Art Donovan: “You’ve Been Punk’d!”

Lighting designer Art Donovan embraces the Steampunk movement of repurposing parts to create an eclectic mix of electrified objects.

enlightenment home lighting magazine reports on Art Donovan: Steampunk ArtistClick here to see a gallery of Art Donovan’s Steampunk Art

Who put the “funk” in functional? Manhattan native Art Donovan comes to mind.  As senior designer and head illustrator for Donald Deskey & Associates in New York City (the company’s namesake designed Radio City Music Hall in 1930), Donovan has long had an appreciation for the arts. His lighting company, Donovan Design, made its mark in the 1990s with hand-crafted custom lighting and sculptures embracing Art Deco influences.

In addition to his signature look, Donovan became intrigued by the Steampunk movement several years ago before it gained more widespread popularity and gone Hollywood. For example, movie director Martin Scorcese’s new film Hugo features the Steampunk theme prominently.

Donovan explains that Steampunk (the name was coined in the 1980s) harkens back to the glory days of the Industrial Revolution. Part of the recent appeal might also lie in the ideology’s “greenness.” With Steampunk – as well as the Maker movement – the philosophy is to repurpose items that already exist for your own means.

Where does one go to search for parts to use in a Steampunk design? “There is no magic place to find everything,” Donovan notes. Yard sales, antique stores, salvage and junk yards, and garage sales are all fertile hunting ground. “The components can be so diverse. Very often the pieces dictate what it is going to be,” he comments. Donovan and his business partner/wife Leslie, enjoy antiquing in New York and Connecticut together for unique finds that can be translated into sculptural lighting.

It was while researching industrial design for the next evolution to take shape in his line that Donovan discovered a delightfully retro computer keyboard originally designed by Jake von Slatt and with variations of it found on the Web site “I just flipped out when I saw these,” Donovan remarks. His curiosity piqued, Donovan began tinkering with the concept as it relates to his favorite mediums: sculpture and lighting.

The Steampunk movement is experiencing growing appeal among the newer generations. “Young people today have only been exposed to modern design. Their first phone was a smartphone, not a rotary model. They’ve never seen a cathode tube [for a television] but they all know what an LCD TV screen looks like,” Donovan comments. “They’ve only seen these antique technologies in old films.” That, however, is changing.

England was the first country to recently start teaching Steampunk in schools. “It gets kids involved in design classes and making things by hand and away from the touchscreen [and CAD programs],” Donovan states. “It’s about seeing how mechanical objects operate.” There are now similar classes sprouting up in U.S. universities.

From fall 2009 through winter 2010, the world’s first museum exhibition of Steampunk art was held at the Museum of the History of Science at The University of Oxford in England. Curated by Donovan, the exhibition encompassed the work of 18 artists from around the world and drew 70,000 visitors.

“My version of Steampunk has always been very fanciful with Middle Eastern influences, iconography, astrology, and science. I love reading about the architecture, patterns, and ancient navigational devices pioneered at that time in Persia,” he says. “When Europe was in the Dark Ages, the Middle East was flourishing in technology and science.” These interests are why Donovan surmises his lighting looks “non-European and a bit organic.”

Granted, there is a lot of individuality expressed through Steampunk creations. There is no mass production involved – especially when it comes to the more intricate pieces. Therefore, the Steampunk lamps and fixtures tend to be akin to limited editions.  That said, Donovan sells his work through online venues such as VandM® (the Vintage + Modern design marketplace), the Home Portfolio® catalog , plus No.1/1 (one of one) an online source for one-of-a-kind pieces – links to all of which can be found on his site:

“My style is always evolving. I’ve always tried to zag when everyone else was zigging. It’s about finding something different. You don’t need a Donovan Design lamp, but you certainly may want one,” Donovan says.

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