What if the Industrial age happened at the same time as the computer age? That’s one of the questions Steampunk tries to answer. From its origins as a form of speculative fiction, Steampunk has spawned a new category of Victorian themed design. As a living laboratory for that trend, Bruce and Melanie Rosenbaum’s restored 1901 Victorian/Craftsman home in Sharon, Mass., demonstrates ingenious ways that old items can be given new life, instead of being discarded.
Back to the Future
When the Rosenbaums bought the home in 2001, their intent was simply to restore its architectural beauty. However, as antique enthusiasts they also liked finding ways to make period items serve contemporary lifestyles. When remodeling their kitchen, for instance, they used an antique printer’s desk for the kitchen island and found someone to put a Miele glass cooktop in a 110-year-old Mott’s Defiance wood-fired stove. But they didn’t know that what they were doing had a name. “Then someone came by and told us were Steampunking,” says Bruce Rosenbaum. “Our reaction was ‘steam what?’”
That knowledge was motivation to continue the Steampunk theme. The result is a home tastefully outfitted with salvaged items, many of which have been infused with modern technologies.
They have also since started two new businesses: Steampuffin.com, a website that sells Steampunk fixtures, and ModVic, a design firm that specializes in adding Steampunk touches to homes.
They are still in the negotiating state with their first design clients, but the clients they’re talking with include a witch museum in Salem, Mass, an Ohio homeowner who wants to Steampunk an 1894 firehouse that he lives in, and the head designer of a large footwear company who wants a Steampunk room in his New York apartment.
The Rosenbaums see these clients as early adopters and believe that the next few years will see broad popular interest. Some leading industry watchers agree; for instance, the December/January issue of House Beautiful named Steampunk as one of the four major design trends to watch in 2011. The reason for this optimism isn’t hard to see. Steampunk is a winning combination of green building’s commitment to recycling with a growing popular interest in antiques.
Yes, antiques. Despite —or perhaps because of —the relentless digitalization of everything, there’s a growing popular interest in collectibles. To see this in action, just look at the Nielsen Company’s television ratings: the two top-rated cable shows are “American Pickers” and “Pawn Stars,” History Channel programs that deal with the trade or resurrection of old items, many of which have a historical story behind them.
Form and Function
Steampunk takes this fascination with retro one better by saving the history and making it useful. It does so by transforming these old items from pieces of art into pieces of art that serve practical everyday purposes. Thus an old pump organ morphs into a computer workstation; an antique picture frame houses a TV screen; an old copper water tank becomes a filtered water dispenser. “We’re taking things from the late 1800s early 1900s and giving them new purpose,” says Bruce.
In a tough building market, he sees this a something builders and interior designers should seriously consider adding to their repertoire. “I know trades people who do great work and whose word of mouth reputation used to bring them enough business to get by during recessions,” he says. “But even these people are hurting now.”
Rosenbaum says that Steampunk lets them offer something fresh and creative that the competition doesn’t, and that the design lessons it offers can be used to update items from almost any time period. “If you’re working with a client who wants green technology and they don’t want it to clash with what they have, you can offer this as a design solution.”
He notes that the hard part is finding people to translate design into reality. “These are creative people who can use the visual and math sides of their brains; they have a rare ability to blend the technology into the period items in a way that’s seamless. They’re not easy to find.”
Rosenbaum was lucky to know “a really good restoration guy who is also a mechanic and fools around with electronics.” He also found a couple of businesses that do the type of period work he wanted, including Erickson’s Antique Stoves in Littleton, Mass., and City Lights Antique Lighting in Cambridge. After the home went on the Internet he started hearing from other artisans and now has access to arrange of artisans who work on Steampunk projects.
He says that the best projects to start with are in areas of the home where there is technology: kitchens, home offices, and home theaters. The results can look pure 19th Century or they can be a blend. “We had a boring 42” plasma TV. We found a mantle that had a mirror above it and put the TV in the mirror frame. The wires are all hidden behind the wall, and the TV is on a hinge so you can access them.”
On the other hand he converted an old photographer’s stand into a computer by visibly attaching a Mac min personal computer to it. “We’re celebrating the computer. It’s so small and so beautiful with brushed aluminum that I work it into the design and don’t try to hide it.”
But while both may both be examples of good design, the computer company, whose products last a few years a best, could learn a lot from the stand maker. “Steampunk goes back to a time when things had beauty and quality, and were made with pride. One reason we use items from the Victorian period is that there is a lot of that stuff still around because it was made so well,” says Rosenbaum. “They only knew how to make things that last forever.”
To view this article as it appears in our May 2011 issue, including additional photos and sidebars, please visit our Magazine Archive.