Obsolete gadgets now arty decor

New generation of designers and nostalgia fans turn old things such as cassette tapes into art

Audio cassettes are used like mosaic tiles to render a portrait of singer James Brown in the home of architectural designer Chris McCullough.
Audio cassettes are used like mosaic tiles to render a portrait of singer James Brown in the home of architectural designer Chris McCullough. PHOTO: NEW YORK TIMES
Audio cassettes.
Audio cassettes. PHOTO: NEW YORK TIMES
Tape from old audio and VHS cassettes is used by artist Erika Iris Simmons to create portraits.
Tape from old audio and VHS cassettes is used by artist Erika Iris Simmons to create portraits.PHOTO: NEW YORK TIMES

New York - In Noah Baumbach's 2014 movie, While We're Young, Josh and Cornelia, ageing Generation X Brooklynites (played by Ben Stiller and Naomi Watts) who are desperately trying to reclaim their youth, are struck by what passes for home decor in the Bushwick loft of their new, painfully on-trend young friends Jamie and Darby (Adam Driver and Amanda Seyfried).

Along with the familiar hipster household cliches (the electric typewriter, the wall of vinyl records), the young couple proudly display a Reagan-era library of movies on VHS tapes, along with a shelf of music cassettes.

"It's like their apartment is full of everything we once threw out," Cornelia says with an air of wonder.

The tech detritus of the 1980s and 1990s is finding a second life as a new generation of artists, designers and geek-nostalgists is repurposing the early digital-era flotsam of its youth as art, home decor and jewellery, along with plenty of irony-laced kitsch.

Think of it as the next evolution of retro-chic style.

Self-conscious analogue style may have owned the last decade, at least among tastemakers in shuttle-loomed denim with their vintage phonograph players, typewriters and mechanical watches.

Old game consoles have been repurposed as home furnishings such as lamps (above) by Woody6Switch. - PHOTO: NEW YORK TIMES

But as the children weaned on Nintendo and Napster mature to the point that they suffer occasional fits of cultural nostalgia, the disposable plastic junk of their youth may finally be ready to have its due.

"We're just to the point where we can look back at the VHS tape and realise how cool it was," said Erika Iris Simmons, 31, a Chicago artist who fashions portraits of luminaries such as singer Jimi Hendrix not with a brush, but with swirls of tape from old audio and VHS cassettes.

To Simmons, the cassette tape recalls a more physical, tactile association that children of the 1980s and 1990s once had with their gadgets.

She remembers knowing how to blow into her Nintendo game cartridge just so, to get it working when it would not load. "We all have that shared experience of interacting with the technology that you don't get to know with MP3s," she said.

In a similar vein, Chris McCullough, 40, a Los Angeles architectural designer who creates art for his spaces, renders portraits of cultural icons such as singer James Brown using audio cassettes like mosaic tiles. Not only are discarded cassettes inexpensive and abundant, he said, but they resonate with audiences his age.

"Cassettes represented the first popular portable music medium you could share and personalise yourself," he said, before services such as Spotify made music "ever disposable".

While cassette tapes are technically analogue, they reached their cultural zenith in the early digital era of the 1980s, just as PCs were entering the mainstream.

Old Nintendo peripherals themselves can also function as art, or at least eye-catching home decor. Mr Jeff Farber of Oshkosh, Wisconsin, sells pop art-style desk and floor lamps fashioned from vintage PlayStations and Nintendo 64s and the like on his Etsy shop Woody6Switch, which are intended to celebrate an era when gadgets, even cheap plastic ones, had a certain staying power.

"When I was a kid, technology advanced much more slowly than it does today," said Mr Farber, 36. "Like a beloved pet, you took care of it and it gave you joy and entertainment for many, many years."

By contrast, he added, "today's technology advances and upgrades are so fast that a device you buy today can become virtually obsolete in a matter of months, so there is no real time to fall in love with it the way you could in those golden years of video game infancy."

There is certainly no shortage of the stuff. As the life cycle of the average electronic gadget shrinks to a virtual eye blink, the mountains of electronic trash continue to rise, expected to surpass 70 million metric tonnes this year, from about 19 million in 1990, according to a 2014 report by Step, a United Nations- affiliated sustainability initiative.

Except in unusual cases - such as the story last month about a Bay Area woman dumping a rare Apple I computer from the 1970s worth US$200,000 (S$266,230), apparently by accident, at a recycling facility in Milpitas, California - few look at that trash heap and see treasure.

But that has started to change. While some regard the so-called upcycling of old gadgets into picture frames or planters as an ecological gesture, others see it as a celebration of shared technological heritage.

The customer base for these upcycled products tends to be narrow.

"They're geeks; they're nerds," said Mr Rob Connolly, a retired Floridian who, with his partner Rita Balcom, makes intricate wall clocks and desk clocks out of old hard drives and motherboards.

A few years ago, for example, their company, Tecoart, which sells on Etsy and Amazon, filled an order for 2,400 such pieces from Google, which passed them out as employee incentive awards, he said.

Not surprisingly, these techie hobbyists share their passion in online communities.

One of the more popular forums is a D-I-Y tech blog run by Evil Mad Scientist Laboratories, a family company in Sunnyvale, California, that produces open-source hardware. The site features tutorials on making earrings out of linear regulator chips, wine charms from capacitors and a wooden footstool in the shape of a classic 555 integrated circuit chip from the 1970s.

"Most of us are deep in the maker communities," said Ms Lenore Edman, a founder, "so these items are symbols of both our history and our knowledge."

New York Times

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 20, 2015, with the headline 'Obsolete gadgets now arty decor'. Subscribe