My wife Rachel is friends with this great couple up in Ipswich, Massachusetts who are big collectors of textiles and Asian antiques. Tom Arsenault and Paul Morse met in the blizzard of 1977 in Boston and started a lifelong relationship, as well as an antiques business. They are also good friends with designer Michael Trapp (who I profiled earlier last year) and served as the inspiration for his imaginative style. Their stories of their travels throughout Tibet, Nepal, and all over southeast Asia are only second to the adventurous style in their home, which was mainly built in the 1600’s (with an addition built in 1808). Tom is also a lauded artist. Rachel took some lovely photos on our last visit, and we thought it would be nice to share a bit about them with you. Here's my conversation with Tom.
The Red Room. Tom’s painting entitled Albino Deer. Quilt is Indian.
Tell us a bit about yourself. What kind of house did you grow up in?
I grew up in a Victorian house in Newburyport, Massachusetts, known for its many antique and elegant Federal Period homes built with Clipper ship trade money. It’s all very ‘hoity toity’ now, but when I was growing up it was a bit shabby and run down. I remember exploring empty houses and playing in my neighbor’s barn full off old family possessions. My mother was an artist and teacher. She was constantly repainting rooms and rearranging the furniture. This is probably where my mania come from.
More of The Red Room. Tom and Paul hang art and tapestries on doors out of necessity as they’ve run out of wall space. American Tiger Maple chest of drawers from the 1820’s.
How much has evolved since you began decorating?
Paul and I used to go to Asia every winter and bring containers of antiques here. I would have to display everything in our house and barn. Sometimes in a large tent. Things were very ‘chock-a-block’. I pride myself on fitting lots of things in small spaces. Layering is a great skill of mine. We would have great open houses and sell lots of stuff. Those days are since past, but I still sell antiques here. So things by necessity get moved around.
Robbie, Tom and Paul’s dog, enjoying himself in the main living room, which was called ‘the keeping room’ in the 1600’s and 1700’s - where people would sit and eat. Hunsinger rocker. Antique ikat on ceiling.
Do you alternate artwork?
My artwork is probably what moves around the most here. I like to hang recently completed pieces to see how I feel about them. Pieces get sold and go out for exhibition. I think it’s good to move things about. It can re-energize a room and make you see things differently.
Tom’s abstract and collage paintings in a guest bedroom. The center diptych is comprised of items found in Tom’s parents house. Sleigh bed from Michael Trapp. Quilt is American, rug is Persian.
Do you have any advice for beginning a personal textile / art collection?
My advice for would-be textile collectors is to find something that makes you happy. Do your research. Go to shows to see how things feel in person and museums to see great pieces. The internet makes everything so much easier to study. I enjoy finding something I’ve not seen before and trying to figure out what it is.
So much art, they use one of the guest bathrooms as a gallery of sorts.
Tom collects sculptures of hands and paintings of hands. His collection is on a 17th century Tibetan storage box. Tom’s painting he made the year of the tsunami in 2004.
Collection of seashells on an altar table from Java. Tom’s painting in the background. Chest is from Tibet, 18th century.
Any stories behind specific pieces, like the chandelier over the dining table?
My “chandelier“ over my dining table is made of Nepali bronze temple lamps 19th century. Hung with chains and various lamp prism crystals I have collected. This part of the house is probably very early 18th century with ceilings so low you can touch them . Necessity is the mother of invention. Also speaks to my obsession with making collections. The house is full of them.
Chandelier of Nepali temple lamps. Hand woven silk tablecloth from Assam, India.
Tell us about where you find your textiles.
Almost anywhere. Embroideries, weaving, ikats and tie dyes from Central Asia, Middle East, Africa, India, Southeast and East Asia, Europe.. I am attracted to color and design. I sell and sometimes collect antique textiles.
Main bedroom. As Tom says, ‘Everything looks good in lavender.” Suzani on the bed is from an Istanbul trip when shopping with Michael Trapp. Ritual Cabinet from Tibet. The four masks are from Bhutan and represent a couple when married and then in old age.
What advice would they give a traveler who’s never gone anywhere except Europe and the Americas?
My advice for traveling is familiar: Get off the beaten path. This takes time, I know and is harder to do than when I started going to Asia. I count myself so fortunate to have traveled to places like Tibet, Laos, Cambodia and Burma when they first opened up to tourists. We would spend two or three months in Asia every winter. At least a few weeks or more shopping in Kathmandu shopping. Also a great way to meet people and get a different understanding of a culture.
Bronze vases from Nepal with dried flowers in the mud room.
If there was a fire and you could grab just one item, what would you grab?
If there was a fire here I think I would just grab my little dog and run.
Mudroom with collection of faux Greek pottery.
If you could go anywhere (or any time period) where would it be?
Like everyone I think, I would probably choose to return to my youth and be able to act with all the wisdom I’ve acquired. Hah!
Embroidered sash from India on door, and Persian embroidery on the left.
Exterior of house with Tibetan prayer flags.
You can find Tom on Instagram at @tomarsenault1. Tom sells directly, and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. He is also a seller at The York Antiques Gallery in York, Maine, and he sells textiles & jewelry at the Antique Textiles Vintage Fashion Show. Some of his paintings are viewable at Michael Trapp’s West Cornwall, Connecticut store.
Tom Arsenault (left) and Paul Morse in Bali. Photo by Michael Trapp.