Keyboard art

Off the Beat: Bruce Byfield's Blog

Jun 18, 2013 GMT
Bruce Byfield

"If you want a golden rule that will fit everything, this is it: Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful."
- William Morris

Nothing is more utilitarian than a keyboard. Even Apple, which has done so much to transform other hardware, offers only starkly functional keyboards whose major innovation is their color. That's why when I happened across Datamancer Enterprises, I stumbled over myself in my rush to place an order, even at the expense of a few macaroni and cheese dinners.

The idea of keyboards as art is a concept that might have been promoted by William Morris and the Arts and Craft Movement at the end of the nineteenth century. And, in fact, Datamancer and its lead artist Richard Nagy have a reputation as steampunk artists who imagine what computer hardware might have been like if it had been built by the Victorians.

Over the years, Datamancer's creations have included a steampunk workstation and laptop, as well as monitors and a trackpad. However, the majority of its pieces are keyboards. Many of these keyboards, including the Barrister and Seafarer models, are strongly influenced by Victorian aesthetics, but others draw inspiration from other eras, such as the 1920s-inspired Deco or the modern Aviator.

In addition, Datamancer makes several keyboards that defy classification. For instance, the Reliquary keyboard comes with a stained glass casket, while the Machinist has a scratched and dirtied surface as though it has been sitting in a metal shop for the last three decades.
Most of its models have a metal frame, but the least expensive models, the Vicar and the Diviner, are simply mounted on wood. This is an in-joke for those who know the Victorian period; ministers and priests generally had limited incomes compared to other members of the gentry and wouldn't have been able to afford the more expensive models.

All these models are customizable, so that the faceplate can be made of the leather, wood, or metal (although you have to wait longer if you want a material that is not in stock). Clients can also choose the font to use for the keys, the cloth that covers the cord, and the color of the jewelled indicator lights. The result is that most keyboards will be unique designs.

For example, for my own keyboard, I began with a copper-framed Baron of Cypress model and specified a white leather faceplate, green indicator lights and a brown cord. Since I was consciously thinking of the Arts and Crafts movement, I also asked that the lettering on the keys use a font that reflected the era. Then, remembering that William Morris was one of the first English writers to appreciate the Norse sagas, I had a knotwork design added to the space bar and a doodle from The Book of Kells to replace the logo on the Windows key.

I thought long and hard about exactly what I wanted, because -- let's face it -- I am going to spend hours every day with this keyboard. As an art-collector, I know how living in the presence of art both calms and inspire, so I wanted a design that exactly reflected my tastes and aesthetics -- and that is precisely what was delivered to my door this morning.

Function, too
Datamancer's designs are enticement enough. However, the company's keyboards are not just works of art. They are also heavy-duty, top of the line keyboards in their own right.

Keyboards of the sort sold by most computer stores have two membranes. When you press a key, the top membrane makes electrical contact with the one below to print the characters. This arrangement makes for cheap keyboards, but also ones whose parts are the sum of the whole -- they wear out quickly, and become useless when a single key no longer functions.

By contrast, the keys on a Datamancer have individual mechanical switches. They are not only sturdier, but also individually repairable. When Datamancer advertises its productions as "modern heirlooms," it is not just engaging in hyberbole -- there really does seem a good chance that its keyboards will stand up to years of hard use by gamers or hardcore developers and writers.

I admit that I was slightly worried that the keys would be stiffer than an ordinary keyboard's, and take some adjustment. They might, I thought, require as much effort as the keys on a manual typewriter, and leave my fingers sore and feeling uncoordinated at the end of a day's work.

My concerns, however, were needless. The keys on my new keyboard do require slightly more pressure than an ordinary keyboard's. But the difference is more that between an electric typewriter and a computer keyboard than between a keyboard and a manual typewriter. Consequently, the period of adjustment turned out to be more like fifteen minutes than a day or two.

The main difference I notice is that my Datamancer keyboard gives a noticeably louder click.

 But this difference is reassuring rather than a nuisance. To me, the click of the keys is an indication that I am working, and the louder sound actually improves my concentration.

 So far as I am concerned, the keyboard's construction is as important as its aesthetics. There is something reassuring about a piece of hardware that is well-made. The quality is a reminder that I am not using some mass-produced item, but one assembled manually to order.

Art and the ordinary
Datamancer keyboards are not cheap. You also have to be patient once you place an order, especially if you want anything unusual. Two to four weeks seems to be the usual time that Datamancer takes to complete an order,  and, in my case, the copper frame, white leather, and character set meant that I had to wait ten weeks.

Still, if you hear any complaints, they won't be from me. I'm willing to pay to get exactly what I want, and the result is so elegant that it overwhelms any impatience. And I do confess to pressing the caps key and number lock at random intervals, whether I need them or not, just to enjoy the jeweled indicator lights.

Already, too, I am thinking of ordering another keyboard to carry with a tablet. Perhaps a minimalist Machinist, with a Classical Roman font? Just considering the possibilities is a pleasure.

But whether I order another keyboard or not, Datamancer has introduced art into part of my life that was bleakly practical before. Admittedly, I hadn't realized the lack until I saw the possibility, but, now that I have, I wouldn't want to go back to my loveless old keyboard except in an emergency.

William Morris, I conclude, was right. The only thing I would add is that, if I can, I would prefer to surround myself with items like Datamancer's keyboards that are both useful and beautiful.

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