An Open and Shut Case: Randall Barbera is pulling up his trunks
Randall Barbera is a designer, craftsman, and refurbisher of old trunks, the kind your great-grandparents might have had porters drag aboard for a trans-Atlantic crossing. In person, though, it’s the old rock ‘n’ roller that comes through. Barbera could be dropped into an old photo of The Who and he’d fit right in with Keith Moon and Roger Daltry.
Barbera left the high-stress energy of New York in 1995 and moved to the South Bay, first to Redondo, then to downtown Hermosa Beach for some 13 years, and now he’s more sedately settled with his wife Lisa Chapman in Manhattan Beach. But in the ‘70s and ’80s he played music with The Zero Miles Band (later Face To Face) in Boston. “Two of the guys that were band mates,” he says, “stuck with being musicians. I didn’t. I got on the business side of it, which I think was something of a mistake, looking back; although it was a good experience.”
One of those two band mates, Stu Kimball, has been playing with Bob Dylan for several years and the other, Angelo Petraglia, helped The Kings of Leon get their original record deal – and has produced their records ever since.
“I ended up being a talent manager,” Barbera continues. He and his brother heard a group from Boston called ‘Til Tuesday and got them a record deal with Epic. The group – fronted by Aimee Mann, later to have a notable solo career – struck it big with “Voices Carry,” which went gold.
“And that, all of a sudden, started attracting all of these other bands,” Barbera says. “At one point I think we had about eight major label acts – none of which made money.” He laughs. “Except for, you know, you get them a publishing deal and you make a little bit there. But in the music business there’s no middle-class. You’re either at the very top or at the bottom. Having a gold record doesn’t really throw off the kind of money people think it does.”
Barbera also went to work for Fiction, The Cure’s record label, and he did the marketing, among other things, for the group’s album “Wish” (1992). “Mostly,” he adds, “I was just chasing down people who were using Cure songs without the rights to do so, and busting them. I was like the publishing cop.”
And then, with some money saved up, Barbera moved to Redondo Beach.
Here on the West Coast, Barbera knocked on a few doors but never did get back into the music business.
“I figured it was time to do something different so I started tinkering with carpentry. I had this big garage, bought some power tools, and made a bunch of little tables. All of a sudden neighbors were buying them. I made maybe a hundred of these things, and they sold.”
Barbera had attended a liberal arts college in New Hampshire and had majored in art, with an interest in all its permutations, from sculpture and photography to antiques and basket weaving.
Well, making tables was just sort of a warm-up exercise, as it would turn out.
“I started buying antique trunks at flea markets. I liked how they looked and we (he and Lisa) had them all around the house. Then they started piling up in the garage.”
Ironically, at least from what I can tell, Barbera hadn’t really thought through what he’d end up doing with a garageful of old trunks.
But one day he came across the website of someone who refurbished them for a living.
“I didn’t know that people did this sort of thing,” he says. “I didn’t know there was any market for it.”
In most cases, and this was one of them, the people who do restore trunks attempt to be historically accurate, and make them look like they did long, long ago. But Barbera doesn’t.
“I go completely to left field with it,” he says. “I look at it like it’s just a canvas and I can do whatever I want with it. I haven’t been able to find anybody who does what I do, because – first of all – I wasn’t such a great carpenter than I could fix it back to originally the way it was. So I had to improvise, and I just started embellishing them.”
Before he knew it, Barbera had finished about 25 trunks. “And my wife was like, ‘You’ve got all this money invested in this stuff…’ I was buying brass, kind of fancy, not that I put a ton of money into each of them but it’s something of an investment.”
And so, with a manila folder full of photographs, he walked into HD Buttercup, the large designer store located in the old Helms Bakery building.
Barbera says that he went up to the first person he saw. The response was immediate: “This is great. How much do you want for them?”
The impression was that he’d found a buyer for the entire lot.
“I went home all excited and my wife was, wow, that’s great! Okay, get a truck; we’ll load ‘em up and bring ‘em in there.”
Which he did, but this time Barbera was told that the trunks would be taken on consignment. He wasn’t too pleased by that but figured it was better than having all of them sitting in his garage.
“Well, in a week they sold five or six of them. Now this designer guy’s calling me, saying, hey, you got more? What do you have?” Randall Barbera’s new career was now underway. “I thought, okay, this isn’t so bad.”
You probably went into this having no idea what your trunks could sell for, right?
“I had no idea,” Barbera replies. “I gave them to him on consignment for like five, six hundred bucks, and he was tripling that amount – and getting it.”
Realizing he might be able to earn more for himself elsewhere, Barbera found an online site called One Kings Lane. He placed about 20 trunks there, and most of them sold for about $2,500 or even higher. And to himself Barbera thought, “This is better than having a hit record.”
Pretty soon, Barbera was being contacted from other websites, and this was even before he had a website of his own. He says he gets calls on a weekly basis and now, having become affiliated with 1stdibs, the inquiries and orders are coming in from such faraway places as Dubai.
He’s quick to point out that it’s quite a turnaround from his days managing and doing press for rock and roll bands.
Before traveling light
And so, the obvious questions: What sets Barbera’s trunks apart from everyone else’s and who’s shelling out money for these things?
“Well, the design,” he says, answering the first question. “There is really nobody who takes a trunk and stands it on its head and does something completely different to it, like I do.” People whose aim is to get them back to their original condition probably hate him, he says, because he is, after all, improvising whereas they’re recreating each detail down to the letter.
Furthermore, while a trunk restorer may earn $500 for what he does, Barbera can claim several times that amount. It’s in the marketing, he says. It’s getting the word out there to the right people via the Internet.
Do people use these trunks when they travel, or do they just keep them at their homes?
“They’re more home décor pieces,” Barbera replies. “I think most of the people that buy them are interior designers. By and large it’s interior designers who are scouring the Internet for cool things to include in a project or an accent piece. You could use them (for luggage), but trunks kind of became obsolete in the ‘30s once airplanes became the way that people traveled. Because they’re too big, and suitcases were much more efficient.”
Is it likely that the supply of old trunks will dwindle and disappear? Barbera doesn’t think so.
The world is full of them, he says, and there are plenty in the States. “Some of these companies were pumping out like 100,000 of them a year back in the 1800s.”
Barbera finds them at flea markets – at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena or in Long Beach – and on Craig’s List. People clearing out their basement or attic find them and want to dispose of them, “and they sell them for hardly anything.”
However, Barbera stresses, “It’s dirty work. Stripping them is the part that I hate the most because literally I have to take it completely apart.” He removes every nail and also the old canvas. At the same time, he’s not insensitive to the individual nature or personality of each trunk.
“I get into these things,” he says. “Who was the last person who used this and what was in it? Where did it go? It could have been touched by thousands, tens of thousands of people, something that that’s old. I find this fascinating.
“And I’m stripping all this stuff and you get it down to the wood, and that’s when the fun starts. Then I start thinking, okay, where can I take this?”
Where he takes it is someplace a little different each time, and that’s one reason why each trunk has its own name, a name that distinguishes it from Barbera’s other trunks. But what impressed this writer is that in scrolling through a visual display of the various trunks they seem to roll by like circus wagons or circus cars on a train. They really do appear to have their own character with no two of them (as far as I can tell) being the same.
When you begin to design them, is it spontaneous or do you have an idea of what you’re after before you start?
“Sometimes the trunk will give me some inspiration,” Barbera replies.
I see it as sort of a conversation between you and the trunk itself, and it kind of tells you what it wants you to do with it.
“Very much so,” Barbera says. “And, yeah, I do get into it with the trunk. You develop this weird relationship with it. Very much, like, I guess, the way a musician does when you’re writing a song. A part of you comes out and it gives back something. It does dictate. A lot of times, though, it’s just what supplies I have.”
“It takes me about a week to do one from start to finish,” Barbera says, “which is slower than I’d like. It’s just my wife and I, and she’s handling the front-end office stuff. Since we’ve taken this on – and it’s been about four years – it’s a fulltime business. I’m up at 7 o’clock, 6 o’clock in the morning and I won’t finish until really late sometimes. What I’d like to do is be able to do three or four a week if I had more inventory.”
On the other hand, as I point out, one can only do so much without beginning to compromise the quality and the integrity of the product. And it’s not like he and Lisa necessarily need to churn out more merchandise in order to make ends meet. They sold dozens of refurbished trunks last year as well as trunk faces, which are essentially wall hangings made from various trunk parts.
“We’re able to make a very comfortable living off it right now,” Barbera admits. “I would like to be able to get to the next level, whatever that it. Being in 1stdibs is a step in the right direction in terms of getting a name out there to where you could, maybe, make less of them but charge more, which would be the ultimate goal. But I love them. I’ve never been so addicted to something since my days as a musician as I am to these things. And it’s weird because, well, ‘trunks,’ you know?”
Have you ever made any that you liked so much that you haven’t put them up for sale?
“No,” Barbera says with a laugh. “I try not to get so attached to them that that happens. We have a storage facility and most of them are in there, but there’re a few that we say, well, let’s just keep this one here for a while until it gets sold.”
You’re very happy, then, with your trunks?
“I’ve never been happier,” he replies. “Doing this I’m able to use all the different disciplines that I learned in college, because I took a very broad liberal arts, visual arts curriculum. This guy asked me today, what are you, an artist or a designer? And I said yeah, I guess all those things. Barbera laughs again. “I guess that’s my job title.”
Randall Barbera’s antique trunk restorations are featured on One King Lane, Second Shout Out, Joss & Main, Etsy, and the prestigious 1stdibs. In the South Bay, Hillside Gifts in Manhattan Beach and Maison Luxe in Hermosa Beach also carry them. But for the best information, go to randallbarbera.com.