Art Donovan is a lighting designer, curator and the author of a book about Steampunk. He spoke about the movement and how he learned to see beauty in electrical wires.
So what is Steampunk?
It’s been around forever, but what we now call Steampunk only really caught fire on the internet about seven or eight years ago. There were just one or two artists and they posted their work, which is when I discovered it. There was a fellow named Rich Nagy designing Steampunk computer keyboards: he’d take desktop keyboards and modify them with carved mahogany and brass and nickel and he’d create a keyboard that looked like it was made in the 1800s, and it was kind of ironic, to have a high-tech device looking like an analog machine. It caught my eye, because in the world of design, modern contemporary styling, mid-century styling has been pretty much the status quo for so long. And to see people getting into this type of design based on ornate classicism, it was a shock and it was also a big thrill because it opened up a whole world of possibilities for design that you just couldn’t address before this. If you mentioned anything from before 1940, it was not considered anything you’d want to cover. So it opened up everyone’s eyes to a new form of design. And boy, it really took off.
What do you think it is about Steampunk that broke people out of the mid-century design rut?
I think it was a perfect storm of a lot of cultural things that were going on. The biggest element was that although it’s very beautiful people had actually grown weary of simple designs like the iPhone that are so clean and sleek—that uncluttered design. And believe it or not young people had actually grown weary of it too because that’s all they’d ever used—anybody 35 and under, that’s what they grew up with, clean, crisp design. They were ready for something new, and the new turned out to be hand-wrought, ornate-mechanical-looking designs. In other words, the philosophical opposite of everything Steve Jobs had stood for in terms of design. But there’s another element that strongly influenced the popularity—the Maker Movement, doing things by hand, deconstructing things, making things yourself was also growing in great popularity. And so that was new too, because that hadn’t really been addressed since the 1950s, when books like Popular Mechanics were big, where we dropped the Maker Movement concepts for many decades. So the Maker Movement fed into Steampunk, and Steampunk helped feed the Maker Movement, and those two elements really combined, plus the ability to see something instantly on the internet. The immediacy of the internet gave them access.
And so how did you get involved in Steampunk?
I’ve been an artist and designer, full-time as a profession since 1975, which is a long time. I started out in package design, then going to advertising and industrial design in New York City. And then in 1990, my wife Leslie and I started our company called Donovan Designs for lighting. Product design became the focus of our work, and when I discovered Steampunk it played perfectly into what we do, which is custom lighting. It really leant itself to a new style of lighting design that hadn’t really been addressed—combining something vintage and antique and industrial, and doing it in lighting. That really wasn’t done. The love of seeing gears and cogs and springs, and being able to understand how something worked by looking at it, that became a real drive for Steampunkers. Just to give you a simple example: in terms of lamps, the thing you always had to used to do was make sure you hid the electric wire inside the lamp. Sometimes, in particular designs, that was very hard to do. With Steampunk, you make the wiring decorative and it’s actually part of the aesthetic. That was a great relief, to free the electrical wire from the lamp itself. You take the parts of the unit that were not considered aesthetically pleasing, and with modification you can make it a beneficial part of the design. It was very liberating. That’s the word, it was liberating. And just delightful.
Mr. Donovan will be giving a talk about Steampunk as part of East Hampton Library’s Author Talk series this Saturday, February 28, from 1 to 3 p.m. East Hampton Library is located at 159 Main Street in East Hampton Village. For more information call (631) 324-0222.