Steampunk is a visual aesthetic that incorporates science fiction and Victorian-era elements. Local artist and nationally recognized steampunk expert Bruce Rosenbaum teamed up with Pathfinder Regional Vocational Technical School in Palmer for the Steampunk Quantum Wheelchair Collaboration Project.  

Springfield Technical Community College student Gabriel Luppi will design and be the recipient of the latest Quantum power wheelchair. Students from Pathfinder Tech will help transform the wheelchair into a steampunk-style work of art.  

Zydalis Bauer spoke with Rosenbaum and Luppi, as well as Pathfinder Superintendent Eric Duda to learn more about the project.  

Read the full transcript:

Zydalis Bauer, Connecting Point: Steampunk is a visual esthetic that incorporates science fiction and Victorian era elements. Local artist and nationally recognized steampunk expert Bruce Rosenbaum has teamed up with Pathfinder Regional Vocational Technical School in Palmer for the Steampunk Quantum Wheelchair Collaboration Project.

Springfield Technical Community College student Gabriel Luppi will design and be the recipient of the latest Quantum power wheelchair, and students from Pathfinder Tech will help transform it into a steampunk-style work of art.

I spoke with Rosenbaum and Luppi, along with Eric Duda, superintendent at Pathfinder, to learn more.

Bruce Rosenbaum, Steampunk Reimagineer: Steampunk is a fusion of history plus art plus technology. You kind of have to have those three elements coming together.

And it really started out in science fiction. The term steampunk was coined by a science fiction author in the 1980s, and it was this idea of, really, the kind of the popular science fiction genre in the 1980s was cyberpunk. Cyberpunk is kind of like “Terminator” — what technology is imagined to be like in the future.

But there were a set of authors who basically said, “Well, what if during the Victorian period or the Industrial Age” — which was, you know, let’s say, mid-1800s to early 1900s– “what if they had our modern technology?” How everything would have changed, as if the computer was invented a hundred years before it actually was?

And that almost happened with a real story of Charles Babbage, a scientist and a mathematician in England, who actually designed a mechanical computer in the 1860s. It wasn’t built because he couldn’t find funding to build it. It was built about 20 years ago in England, and it actually worked.

So, it’s this kind of retro-future sensibility of looking towards the past, but also looking at the future at the same time.

Zydalis Bauer: And so your art and design company, Modvic, has collaborated with Pathfinder Tech in Palmer for the Steampunk Quantum Wheelchair Collaboration Project.

So, tell me more about what this project is and why it started?

Bruce Rosenbaum: It was probably … been close to 10 years ago. I got a call from the Make-A-Wish Foundation to do a steampunk bedroom makeover for a boy in, actually, Florence, Mass., who had muscular dystrophy. And we did the bedroom.

And then we said, “Well, wouldn’t it be cool also to kind of steampunk his wheelchair?” And we we reached out to the Quantum Qheelchair company at that time, and they donated a chair, and we just kind of said, “Well, let’s just go at it!” And I worked with a local fabrication company and put it together.

Out of that, we came up with this really great design, but the boy that we gave it to, his needs had changed and so — so he couldn’t really use it. We then decided, “OK, well, let’s figure out a way to be able to do this and kind of have a win-win-win where we could work with a local school.”

And that’s what we found Pathfinder Tech, and they said they would love to be involved and involve their instructors and their students. And this time, we really wanted to do something that we could actually work with the owner, you know, potential owner of the wheelchair and having them help us with the design, in terms of the esthetic, but also the functionality so that they could use it for a long time.

And the real kind of wonderful part about this, is that we have a new Quantum wheelchair that actually has a lift system system — it’s like a scissor lift that comes up — and that actually brings the person in the wheelchair up to the eye level, so where they can talk kind of on the same level, which is a huge benefit.

Zydalis Bauer: Now before I get to you, Gabe, I want to ask Eric, what was it about this project that really made you want to be involved, have Pathfinder Tech involved with it, and tell me what the school’s role will be?

Eric Duda, Pathfinder Regional Vocational Technical High School: Having known Bruce and his background and his energy and his excitement around taking engineering and science and art and combining them all, we immediately knew a project like this would be ideal for students to do what we always encourage, which is think outside the box, be innovative, be creative, have an art aspect when possible.

So, and again, having a relationship with Bruce being local to our area, we jumped on board with it. We also looked at the fact that this could be sort of an interdisciplinary project, which is also important to us.

We have 16 technical programs, we’re a career tech high school serving grades 9 through 12 in Palmer, a regional school of nine towns, and we have a wide cross-section of programs and students. So, we were able to find that interest-level and beyond — beyond just those programs, which we knew would be a nice alignment, we were able to intertwine some academic aspects to it as well, including our art program and our art teacher, which is a new offering we have here, which I believe are doing parts of the upholstery and design portions of it.

So, when we saw an option for students to be again innovative and creative, we said, this is — this is a nice fit.

Zydalis Bauer: Gabe, you were the very well-deserving candidate chosen to be this youth design collaborator, and you will be receiving your very own custom steampunk wheelchair.

Tell me about what interested you in this project and how has it impacted your life so far?

Gabriel Luppi, Youth Designer/Wheelchair Recipient: Well, it’s interesting to me because I go to college for this, and it was the whole reason I even picked mechanical engineering is because I want work with wheelchairs and I want to make adaptive equipment for people that have, you know, special needs and, you know, can deal with the challenge that I can to, you know, I face a lot of challenges, so.

And I’m always in a wheelchair, so it’s really cool to do this.

Zydalis Bauer: And have you always been interested in steampunk? Because I know that some of the criteria was being artistic and having an interest in STEAM, which stands for science, technology, engineering, art, and math?

Has that always been an interest for you?

Gabriel Luppi: Yeah. My — my uncle, my grandpa, they’ve always done all this mechanical engineering stuff too, and they’ve always done designing. I’ve always watched my family work on cars, and you know, it’s — it’s a really cool thing.

Zydalis Bauer: I read that at just 18 months old, you already were learning how to drive a power wheelchair.

Gabriel Luppi: Yeah!

Zydalis Bauer: You received your first wheelchair at the age of two and something that Bruce had said really stuck out to me with this project, saying that this project really kind of takes the conversation away from why are you in a wheelchair and has that focus on your individuality and personality.

How important is that aspect of this project for you?

Gabriel Luppi: Really important! You know, I look out wheelchairs all the time and it’s just like, they’re really cool, but at the same time, they’re kind of bland. You know, it’s like they don’t really yell out to the person, like what they are or what they want or who they mean to themselves.

Zydalis Bauer: Now, Eric and Bruce, what really secured Gabe as a candidate for you when you were looking through all of the candidates for this project?

Bruce Rosenbaum: We wanted them to be local to western Mass, and we wanted to really find someone — we didn’t want to just kind of, again, give this wheelchair to someone. We wanted them to be an active participant in the design and and to show their individuality, their personality.

And — and Gabe was really I mean, his background is in assisted equipment and wanting to kind of design his own wheelchair. So, it was almost like this fate, this karma moment when — when Gabe came forward, because this is really the type of person that we wanted to bring on board.

And he also knows CAD. He also knows computer assisted drawing, so he can actually help with the design of it and working with Pathfinder Tech and myself.

Zydalis Bauer: Gabe, I also know that you spend a lot of time volunteering at Shriner’s Hospital and you currently are a student at Springfield Technical Community College.

Why is it important for you to volunteer and tell me about your goals for the future?

Gabriel Luppi:  Well, I volunteer at Shriner’s. I volunteer in the physical therapy department so I can, you know, Hopefully learn how to attack some of the needs that some kids need. And it’s nice to meet those kids and they’re all such great kids.

Zydalis Bauer: And what are — like, what’s your goal for the future? Like, what would you love to do as a profession?

Gabriel Luppi: Just, you know, work with wheelchairs, you know, work with adaptive equipment. You know, work one-on-one with kids that need it.

Zydalis Bauer: And so, Bruce, how do you guide and even Eric, how do the the students help guide this process in the design process?

Bruce Rosenbaum: So, I think what we’re going to start off with is just working on a concept. So, coming up with hand sketches, hand drawings, and having this kind of collaborative effort where we will kind of go out and just kind of have some wild thinking on what — what this can be, but also keeping in mind the functionality. Because we want to make sure that we don’t hinder the functionality of the wheelchair and that it’s, you know, it’s going to work for Gabe in the near term and in the long term.

So, concept development, drawing, and then working with the instructors and students at Pathfinder Tech to actually start the fabrication, to do the — to do the CAD drawings, and to start making it.