On a side street in the small village of West Cornwall, Connecticut you’ll find an unassuming little antique shop. If you didn’t know it was there, you might drive right by it thinking it’s just another house lining the narrow street that runs parallel to the railroad tracks that transect this quiet northwestern Connecticut neighborhood. The shop doesn’t have a name and the only sign is a tiny one on the steps of the front porch that says either “open” or “closed.” With the entrance well hidden behind two large fastigiate beech trees, the only clue that this place is inhabited by one of the northeast’s most celebrated designers is the stylish paint job that cloaks the exterior of the house. The little no-name shop is base camp for Michael Trapp, antiques dealer, interior and garden designer, and purveyor of all things aged and beautiful.
Inside, the converted 1830’s Greek Revival-styled house is packed, floor to ceiling, with all those objets d'art that have defined Trapp’s unique, eclectic style and have made him famous in the world of interior design. You’ll find brightly colored exotic Asian textiles and fabrics draped over centuries-old European furniture. There are glass cases filled with wonders from the natural world, pottery, stone vessels and urns, and enormous ancient clay olive jars in just about every corner. There are cabinets, doors, panels, and shutters, all with just the perfect patina and color of aging paint. And then there are the classical architectural fragments that Trapp has gathered from around the globe and have become one of his signature trademarks. His style, which could be said to run the gamut from shabby chic to opulent baroque, is hard to characterize but is very much recognizable as his own. So much so that it's not uncommon to hear someone describing the look of an interior as being very “Trappish.”
However, it's not just his interior design work that has gained him a huge following of admirers and clients. Trapp’s eye for detail and his antiquarian sensibilities know no boundaries. Trained in landscape architecture, his unique style also extends to the exterior and, for the garden lover, more surprises and delights are to be found just outside the back door of his shop.
Those lucky enough to visit Trapp’s private garden first follow a little cobblestone path around the side of the house that leads to the garden’s entrance where one truly enters another time and place. Because the garden presents such a surprise and is so very different from what one would expect to find in this rural Connecticut village, jaw-dropping might be the best way to describe the initial reaction from visitors.
It’s clear that Michael Trapp is an admirer of Italian classicism. Upon entering the garden, your eye is drawn immediately to the towering Junipers that, over the years, he has regularly and carefully pruned from very young plants to look like Italian Cypresses.
And, there is the romantic grotto adjacent to his lap pool that is draped on the exterior with wisteria and on the interior with Spanish moss, and filled with shells, sponges, coral and other natural wonders.
To add to the illusion that you are in a very European space, the entire garden has been built on a steep and terraced hillside like many gardens in Italy. But to pigeon-hole this garden as a replica, or even an interpretation, of an Italian garden would be a mistake. There are also borrowed elements from the French, evident in the orderliness of the edged cobbled paths and strong topiary shapes, as well as the English, with the “blowsiness” of some of the plantings that are reminiscent of cottage gardens that have been left to grow a little wild. In short, the garden reflects the same eclectic style and taste that defines the interior of Michael’s shop.
The entire garden covers less than a half-acre but, because it is built on a steep promontory and wedged between a creek and the Housatonic River, which you can view from the garden, it appears much larger.
It could be said that the most overarching quality in this garden is the patina of age that makes it feel like it has been here forever. That shouldn’t be unexpected given that Trapp is a self-proclaimed lover of beautiful objects that have been polished smooth with age, those that have been well used and cared for. And, his garden also feels well worn even though it’s not that old. Most visitors are astonished to find that the garden is just slightly over twenty years old. When Trapp began its design and construction in the early 1990’s he brought in truckload after truckload of stone and cobbles to build walls, paths, stairs, and create the terraces. He did all of the work himself and, at one point, literally broke his back doing it.
The garden is truly one of the most unique in the northeast. Luckily for us, Michael Trapp often generously opens it to visitors for charity events, including The Garden Conservancy’s Open Days program. You can visit the garden this summer during Open Days on Saturday, July 9. Click here for more information. And, you can learn more about Michael and his shop and garden by visiting his website at michaeltrapp.com.