to Maclean’s work by Jonah Takagi, another designer who showed at Specific last summer and who attended RISD with Maclean.

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“This is also a friend of a friend, a guy named Miles Eastman, who’s doing something similar, taking molds of trash and elevating them by casting them in bronze. I really love that mix of high-low,” says Thomas.

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On display shelving by Los Angeles architects Scout Regalia is a series of hand-made low-fired earthenware by another L.A. artist, Marc Digeros, whose wife went to grad school with Thomas. “I find these handmade things, and I’m interested in that but I’m more interested in how you can be working in craft and sort of transcend the aesthetic that’s been prescribed for that genre. I feel like everything on Etsy is all starting to look the same, so it’s nice to find somebody that rises up above the level.”

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Sean Brian McDonald is another friend of a friend who makes these little assemblages; he calls them Sweater Punks or Important Packages,” says Thomas. “The structures usually start out with scrap wood — a piece of construction or a fallen branch — and then he adds pieces of fabric and what I think is house paint. He actually studied music and is a drummer, but he knows quite a bit about the art world and is curious and experimental. I like working with people like that — artists who are making things some people think of as furniture but they think of sculpture, or architects who aren’t making buildings, but bags and picnic tables and knives.”

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A painted Refuse Hybrid wire sculpture by Jamison Carter. It's one of the items Thomas will bring to New York next month to a pop-up he was invited to participate in with the Parisian online shop The Vitrine at Fitzroy Gallery. “I like the fact that the sculptures are not very finished and some of the wires are rusty,” says Thomas. “He does something similar with the rubber-stamp drawings, like the color and shape and pattern gets messed up in the printing process. He leaves himself all the room in the world to make mistakes, which makes a lot of sense to me.”