Matt Bass, a professor of software engineering at Carnegie Mellon, is used to gazing into the digital abyss and seeing patterns, puzzles and problems that can be solved by crafting layer upon layer of lines of code.
In his spare time, he has another passion that also involves looking deeply at things — a rusty storage tank left in the sun for decades, or a 300-year-old door from western India — and constructing a kind of aesthetic algorithm that reprograms them into something new. That’s how he has been creating striking, one-of-a-kind furniture and decor for years with Bass & Bennett Trading Co.
Bass originally created the company with a childhood friend — the Bennett part of Bass & Bennett — who is no longer involved with the project. But Bass liked the name, so it stuck. Bass has operated out of various locations — a warehouse in Tarentum, a farmhouse in Moon — but he has finally found the perfect spot to showcase the salvaged and upcycled items: a new showroom in the Strip District across the street from the Strip District Terminal.
“So we travel around, find cool stuff, and bring it back in shipping containers — from places like India, Oaxaca, Africa,” says Bass. “They’re either ‘found’ items, or architectural salvage that’s been repurposed. Everything has a story behind it.”
Bass is fascinated with the patina left on surfaces from rust, weather and age. It’s character that is almost impossible to duplicate.
A striking circular wooden table was once the humble wheel of an ox cart. A rusty metal liquor cabinet opens to reveal its former life as a form for shaping concrete.
Because of automation and globalization, the artisans who create items like those in Bass & Bennett may be the last of a dying breed.
“They’ve been doing this for hundreds and hundreds of years,” Bass says of a carved wooden block once used for stamping designs on fabric in Bagru, India. “People start learning when they’re 10 years old. But today the younger generation doesn’t do it anymore. They’re going off into IT and biology. So it feels like we’re capturing a piece of history that won’t be around for much longer and bringing it back.”
The idea for Bass & Bennett took decades to mature after years of travel, says Bass. He fell in love with India in 2018 on a trip that included a 26-hour train ride to Jaisalmer, and a hair-raising motorcycle ride along the Rohtang Pass, one of the most dangerous roads in the world. He was stunned by the intricate carpentry of Rajasthani doors and colorful traditional fabrics. He found artists creating contemporary furniture unlike any he had ever seen. So Bass decided that the next time he visited, he would bring as much back as he could.
The Strip District seemed like an obvious place to open a storefront to display treasures from the past.
“When we came here, it was a nightclub,” says Bass. “All the brick was covered up; it had a raised floor. But you could see the brick and the old produce warehouse underneath. They used to back the horse-drawn carriages up and unload produce from the loading dock. For us, the history and the character of the place were just perfect.”
He’s still a professor, and expertise in software engineering is obviously still in high demand. But Bass hopes to take a leave of absence for more travel and more acquisitions for Bass & Bennett’s shop. A recent motorcycle trip up the Ho Chi Minh Trail in Vietnam was especially captivating, and Bass plans to return in a few months to buy textiles and woven baskets from some of the hill tribes he encountered.
“I’ve been traveling forever,” says Bass. “I always travel by myself. When you come back and try to tell people about your experiences and show them pictures, it’s a very two-dimensional kind of experience. I feel like these are once-in-a-lifetime opportunities, and it’s a shame that I can’t share it with people, really. So this is sort of a way to do that.”