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Beautiful Ruins: Salvaging With Imagination

Michael Trapp has turned a passion for the decrepit and dilapidated into a thriving interior- and garden-design business

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Enter one of the Connecticut barns where designer Michael Trapp stores the loot from his travels and it’s like walking into a life-size cabinet of curiosities. In a few steps, you’ll see a row of faintly gleaming, three-foot-high 19th-century Tuscan olive-oil jars; a pile of craggy, coral-crusted 15th-century dishes recovered from a shipwreck near Java and Sumatra; and crumbling Gothic plaster balusters deaccessioned by the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Then there’s a brown, sculptural, ancient…wait, what is that?

“It’s a termite mound from New Guinea,” Trapp says matter-of-factly.

In Trapp’s world, beautiful oddities like that abound. What’s more, he’s managed to turn the things once consigned to junk heaps into in-demand statement pieces. He’s done it both by selling these objects in his West Cornwall shop, a place frequented by tastemakers like Bunny Williams and Oscar de la Renta, and by deploying them to stunning effect in the houses and gardens of his clients. He’s credited with being one of the first to bring the detritus of civilization and nature—architectural fragments like pillars and archways, tree trunks, farm equipment, headless garden statuary and rusted furniture, shells, empty picture frames—indoors. Asked what he searches for when he shops, he says cheerfully, “I’m looking for rack and ruin.”

Trapp’s career has evolved like one of his finds, organically and over time. The son of an Air Force professor and a microbiologist, he was born in Maine but spent some formative years in France and Spain. In Europe, his mom would take Michael with her to antiques auctions and markets so he could translate. “That was my first exposure to the antique world,” he says. The family then moved to Ohio, where Trapp went to junior high and high school. He studied landscape architecture at Ohio State but hated it and dropped out. (“That was the best thing I ever did; otherwise, I’d be probably be designing parking lots.”) To make money, he wove tapestries. He also bought cast-offs that caught his eye and sold them at flea markets, moving up to high-end antiques shows. Laughing, he recalls, “I’d go to a fancy show with my old, dirty stuff and the dealers would whisper, ‘Did you see what that kid from Ohio brought?’ ”

In 1990, he opened up his shop in an 1820s Greek Revival house on the banks of the Housatonic River. Customers were drawn to his wares yet perplexed. They loved his pieces, but they had no idea what to do with them. Trapp would show them his rooms—at the time, he lived upstairs—with their pastiche of animal skeletons, chandeliers, ethnic textiles and antique bibs and bobs, as well as his enchanting terraced garden. They’d take one look and beg him to do the same for their houses, which is how he fell into design.

Today Trapp is currently working on 20 projects, split between interiors and gardens, and that means he must keep finding stuff to fill those spaces. To replenish his stock, he’s been closing his store and spending December to March in Asia—this winter, he was in Myanmar, China and Indonesia—and he goes to Europe every few months to shop. He ships back container loads of objects that fill two barns and a few fenced areas next to his home. He also relies on a global network of dealers and contractors to send him photos of potential purchases. Even though Trapp has a vast, ever-changing inventory—”a frightening volume of stuff moves in and out”—he can instantly ID any piece and tell you about its origin in enthusiastic detail.

Despite his love of history, Trapp doesn’t have the snobbish insistence on provenance that many antiquarians do. “I could care less,” he says. “ ’Is it authentic or not?’ shouldn’t matter; ‘Do you like it or don’t you?’ is a much more important question.” He has no problem with imitations, provided they’re of high quality. If he can’t find ones good enough, “I have pieces made.” In his barn there are knockoff 19th-century Raffles chairs manufactured in Bali; in the yard, he shows me two mock Doric stone columns—a white granite one carved in China and a Mississippi limestone version from Indiana.

Outside, he pauses by a massive chest-high crate filled with what looks like rubble. He explains that they’re cobblestones from a street being repaved in Providence, Rhode Island. However, that’s only their latest incarnation. Once, they covered roads in Europe, where they were trod upon by humans and horses for decades, perhaps centuries. Then, in the 19th century, these granite blocks were used as ballast to weigh down the empty ships sailing to this country to pick up tobacco and other goods. Finally, in America, they were turned into cobblestones again.

And what are Trapp’s plans with them? He might use them to build a driveway. Or maybe a patio, a garden path, a grotto, a hearth…the list goes on. “There’s something everywhere you can look,” Trapp says. “You just have to use your imagination.”

Click through the gallery to see inside Trapp’s store and barns.

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