That Victorian vibe

This wedding gown, influenced by the HBO series "Deadwood," blends sci-fi with Victorian.
This wedding gown, influenced by the HBO series "Deadwood," blends sci-fi with Victorian.
Posted: February 28, 2011

BRUCE ROSENBAUM and his wife, Melanie, cook their food on what looks like a cast-iron Victorian stove. But the stove, like many items in the Rosenbaums' kitchen, has been gutted and repurposed. There's a modern appliance inside that antique shell, a theme that repeats itself from the fridge to their water heater.

"We created this romantic Victorian feel to it," Bruce Rosenbaum said. "But everything works."

The Massachusetts couple have steampunked their kitchen.

Steampunk is a relatively new subculture that is a mishmash of Victorian aesthetics with modern technology. The idea extends from home to fashion as well - a man wearing a top hat and goggles, perhaps, or a woman in a corset and jet pack.

This weekend, Rosenbaum and Jeff Mach of Hackensack, N.J., will present what may be the first steampunk expo, at the Philadelphia Expo Center in Oaks. The expo combines two events: a home show and sale called Back Home to the Future, and a lifestyle event dubbed the Alternative Living Expo, which will include an alternative wedding fair.

You've probably seen steampunk before, you just might not know it. Think Will Smith's 1999 version of "Wild, Wild West" or Robert Downey Jr. in "Sherlock Holmes." Both movies were firmly planted in their 19th-century time periods, but each of their main characters used modern technology to triumph over evil.

Philly is no stranger to steampunk. Since last June, local steampunks have been communing in the DoubleTree of Center City at Dorian's Parlor, a semimonthly gathering. The next Dorian's Parlor, which includes vendors, bands and DJs, is scheduled for March 12. Gil Cnaan, who founded Dorian's Parlor and serves as an organizer for the steampunk expo, said that the Philadelphia community is growing. When he started Dorian's Parlor, about 85 people showed up. Now, about 200 people attend.

Steampunk originated in sci-fi and fantasy books, specifically K.W. Jeter's 1987 Infernal Devices. While the genre didn't exist yet, steampunk can be found in the work of H.G. Wells and Jules Verne.

"It's a mad, semifuturistic Victorian fantasy where we can play with creativity and individualism," said Mach, who has a steampunk event-production company called, appropriately, Anachronism. "We can remove things, like some of the social mores and poor personal hygiene [of the Victorian era] and keep the things we like."

One of the most fascinating aspects of steampunk as a subculture is that there are few staunch rules and regulations. No cool kids can tell a perspective steampunk that they don't fit the profile. "It's the only movement of its kind where there's no barriers and no boundaries," said Mach.

Rosenbaum agreed.

"Steampunk is about reimagination, so there's no right or wrong way to be steampunk," he said.

That could be due in large part to the Internet. Mach believes that steampunk is the first subculture to be shaped by the Internet age and crowdsourced. Rather than being an exclusive club, steampunk is rising from communities all over the world who share their do-it-yourself designs and have meet-ups like Dorian's Parlor.

Mach, Cnaan and Rosenbaum's participation in steampunk is representative of the subculture's fluid identity. Mach said he enjoys the fun and whimsy of the lifestyle, while Cnaan said he appreciated how it adds elegance to everyday life.

Mach is spearheading the alternative living aspects, which will feature "all kinds of stuff you won't find in your local shopping mall," he said, and includes the alternative wedding show for those looking to get married with a decidedly different flair.

Rosenbaum prefers the way steampunk objects look. He operates a direct-mail business to pay the bills, but as a side job he runs ModVic, a Victorian home-restoration and steampunk home- and object-design company. Rosenbaum had long been an antiquer and had started repurposing Victorian furniture long before a friend told him what he was doing fit into steampunk.

Rosenbaum said he was attracted to steampunk because there was pride in Victorian craftsmanship. Everyday objects were made to last, unlike modern technology, which can become obsolete in a matter of years.

At Back Home to the Future, Rosenbaum will set up a 20-by-20-foot kitchen outfitted with steampunk design similar to his own as an immersible experience for attendees. The expo will also feature other repurposed objects - such as computer work stations - and raw materials others can try for themselves.

"My whole push in the design aspect is that you can have these beautiful objects in your house but it doesn't have to be a museum piece where it just looks pretty. It does something," Rosenbaum said. "If you can surround yourself with beauty, you can have a beautiful life."

Greater Philadelphia Expo Center at Oaks, 100 Station Ave., Oaks, 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Saturday (music continues till 8:30 p.m.) and 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Sunday. $20 ($15 online) for both days, 484-754-3976, www.alternativelivingexpo.com.

Dorian's Parlor, DoubleTree of Center City, 237 S. Broad St., 8 p.m.-1 a.m. March 12, $25, 215-893-1600, doriansparlor.com.

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