Steampunk: The Victorian future is now

Guitars, phones, workstations function — in good form

BY SCOTT STIFFLER  |  You know how it is. Your electric guitar emits a righteous sound — but it doesn’t have an antique pressure gauge. Your computer workstation is in desperate need of an aesthetic reboot by way of a tabletop crafted from an 1870s cast iron buzz saw. Your submarine is a sweet ride at 20,000 leagues — but it lacks a dirigible for aerial warfare. That perfectly functional tattoo machine you work with every day…why isn’t it housed in a casing shaped like a mosquito poised to draw blood?

Such thoroughly modern dilemmas (which most of us will face at some point) require the services of a forward-thinking designer capable of dipping into the past — or, more accurately, an alternate timeline — for inspiration.

Bruce Rosenbaum is your man. His work, and that of over a dozen likeminded artists, is featured in “Mobilis in Mobili: An Exhibition of Steampunk Art and Appliance” — on display through February 3 at the Wooster Street Social Club. A dynamic work of art in its own right, the SoHo tattoo parlor (location of TLC channel’s reality show “NY Ink”) is a fitting environment for the Rosenbaum-curated exhibit. Like the steampunk movement itself, tattooing requires imagination and ballsy acts of hybrid reinvention. On Wooster Street, dermal augmentation is committed with the help of machines whose whirling, droning and buzzing recalls our industrial past. Done right by a skilled practitioner, the object that emerges from this declaration of permanence invites stares and sparks conversation.


Steampunk: Origin of the Species

Traced all the way back to the steam powered science fiction of Jules Verne and H.G. Wells (and, more recently, the work of cyberpunk daddy William Gibson), the term “steampunk” is used rather liberally these days. No longer a mere literary reference, it can refer to anything from cinematic art direction (think “City of Lost Children”) to music (Thomas Dolby’s recent CD and online game for “A Map of the Floating City”) to lifestyle (see steampunk.com) to immersive environments (2011’s Abrons Arts Center haunted house had a steampunkish Alice in Wonderland theme).

What all these variations have in common, more or less, is an alternate universe/timeline narrative that marries science fiction’s love of futuristic technology with the fashion, architecture, gear and zeal for exploration found during Britain’s Victorian era. But no matter who’s doing the steampunking, and for what purpose, Rosenbaum says it’s author K. W. Jeter who gets credit for coining the term. Back in the late 1980s, he tossed it off to describe an emerging genre of literature he and a few others were exploring. Instead of setting their science fiction tales in the future, Rosenbaum notes, “They were going into the industrial past and imagining what kind of innovations people would come up with if they had the technology that we have today. With steampunk, there is this functionality, a practical use for these objects.” So when the ray gun of science fiction gets a steampunk twist, Rosenbaum speculates, “It might have these beautiful Victorian components made of brass and copper — but it would still be able to stun people.”


Practical Applications

Rosenbaum’s own take on the genre, he says, comes at it from a practical creative design perspective. His company, ModVic, is known for restoring Victorian homes (1850s to early 1900s) back to their original beauty while giving a steampunk makeover to everything from the layout to the home entertainment system.

Even though it’s how he makes his living these days, Rosenbaum didn’t realize he was a champion of the steampunk aesthetic until somebody outed him. “My wife and I have always been into architecture, history and salvaging gadgets,” he explains. After purchasing their own 1901 Victorian home just over a decade ago, the Rosenbaums embarked on a number of restoration projects. “We came up with this idea to bring in period objects,” he recalls, “but give them a modern use. Years later, when we finished, a friend came in and told us we were steampunking because we were mashing these time periods and making appliances that were also functional art. At that point, we got obsessive about it. Everything that came into the house had to have this idea of being beautiful and functional.”

Their company, ModVic (modern Victorian), was founded in 2007. What began as a way to add a few whimsical home furnishings to their restoration project has unexpectedly morphed into a career. The ModVic clientele no longer includes just those who want to give the old Victorian a bit of futuristic sprucing up. Their designs, he says, appeal to all kinds of people who love the beauty and craftsmanship that came out of objects made during the industrial age. “These things were meant to last forever,” Rosenbaum notes. “There was no such thing as planned obsolescence back then.” So Rosenbaum takes those durable objects and works them until they possess all the traits of fully functional modern housewares. “A great example of that would be what we did for a patent attorney in Boston. He wanted a computer workstation that had a story to tell, so he could use it as an example for his clients. He gave us a conference table that was his uncle’s. His father was a woodworker. So I found an incredible seven-foot cast iron band saw from the 1870s. It had two 36-inch wooden wheels with steel spokes; a beautiful sculptural form.” The computer now sits on that restored band saw — which, Rosenbaum points out, has been modified in a way that would allow the owner to bring it back to its original wood-cutting purpose.

No such flexible fate seems to have befallen the works in “Mobilis in Mobili: An Exhibition of Steampunk Art and Appliance.” Rosenbaum tasked himself and his contributors with developing a range of artistic works that incorporate authentic vintage elements and salvage components with modern functioning devices. The result: bicycles, cell phones, guitars, timepieces and entertainment systems that look as if they’ve been left behind by a time traveling Victorian with a knack for accessorizing.

Rosenbaum got a taste of his own edict recently when he was approached by the Revolving Museum (at the University of Massachusetts Lowell). Their proposal: take the latest hearing aids, wheelchairs and prosthetic limbs and give them the steampunk treatment. Says Rosenbaum (with gears in his head already churning), “They want to celebrate the technology, not hide it, and also give people who are disabled a comfort level. If you see someone in a wheelchair, sometimes you don’t know what to say.” But if it’s a tricked out steampunk device, he reasons, “Instead of asking them how they lost the use of their legs, you’re asking them where they got that cool wheelchair.”