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Steampunk: rebelling against soulless design

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The old Victorian homes that dot Providence and other New England communities convey the beauty and worksmanship of a bygone age. (As James Howard Kunstler has observed, there's no small irony in how when this country was less prosperous before WWII, the homes and public buildings were far more durable and aesthetically pleasing than those made following the boom years.)

Anyway, the emerging subculture of Steampunk weds Victorian ingenuity with contemporary uses while rebelling against streamlined design and the Wal-Martification of American culture. Sharon Steel writes all about it in this week's Phoenix:

The All-in-One Victorian PC is the perfect little black dress of computer modifications. It’s classic and timeless, but has a modern edge that makes it impossible to escape wolf whistles and elevator eyes. Like any good designer, Jake von Slatt knew he had to start with strong raw material. He purchased a 24-inch flat-panel Soyo monitor from OfficeMax for $299, and fabricated a shell to hide the rest of the computer — including a Pentium IV motherboard, disk drives, and a 350-watt PSU — behind and inside of it. Most DIY-ers, even some hardcore tech-geeks, would have stopped there, but von Slatt had barely begun.

He poked around his town dump until he found a knick-knack rack that reminded him of a Victorian-era stage set. Framing the monitor with the rack lent it the air of an antique pixel picture frame. Then, he added aluminum and pop rivets, followed by two long pieces of angle iron as “curtains,” to give the monitor-stage a trump l’oeil effect. Gold-painted flower scrollwork arches across the top like a crown, and tiny brass feet — miniaturized versions of the ones you’d see on a vintage bathtub — prop the utilitarian objet d’art a few centimeters off the table. A tightly coiled wire leads to an elegant, fully functional keyboard, the keys of which have been taken from a 1955 Royal Portable typewriter. The completed PC is a sexy, ebony-lacquered beauty trimmed in high-polished brass accents. Von Slatt, who is wearing a bowling shirt and a formal top hat, watches me admire his work with an affable smile. He looks, for all the world, like a man caught between two centuries. For that matter, so does his computer.

Up close, the PC is a tactile wonder, far more extravagant than the pictures I and thousands of others — it had been featured on Boing BoingEngadget, and digg.com — had gawked at online. I’m itching to press the typewriter keys and, when von Slatt unleashes the DVD drive with a ping and a flourish, I’m tormented that I don’t have the luxury of loading in a movie, say, The Wizard of Oz, so that I can steer this gothic tech-fantasy to a whole other place. But there’s so much else to stare at in von Slatt’s Littleton, Massachusetts, Steampunk Workshop — itself a big, pleasant jumble of anachronisms — that it becomes difficult to focus on any one thing.

Von Slatt (a pseudonym) recently blogged about his PC on the Web version of his Workshop (steampunkworkshop.com), detailing the process of its construction and the unique modifications he’d included. Given all of this, it’s hardly surprising that he has been lauded as a kind of tinkerer visionary, a man with the mechanical prowess (he’s an IT professional by day) and artistic skills to solder technology with craftsmanship and form a new artisanal DIY movement.

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