City Lights stumbles into Steampunk niche
Steampunk was not what City Lights Antique Lighting was selling. Not at first. Now it’s selling Steampunk in a big way.
After 35 years, this seller of high-end antique lighting fixtures has found a niche that lets owner Chris Osborne fulfill his creative urges. And while he now even owns several Web addresses touting the stuff, such as Steampunklighting.com, Osborn says he stumbled into creating items to fit into the baroque, eccentric feel of the genre, which puts high-tech into Victorian brass. (Think Terry Gilliam’s “Brazil” or, if you must, of “Wild Wild West” and its giant, mechanical spider.)
In May, Osborne came into some old work lights — the kind bolted to sewing machines and lathes back when there was a lot of lathe work being done here — and started readying them for sale, attaching gears and wheels so they could stand on their own, as well as selling components for a style he’d always known as “New York Industrial.”
But when the first examples of these antiques made it to the floor of his 2226 Massachusetts Ave. shop in early summer, a browser told him, “Boy, these are real Steampunk.”
“I didn’t know what that was, but I started looking into it … and getting more excited,” Osborne said Wednesday. “There’s little room for creativity [in antiques], so this is really great fun. It’s changing my aesthetic a little bit.”
With the original lathe lights, farm salvage from Kansas and, increasingly, finds from flea markets such as knobs and nonworking but intriguing glass-faced valves, he began identifying and marketing his work as Steampunk. The work is fun to do, he said, and has a solid base of buyers locally and online. Cambridge and Somerville have many Steampunk adherents, including the various members of the performance art band Walter Sickert & the Army of Broken Toys (which advertises some of its shows as “steamcrunk”).
There may be around 4,000 Steampunk fans in the area, said Steampunk evangelist and home renovator Bruce Rosenbaum. That’s about how many showed up for the New England Steampunk Festival in May at Waltham’s Charles River Museum of Industry & Innovation, Rosenbaum said, when “we had been thinking maybe a few hundred people would show up.”
It was Rosenbaum who connected the Cambridge Art Council with Osborn for a window display at the Porter Square shopping plaza. Like with the festival, Osborn has been surprised by the number of people drawn to his store by the display.
“I never thought it’d get as much exposure as it did,” he said.
Next up for him is modifying a bunch of antique oak boxes into lights, with the first in the series ideally done toward the end of next week. If he can create the unique items quickly enough, they should sell for about $250 each, he said. His table lamps sell for between $400 and $800, and floor lamps for between $800 and $1,200.
Rosenbaum said he hoped to include Osborn’s work in a “Back Home to the Future” exposition at the Philly Expo Center in Pennsylvania next March, as well as feature it online. The exposition and online catalog is branded through Rosenbaum’s ModVic.com (for “modern Victorian”) restoration and renovation business.
After that is the next Steampunk World’s Fair, which Rosenbaum thinks can be billed fairly as the largest such gathering in the world. Some 15,000 people are expected for the May event. Osborn’s work will be included, of course, although he said he plans to keep doing some plainer New York Industrial.
“I’ll always do some of that,” he said of the more streamlined Industrial work. “But Steampunk gives me more latitude to subvert with ornamentation.”