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March 02, 2020

We first got to know mother-daughter duo Denise Portmans and Sara Marlowe Hall when we lived in Venice. Denise was the owner of one of Venice's best-known vintage clothing shops, which was around the block from Menotti's, where Casey used to barista. 
In 2014, Denise introduced Merchant Modern with a shop of that name on Lincoln Blvd., and her and Sara quickly began bringing it to life with fun events, parties, and art galleries. We got in on some of the action making pour overs at events.
Part furniture, part plants, part gallery, the Merchant Modern shop and gallery became one of our favorite spots to visit and be inspired in Venice—and we weren't alone! Before long, the demand for the duo's talents led them to delve into interior design and consulting, and they created Merchant Home as a residence for people to visit, stay in, and bring home art or furniture they loved. 

As this concept evolved, the two ventured outside of the city and have created several spaces in the high desert to enjoy. They recently completed the Merchant High Desert House, and we had the pleasure of getting to stay there a few weeks ago.

Below are photos from our stay at the house, which is available for booking by request online, paired with our interview of Denise and Sara. We hope you enjoy!

Mother and daughter duo Denise Portman and Sara Marlowe Hall, co-owners of Merchant


Ally & Casey: Denise, it seems that the creative streak runs in the family. We look at you and Sara and, in turn, are inspired by what a wonderful mother-and-daughter duo you are. So what is it like now being the mother of an artist, not to mention your partner and chief collaborator in business?

Denise: It really is the dream to collaborate and work with your daughter. I’m so proud of Sara and am a huge fan of her work. As far as working together goes, we usually are on the same page creatively, so it makes any interior jobs we get very easy.  Merchant and Merchant Gallery are always curated instinctively. 


View of the kitchen at Merchant High Desert House near Joshua Tree, CA


Denise, we’ve gathered that your mom was an inspiration for your work, in particular your move from styling (Denise owned one of Venice, California’s most popular vintage clothing haunts, Gotta Have It, for over two decades) to interiors. Could you tell us a bit about your mom, what kind of artist she was?

Denise: My mum was a true artist who painted daily on any surface she could, ranging from canvas to stones and furniture. Her work would range from oils and acrylics, still life to portraits or abstracts; she would say she didn’t feel right if she didn’t paint every day. She was literally addicted to painting.

It was normal for our family to be surrounded by art and particularly nude paintings. My mum would regularly take us to a museum or an art gallery.


Two images: One with Casey Wojtalewicz choosing records at Merchant High Desert House in 2020, one of a mug on a side table.


Sara, similar question for you. You have pursued art as a career, studying at Camberwell College of Arts and the Academy of Visual Arts in Leipzig, Germany. Did your family’s artistic culture influence that decision? And how did your path as an artist come to merge with your mom’s?

Sara: I grew up in a creative family that always pushed me to make art and supported me to be an artist. After graduating, I came home to visit my mum in Los Angeles, where she had started Merchant. I had no plan of moving back to Los Angeles, however after having an art show, falling in love, being reunited with mum after being apart over a decade, combined with the creative support L.A. had to offer, I ended up staying.

After a year of helping my mum picking for the store and being inspired by what she was doing with Merchant, we then partnered opening Merchant Yard and Merchant Gallery, it was so comforting and natural to work with her artistically that it only made sense to then fully partner as a family business.


Front porch at Merchant High Desert House


In addition to the artistic streak, you both have the entrepreneurial spirit. Do you think the two traits — artistry and entrepreneurship — are intertwined? How do you balance the two?

Sara: I think the two blend together. I am always an artist first, but with that being who I am, I feel that it has always fed into my business and what I do. Merchant as a company is driven by two creatives who love design, sculpture, objects, shapes and forms. Without our creative passion, I don’t think the energy and passion for Merchant and our spaces would exist.

Denise: Yes, absolutely! To be an artist today is very challenging and in order to survive and pay the bills it is very important to do a job that inspires you and also provides for you. They go hand in hand, we try to balance work and have time to be inspired by visiting creative spaces or making art.


Ally Walsh in the kitchen at the Merchant High Desert House near Joshua Tree, CA, in February 2020


Has it always come natural for you to do your own thing?

Sara: Yes, always. I think being a creative, I naturally felt independent. By having a craving for travel and change, I had to create my own structure to be able to do my own thing.

Denise: I have always been very independent in my life, and have tried my best to do my own thing. Sometimes it works out, and other times it hasn’t. It’s alright for it to not always work out, as long as you always give it a good try.


Coffee table and wood-burning stove at the Merchant High Desert House in Morongo Valley, CA


We think of you both as such global people. You both have English accents, and are known for sourcing rugs and other items from around the world. How did LA become home?

Denise: I initially came to L.A. for work, but was soon enticed by the warm sunny weather on a winters day in January. I fell in love with the beautiful beaches, and in the 1980s, Venice was a place where artists, actors and musicians lived. It was a place that made me feel alive and inspired.

Sara: I was born here, but my parents are both English and then I moved to London when I was a teenager. It’s only recently, in the last six years in my adult life after being settled, that I feel like L.A. is home.


Casey making a pour over at Merchant High Desert House near Joshua Tree, CA


How often do you travel? What trips do you have coming up this year?

Sara & Denise: We travel together and separately, the nice thing about being partners is that we can support each other on trips. In March, Sara will be living in Sausalito, California to do an artist residency on a house boat (Varda Artist Residency) and then Denise will be traveling in Europe in the summer.

However we both make sure to go on a trip together, and this spring we'll go to Santa Fe to visit Georgia O'Keeffe’s House. It’s important for us to travel together at least once a year to be inspired. O'Keeffe’s house was a big influence on Merchant House High Desert and we have been eager to visit.


Morning sunlight falls on a mid-century chair at the Merchant High Desert House near Joshua Tree, CA


Since 2014, you’ve spun Merchant into a brand spread across multiple spaces. You started as a gallery before branching into furniture and then interiors on a more comprehensive level. Then came the House, and now you’ve opened two retreats in the desert: Merchant On the Road, and Merchant House High Desert—which we just got to enjoy ourselves. What was the thinking behind delving into the vacation rentals, and do you think you’ll continue to develop more spaces?

Denise: Merchant has naturally developed into a a brand over the past 6 years as selling furniture, art, sculptures and rugs. It seemed like the next step was to have Merchant House. After starting Merchant On The Road, a 1966 airstream located in Joshua Tree, I felt that having a house would give us more space to showcase all of our pieces. I love to share what I do and hope people enjoy all the surroundings we create. I’m always open to developing new spaces as it’s what I love doing the most.


Ally Walsh watching the sunset at Merchant High Desert House near Joshua Tree, CA in 2020


Speaking of the High Desert House, we were so impressed with the thoughtfulness and thoroughness of how each room was fitted and ornamented. It feels so complete, even though the home is relatively new for you. How do you approach spaces—indoor and outdoor—to achieve this?

Sara & Denise: We both worked on the house, pretty intensively since we got it. When approaching a space we always start with the rugs and art, and then build around it. It’s important to have a balance between design and creating a personal authentic space. We collect vintage Moroccan rugs that we find on our travels and support local artists that we exhibit in our gallery. Everything at Merchant House High Desert is available via the gallery and the shop. We wanted to be able to create a home that is true to us. We think it’s important incorporate a mix of contemporary and vintage when working a room, mixing interesting objects, sculpture and lighting to tie the room together.

When working on the outdoor area of Merchant House High Desert, we wanted you to truly be encompassed by the nature that surrounds the house, which sits on 5 acres of land. We used concrete and wood throughout the patio area, to create contrast the wild native plants around. We added many sculptures and installations around the house to inspire our guests while they explore and relax. We have a collection of sculptures by Stan Bitters, Soleri Bells mixed with some contemporary—currently featuring Rachel Schillander’s yellow sculptures submerged in the land. When it comes to Merchant House, our aim is for our guests to be inspired, relax and to feel as if you are home.


Canyon Coffee in the kitchen at Merchant High Desert House in Morongo Valley, CA


Do you have any strategies or approaches to buying? In particular, we’re thinking of when you’re moving through large markets with lots of vendors and options.

Sara & Denise: We both work in the same way when buying. We usually gravitate to shape and form before design, and if we pick something that is a designer then it’s becomes a plus. We think it’s important to mix up designer items with unknown artists. Gravitating to things you love is always best.


Two photos from Merchant High Desert House: the first of the guest bed with blue duvet, the other of the bedside table next to the bed.


Do you both have a daily ritual?

Denise: I like to wake up and open my bedroom doors, take a moment to look at the blue sky and garden. I’ll put the kettle on, make a cup of tea, listen to some music and start my day. I am very aware at how lucky I am to do what I love and love what I do every day.

Sara: I like to wake up in the morning make myself a coffee, play a record, and then start my day.


Casey Wojtalewicz playing guitar on the porch at Merchant High Desert House near Joshua Tree, California


As your own bosses, how do you structure your time?

Sara & Denise: It's so important to not have work dominate everything we do, even though we love it! Our schedule tends to get busy with design projects and the shop, luckily we have each other and are able schedule days so we can alternate our time so Sara can be able to paint and Denise can have time to go to Merchant House High Desert.

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