There's a porthole on Bruce Rosenbaum's toaster. His three-screen computer workstation used to be a pipe organ. In his basement, he's turning an industrial-era oil pump into a plasma lamp.
GATHERING STEAM Bruce Rosenbaum came upon steampunk long before the subculture went mainstream. Now, thanks to his "Steampunk House" and ModVic, his Victorian home-restoration company, he's showing his work at New York galleries and attracting interest from reality-television producers.
Rosenbaum is known, in certain circles, as "That Steampunk House Guy." But he was upgrading salvaged Victorian pieces long before he knew there was an entire community in tune with his high-tech antique aesthetic. Steampunk started as a 1980s literary genre, mixing science fiction with Victoriana, and evolved into a subculture on par with goth. But now steampunk is crashing into the mainstream, and Rosenbaum's right there with it — with shows at New York galleries, a feature in Victorian Homes magazine, and an upcoming lecture on steampunk design at the CraftBoston exhibition.
PHOTOS: A tour of the steampunk works of ModVic founder Bruce Rosenbaum
There's even a reality show in the works. "It's American Pickers, meets American Restoration, meets Pawn Stars, meets This Old House, meets Oddities," says Rosenbaum.
But fame is not Rosenbaum's main objective: "TV is just a vehicle to do more of what I want to do," he says.
As a child, Rosenbaum was obsessed with stage magic. He frequently bought new tricks, fascinated by the idea of creating illusions. He says magic helped inspire his pursuits in steampunk design.
"In some ways, it is like magic," says Rosenbaum. "Putting things together and giving the perception or the image of something that is totally magical."
He adds that 21st-century technology, if seen from a Victorian standpoint, is magical in itself. You'll have a hard time finding a flatscreen in his house that isn't fused with a relic from the industrial era.
Rosenbaum and his wife, Melanie, started antiquing together in the 1980s, when they began dating. After moving into a 1901 Victorian home in Sharon, they started filling the house with found period pieces and improving them to meet their modern tastes.
"We love antiques, we love salvage," he says. "[But] we didn't want pieces just to sit there and look pretty like in a museum. We wanted them to do something, we wanted them to be relevant, functional."
When the Rosenbaums upgraded an 1890s Defiance stove to include a sleek electric cook-top in 2006, a friend saw it and said, "Hey! You're steampunking!"
As Rosenbaum discovered there was an entire community already captivated by the beauty of anachronism, he began looking to turn his tinkering hobby into a business. In 2007, he started ModVic, his Victorian home-restoration and modernization company.
Five years later, business is still growing. In the past year, Rosenbaum's work has appeared on TLC, IFC, and even MTV's Extreme Cribs. He says he hopes 2012 will be the year he makes a living off steampunk design. If his current projects are any indication, those Victorian pipe dreams could become reality.
As a highly sought-after artist and designer, Rosenbaum's current projects range from a Nantucket hotel remodel with a six-foot-long mechanical whale, to a kinetic, humanoid "Full Head of Steampunk" statue he's building for this spring's CraftBoston — to him, the piece represents the left- and right-brain thinking needed for creating steampunk designs.