Simple, but True

I love the blog Knock Off Wood because it shows me how to build furniture comparable to Crate & Barrel, etc. Ana, the blogger, said the most simple thing today that seems to be the central point of my thesis, as yet.

When you buy something, it comes with a price. When you build something, it comes with a story.

Kind of brilliant, right?

Artifact Analysis: Remington Keyboard

This is the “Remington keyboard,” created by Quentin, a maker in Paris, France. According to the blog writeup at Of Small Wonders and Great Wanders, Quentin has been interested in the Victorian era for quite some time. He mentions Houdini, Tesla, Art Nouveau, etc, calling the era “rich,” “creative,” “dynamic,” etc.

As with other Steampunks, Quentin was intrigued by the idea of “the future that never was,” and “retro-futurism.” It wasn’t until he began looking online, however, that he discovered the term Steampunk and the varied associations with it. I’d like to use Quentin’s words to show how he responded to Jake von Slatt’s keyboard; emphasis mine:

That’s how I discovered Mr. Von Slatt‘s creations and especially his “steampunk keyboard“, a brilliant idea with great appeal to the geek living inside of me (I hear him sometimes at night, screaming insults to me in php language… it’s hard you know). Inspired by his work I decided to try it, but of course without copying his original (first because I don’t have any workshop and any of Von Slatt’s tools, second because imitation is pointless, you always have to, at least, add your own touch!).

This is a pervading attitude within the DIY community, and DIY arm of Steampunk. It’s not enough to try to replicate what someone has done previously, whether it is because you don’t have the same tools, materials, knowledge, etc.

The fact is that no matter how you try to replicate what someone else does, it will never be an exact replica because you are not that person. You are you, and therefore, you will do things differently. You will flourish your paint brush with a different flick of the wrist, etc.

Let’s move on to the artifact analysis, shall we?

Identification

This is a keyboard that belongs to a Remington typewriter. It has been modified with leather, brass buttons, brass tubing, other metal embellishments, and what looks like gold paint beneath the leather.

Evaluation

According to the writeup, this is the first time Quentin has attempted such a modification. Quentin must have had some experience working with leather previously, because it is known to be a difficult material to work with due to its inflexibility and general unwieldy nature. The brass and metal embellishments are a nod to the Victorian aesthetic as admired through Tesla, Houdini, etc.

The name of the keyboard has more than one meaning, especially to those with some historical interest. True, as Quentin mentioned, the keyboard is a Remington brand. However, there is also the Remington arms company, a separate entity, as well as the company which produced both Remington guns and typewriters. I suspect the style of the keyboard modification is a nod to the historical context of the keyboard itself.

Cultural Analysis

Once again, we have a man modifying a keyboard, but this time in Europe rather than the United States, which suggests that cross-culturally, it is more likely for a man than a woman to modify the aesthetics of technology. Mind that I don’t say it is impossible for a female to do such a modification, I plan to do one once I get the time (i.e. graduate and get a job). Suffice it to say, however, that I didn’t even think of doing it until I saw von Slatt’s work, and then the derivative works of those inspired by him.

That said, this keyboard is a perfect example of how Steampunks inspire one another. Here we have Quentin, a blogger so inspired by von Slatt’s work, so empowered and emboldened by von Slatt’s explanation of how he did his modification, that Quentin thought, “Hey, he did it, I can too.” Yet, Quentin didn’t have the same tools or materials as von Slatt for the modification, which didn’t deter him, I suspect, because he was confident in his ability to adapt von Slatt’s detailed instructions.

Like von Slatt, Quentin used Remington keys, but unlike von Slatt, it seems as though Quentin began with an original Remington typewriter and modified it to fit his particular Steampunk style, rather than beginning with a modern keyboard and modifying it to seem old/Steampunk-like. Given its already Victorian style and history, I am surprised that Quentin applied the “future that never was” aesthetic to the fully functional typewriter. Not only that, but he added buttons to the keyboard that are, as far as I can tell, unrelated to the function of the typewriter but map to a computer keyboard. This is, I feel, because of von Slatt’s inspirational work, which dealt with a computer keyboard. There is no need for a typewriter to have the Function 1 – 12 keys; a typewriter’s function is to place ink on a page according to the keys typed.

Additional buttons that were added include the arrow keys, but the arrows have been replaced by hands pointing in the left-right-up-down directions. It’s a whimsical touch that one often sees in Steampunk modifications, adding something distinctly human to an otherwise sterile interaction between a person and the keyboard key. Oddly, the backspace, enter, tab keys, and the like, have been reduced to arrows, for reasons unknown. Perhaps because these arrows save space on the small buttons for the identifying function, whereas a computer keyboard has larger-sized keys for these important functions, distinguishing them from letters and numbers?

A brass U-shaped pipe has been added to the top right corner of the keyboard in homage to the obsession with steam-powered artifacts within the Steampunk culture, and the “future that never was.” It doesn’t seem to do anything, and is there for purely aesthetic reasons. The existence of this non-functional part of the keyboard undermines the rigid social constructs of technology, that being whatever needs to be there, should be there, and anything unnecessary shouldn’t. Have you ever seen a keyboard with a random tube sticking out of it, for no reason other than because it made it look a little more “cool” to the owner? I hadn’t until I began looking at Steampunk modifications.

As mentioned above, the leather is intriguing to me, as it references the history of Remington as both a typewriter and gun manufacturing company. I claim that the leather references the gun portion of the Remington company because in the 19th Century, most gun holsters were made of leather. The leather hearkens back to a more rustic time in western history, when everything in our world was mechanical, supported by leather, steam, and an enthusiastic view of the future to come. It’s a tongue-in-cheek combination of both into one, revealing the humor that often occurs with Steampunk modifications, that being the juxtaposition of unexpected with the mundane. The keyboard, as mentioned by one of the blog post commenters, seems to be more of a “laboratory or field-use model than the parlor room.”

An additional comment on the blog post struck a chord with me, that being “I’m not so talented, but I can copy so, I am working on recreating von Slatt’s design myself.” There is something to the transparency of both von Slatt and Quentin’s work which speaks to others in the community. Whether the steps to the modification are explicit or not, others are able to see where changes were made, and can extrapolate to determine how they would do the same. It’s inspiring, to say the least.

Interpretation

It seems the community aspect of the DIY arm of Steampunk is integral to the creation of such artifacts, especially similar modifications like keyboards. Not only do individuals inspire one another, but the modification of one will color the modification of another. For example, Quentin’s modification looked like a “field-use model” rather than the more typical “parlor room” models one usually sees with Steampunk keyboard modifications. Did this inspire other styles of keyboard modifications?

The explicit explanations from von Slatt’s modification empowered and enabled Quentin to do his modification. What can we learn from this as designers?

Perhaps if we provide the rationale behind our designs, it will allow our more advanced user-makers to interpret, adapt, and/or alter the design to their particular style. When these advanced user-makers explain what they did and why they did it on their blogs, intermediate and beginner makers will feel inspired and enabled to do something similar, but at their level. At least, it’s a theory I have, based on what I’m seeing from the emerging communal relationships between Steampunk keyboard user-makers.

*I’m not sure where I just came up with the term user-maker, but it makes sense to me. Perhaps I ought to write another post exploring my meaning behind this term…

Artifact Analysis: Von Slatt Keyboard

I begin my keyboard artifact analysis by looking at the Steampunk inventor/artist who seems to inspire almost everyone else, Jake von Slatt. A little bit of background, first.

“Meet Mr. Steampunk”

According to an article in Wired, von Slatt (a pseudonym) is an “IT professional, managing Beowulf clusters for a small research firm outside of Boston.” Von Slatt describes himself as a “Steampunk mechanical hacker” who believes the “do-it-yourself and Steampunk movements are driven by the same obsession: the idea that a single mad engineer working in his lab can help change the world by having mastery over his machines.”

Von Slatt is, as P8 from my interviews would say, is a maker. A maker, according to P8, is more than a crafter because of their willingness to be open with their process; to teach, to encourage feedback and discussion. It would be one thing for von Slatt to make his beautiful inventions and keep them to himself and his family. It’s an entirely different thing now that he’s put them online, documented his process so others can replicate it and alter it to suit their personal style.

I’ve been unable to get a direct interview with Von Slatt, which is completely understandable since he’s the celebrity of Steampunk: everyone I have managed to interview has mentioned his name. That said, I’ve seen some of the interviews he’s given for Wired Science, etc, which helps me analyze his creative process (I hope).

The Keyboard Mod

According to von Slatt, he went into this modification knowing he wanted to build a functioning keyboard that was nice enough quality to use every day. I’m very lucky as a researcher because von Slatt has made his entire creative process available for me to analyze, and creative commons attribution, at that.  So to begin, let’s look at the before and after of the finished piece.

Before:

After:

Identification

According to the write-up, this keyboard is made of the original IBM Model M “Clicky” keyboard base, brass plating, keyboard keys, brass-rimmed buttons, photo paper to cover the buttons,  felt, translucent acetate, G.E. Silicon II Window and Door Sealant, gaffer’s tape, clear lacquer, and black spray paint.

Evaluation

It’s fairly obvious to anyone looking at this keyboard modification that not only is von Slatt a tinkerer, he knows what he is doing. Not only does he know what he is doing, but he is able to describe and explain what he is doing so others can replicate his process.

For example, the reason why he chose the Model M keyboard was because it has “removable key caps and the under-cap has a flat surface ideal for affixing a new key top.” What can we learn from this as designers? Perhaps that it is okay if we make objects that our users can pull apart without ruining the functionality? It should be noted that even though the key caps were removable with a screwdriver, von Slatt took care to do it properly. After removing the keys, von Slatt cut off the “skirt” that surrounds the key post by using a dremmel tool, and sanded the edges so that the key post is flat enough for a keyboard keys to be glued to it. It is this level of detail that we can expect from von Slatt. He used gaffer’s tape to deaden the sound of the keys clattering against the plastic, and lined the top of the keyboard with black felt to cover the beige plastic of the keyboard bed, I assume.

The base of the keyboard is made of brass plate, which, while being the favorite of Steampunks, seems to be a metal that von Slatt has liked for years, as said in his Wired Science interview. As with other Steampunks, von Slatt seems to have been interested in such metals and aesthetics before there was such a term as Steampunk. Contrary to the true Victorian aesthetic, which we tend to see as an egregious amount of decoration, von Slatt wanted the design of the keyboard to be “simple and clean.” The resulting design actually takes up less space than the original model.

The key faces are a mixture of typewriter keys and print-outs for the function keys. As the typewriter didn’t have the corresponding mappings for our function keys (1 – 12), von Slatt typed roman numerals on photo paper, and glued them to some brass-edged buttons he found. The extra spaces left from the larger keys (enter, backspace, caps lock, etc) were covered with the left-over holes from the felt.

Cultural Analysis

Everyone, and I mean everyone, in the Steampunk community knows about Jake von Slatt. What he does, and what he shows on his website, is seen as gospel, as it were. What for him are fun experiments to be shared with others have become inspirational sources for others who never knew they could have keyboards and LCD monitors that would fit in with their preferred style.

The most interesting part of Steampunk modification is its explicit intertextuality, as listed below.

  • Steampunk modification references the lush aesthetics and materials of the Victorian era.
  • Steampunk modification suggests the romantic meaning we associate with the Victorians.
  • Steampunk modification borrows techniques from other Steampunk modifications.

Before I go into more detail about the Victorians, I should, for full disclosure, admit that most of my knowledge of the Victorians is of the English, not American, history. This is due to my extensive and intensive research for a novel I am in the process of writing, set in the 1880s.

Now then. The Victorians were known for their intricate handwork, and the rising tensions between industrialization and craftsmanship. Why? Because machinery was on the rise, farming was on the outs, and with it, handcraft. In England especially, the method of farmers tilling the land and the aristocracy owning it was on the downward slope due to the United States flooding the market with cheaper imports of flour, wheat, cotton, etc. The English market simply couldn’t keep up, and so turned its eye to manufacturing using the imported raw materials. The rise of industrialization, i.e. machinery replacing men, concerned William Morris. William Morris was the craftsman, artist, and architect who began the Arts and Crafts Movement, where the point was to combine form and function so they worked inseparably, creating, as I’ve often quoted before, a “thing of beauty forever.” He championed and romanticized the handwork of artisan masters and disdained the impersonal, shoddy work of machinery-made products. I say champion and romanticize because he argued for the more complex, more intricate, more meaningful production that a craftsman could create in comparison to the simpler, impersonal products Victorian machinery created.

Steampunk, as I see it, is a continuation of this Arts and Crafts movement issue. It romanticizes the Victorian era as a simpler time, the “good ole times,” as it were, before the age of  the impersonal, cold, sterile computer.  The Victorians used what we consider lush materials, both for aesthetic and pragmatic reasons. There was no such thing as mass production at the time, at least not to the scale we see today, and so we see the Victorians as carefully handcrafting all the everyday objects in their homes and offices. We see the formality and wish for the elegance. Simple objects like pitchers, writing desks, telephones, chairs, etc, have a level of detail and organic beauty that we rarely see in designs today. When we call something beautifully designed today it’s for the clean lines, the distinctly modern and stark style that we think futuristic designs should look like. And computers, of all things, should have modern, contemporary designs, right?

Beyond all this, Victorian designs are still around today, which speaks to their longevity. We know what a Victorian typewriter looks like not only from photos, illustrations, and advertisements, but also because people today still own them and see them as objects of beauty. Same thing with light posts, cash registers, and other random objects that people use for decorative purposes in their homes. The Victorian designs were built for disassembly for the simple reason that they couldn’t design it otherwise; they didn’t have the technology, often enough, to completely close off an object’s form and prevent curious exploration.

The same thing happened with modern computing. When the personal computer came into being, computers were made for disassembly because we didn’t have the technology to do otherwise. This became the play space of the curious tinkerer, and companies such as Apple actually included the hardware specifications to encourage use and exploration in the 1980s. Where did that go? Why don’t companies do that today? Part of this culture disappeared because our market has turned into a services industry, which means by definition the majority of our population doesn’t work with its hands anymore. With this comes the realization that we miss working with our hands, and so turn to a time when working with our hands was more prevalent, i.e., the early Victorian era.

Why not other eras, I wonder? I’ve come to realize that so much of Western culture today is heavily influenced by the Victorians, due to the first time in history England had a “middle class.” We are in the midst of a global economic crisis, and here in the United States we are losing our middle class. We are on the tail end of what the Victorians began, and that frightens us, because we don’t know where to go from here. We can’t relate to the Georgian or Regency, for instance, because those cultures still clung to the more traditional market of aristocracy and everyone else. Everyone else being farmers,  merchants, lawyers, clergy, etc. The Victorian middle class began the obsession with cleanliness equating to Godliness, because they needed a way to distinguish themselves from the lower classes, who perhaps didn’t have the time or energy to be constantly cleaning. The Victorian era was dirty, my friends. It took a full day to do simple laundry because the washing machine was in the process of being invented. There was constant black smoke spewing from the stovepipes and chimneys of London, rats, cockroaches, and rampant exploitation of children in the factories. But we don’t reference these things with Steampunk, we reference the excitement of innovation and exploration that happened during the Victorian era. We want to feel the golden glow of being a part of Victoria’s Empire; we want the hopeful gaiety of the era, and forget our apathy and ennui.

Interestingly, I’ve found that of the Steampunk modifications, men tend to do technology such as keyboards, monitors, etc, and women tend to do jewelry and costuming. This isn’t to say the opposite doesn’t happen, it’s just what I’ve found as yet. Why is that? Why do men modify technology, and women jewelry/clothing? Culturally speaking here in the United States, this is a fairly typical gender distinction. I know I am an anomaly for the simple fact that I am a female with a computer engineering degree, I am not afraid to dive into the guts of my computer or encourage someone else to do the same because I know I have access to a tutorial online from someone who is, presumably, more experience than I am with such matters. Besides which, I have the experience of working with my father with his computers when I was younger. He taught me the rules about grounding oneself when working in a mini-tower to prevent my inevitable static electricity from shorting the motherboard, and how to vacuum the dust from the interior without pulling out the more delicate pieces, etc.

Interpretation

Um… Jake von Slatt is my hero, and I can see why everyone and their mother is inspired by his works?

In all seriousness, it seems to me there is a lot to interpret here. First, why choose a keyboard to modify? Von Slatt had the keyboard, I assume, since 1989 based on the fact that he also knew the exact model of machine that came with the keyboard. There was history with the keyboard, and a knowledge of how to take it apart without destroying the actual functionality. There is also the fact that, being an IT manager of Beowolf clusters, the keyboard is his livelihood. He no doubt works at a keyboard every day, and why shouldn’t a professional of his caliber have a nice instrument with which to work?

As a designer, I see the following points as opportunities to empower my user:

  • I can design for disassembly.
  • In designing for disassembly, I can provide the specifications of the design to encourage exploration.
  • In designing for disassembly, I can provide tutorials and side projects online to encourage a dialogue and therefore more personal meaning.