A Restoration Expert Talks Trunks, the Latest Designer Obsession

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Randall Barbera of Randall Barbera Antique Trunk Restoration and Design. All photos courtesy of Randall Barbera.

The invention of the airplane heralded quite a few modern experiences, including the luxury of quick trips to far off places and the ability to go anywhere in the world. But its creation left behind, too, a few relics of the bygone era of travel by land and sea, including one particular piece that's recently found a renewed brush with popularity today. It's been making its way back out of flea markets and yard sales and into the hands of trusty restorers, where it eventually ends up back in your home bright and shiny, with a whole new (interior-oriented) purpose. 

Traveling trunks, once the sole way to bring your belongings with you when journeying, have recently come back into vogue according to Randall Barbera of Randall Barbera Antique Trunk Restoration and Design. A trunk restoration expert with an eye for reinvention, Randall takes these now-defunct pieces and breathes new, reinvigorated life into them, taking pride in working artistic liberties into their looks while still maintaining their original spirit. This attention to detail and passion for the craft has been causing quite a stir among interior designers and decorators alike, who seriously can't get enough of these niche vintage pieces—for example, upon his first time ever selling them retail, every one of his wares sold out in a single week. Curious to learn more about the restoration process and the current antique trunk craze, we chatted with him about what drew him to antique trunk restoration in the first place, the most creative uses of his work, and sane advice for those looking to MacGyver a trunk on their own. 

Antique trunk restoration is such a niche field. How did you get into it? Why trunks specifically over other pieces?

It was not real conscious decision to do trunks, but I’ve always been interested in antiques. About eight years ago I started buying trunks because I thought they were cool, and our garage just started filling up with them. I couldn’t really figure out what to do with them, so I started tinkering and fixing them up. People saw them and started telling me, Oh hey, they really look nice. You should sell them!

All of the sudden I had this inventory of trunks, so I brought some pictures to this place in LA called HD Buttercup—that was the first place I approached anybody with them. I had some pictures in a manila envelope of the trunks that I had redesigned, went up to the first person I saw—which was J.C. Hyrb, who has a company called Style de Vie—and said, “Hi, I’ve got trunks. I was wondering if you might be interested in them?” So I showed him my work and he placed an order right then and there. He picked about twelve of them, so I brought them in the next day and he put them on display and about a week later I got a message from him that said that all the trunks had sold out—bring more!

So that was when I realized that this is what I should be doing. I mean, if it had been picnic tables or chairs it would have gone that way, but it just happened to be trunks. For some reason I’ve always liked trunks—they’re really cool pieces of history that are extinct and don’t go out of style, as it turns out.

Via Randall Barbera Antique Trunk Restoration and Design

Where do you go to find trunks to restore?
 

We get them from different stores. The best places are the Pasadena Rose Bowl flea market, which is once a month; Long Beach has a similar event the third Sunday of every month, and that one’s really great as they have a lot of vendors with beat up trunks; there’s one in Torrance, Santa Monica. We’re also always scouring Craigslist, looking for flea markets, or even just local yard sales. There’s no shortage.

So they’re basically at all of these different places—you don’t have to dig deep to look for them?

Essentially, yeah—there were hundreds of thousands of trunks pumped into the universe in the mid-to-late 1800’s up to 1930. They’re everywhere. Everybody used them up until airplanes came along.

Via Randall Barbera Antique Trunk Restoration and Design

How do you go about deciding which parts to update when restoring a trunk?

I would say it sort of talks to you. We’ll see trunks in the flea market and there’s just something that catches the eye, either a lock that’s cool, or just the shape and size of it. I don’t know what actually dictates the design of it so much as spontaneous inspiration, by just looking at it and [for example] thinking if it were red it would be really different. Then it evolves from there. There’s no set plan—that’s part of the fun of it, as each trunk can be a one-of-kind, standalone piece. I really look into the lock, as I think the lock is the heart of the trunk, which dictates a lot of the personality.

It’s like a canvas, but I also like to preserve the identity and historical accuracy of them as much as you can. For example, if it’s a Louis Vuitton you obviously don’t want to tear it apart and change what it is, but most the trunks we see are pretty beat up to begin with. We are sensitive to history and use period hardware—like we wouldn’t use 1890’s hardware on a 1940’s trunk—but we are also artists and want to do what we want to do when we’re inspired.

I read in your bio that “designer trunks” started coming into vogue sometime after your trunks went on display at LA’s largest retailer. How have designers been integrating your pieces into their work?

I don’t always know what the end use is, but HD Buttercup informed us that primarily all designers buying them. We get calls now from a lot of different designers. We’ll get inquiries from designers who are doing a room, for example, and tell us that they like a trunk on our website that’s blue, but they want to know if we can make it a little bigger, which we can. So we do a lot of custom work—that’s been a big part of the business as of late—working with interior designers to produce something that’ll work for what they’re doing.

There was this one I remember that bought one of our trunks, then came back and asked if we could make it ten times this size. I told him I could, so we built one that was massive and turned out he was using it as a coffee table.

Via Randall Barbera Antique Trunk Restoration and Design

Oh, that’s really cool. Actually, that works as a perfect segue into my next question: what are some of the most creative uses you’ve seen for your trunks?

We’ve turned quite a few trunks into bars—that’s pretty popular these days. But this one family in Venice [California] had a really interesting one. They didn’t have closet space, so they wanted a bunch of wardrobe trunks. We made five of them, one for each of the rooms. They were all similar, from about the same period time—but it was really cool going room to room, seeing these trunks. Some were much more elaborate than others, some were simple with the hangers, some had ironing boards. It was like a little house within a trunk.

They also used a bunch of our trunks for coffee tables—I mean, it was just insane. They loved our trunks so much they kept buying them and adding them as pieces of furniture like coffee tables and end tables and tables by the side of the bed. So it was cool and flattering to see this house of trunks evolve with our work.

Your trunks have been used for set design in Los Angeles. Is there any difference between doing a trunk for TV versus another client? Do you have to pay attention to period accuracy more, like for a show like Mad Men for example where they have to pay attention to what time period the show is set in?

Yeah. We never really had an order for a specific period or application per se—ordinarily they see what they like, and they buy it or in some cases they’ll rent. Over the years, we’ve had a lot of trunks available, but our inventory hasn’t been as robust lately as we’ve been doing a lot of private restorations for people as well as custom work for interior designers. There was a time we’d have 60 or 70 on the site, so there’d be a lot to choose from for, say, a set designer. We haven’t had as much non-custom work lately but we’re always trying to find more hours of the day to do more, though!

Via Randall Barbera Antique Trunk Restoration and Design

With the craze around Mid-Century Modern furniture and vintage items, restoration has naturally come back into swing as well. How do you know when it’s the type of piece you can DIY or restore yourself versus bringing it in to a pro?

I would say with something like a very high-end trunk, they shouldn’t mess with it and really should bring it in to someone that knows what they’re doing. Like a Louis Vuitton, or a Goyard, or the type of trunk you’d want to restore fully to its original accuracy.

I think most people could do it if they had the tools and time to do it, but most people don’t have the patience to do it the right way. They’ll paint over it, or try to patch up a hole in it. When we do a restoration we take the whole thing apart, basically. Some of our more elaborate trunks take 2-3 months, so it’s definitely a commitment.

I’m always encouraging people to do it themselves if it’s possible for them to do it. I’ll ask people what they’re looking to do and if they can try it on their own I’ll let them know that what they’re asking for is pretty small and to try it. But most the time people look at the trunks on our website and they’ll say, Oh, that’s so beautiful, I want one like that! So in that case of course we’ll have to restore it to get it to that look.

So it depends on what you’re looking for. Do you have any advice for people looking to restore their own trunks?

Yeah—be careful, and watch your hands! It’s tedious work, and it’s very physical. An old trunk can bite you if you don’t handle it correctly. There’s a lot of sharp, jagged edges, metal sticking out, loose nails. So wear a good pair of gloves, and once you get it to the point where you don’t know what to do with it, give me call. [laughs]

Check out more Randall Barbera's unique restoration work at Randall Barbera Antique Trunk Restoration and Design.

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