Last year the global steampunk community lost one of its most cherished and well known characters. Richard “Doc” Nagy was the main designer and founder of Datamancer – the steampunk computer redesign company. In this frank interview, I talk to Rabiah Al-Sibai who has taken over operations of Datamancer Labs in the wake of their terrible loss. Here he talks of an employer and friend who had incredible vision, took a risk on his passion and spent days playing computer games when he should really have been working.
Tell us a little bit about yourself and the company.
My name is Rabiah Al-Sibai, I worked under Richard (Doc) for close to 5 years before his tragic passing. Datamancer is and was about Doc’s dream to put the beauty of the past into new technology. The original idea for designs were to build a PC suite from every artistic era in human history, the first being the Victorian era, where “Steampunk” was born.
How is business going?
Datamancer as a company has never made huge amounts of money, that being said, business has steadily grown every year since the company started. We enjoy our work and that is why we do it.
If at all possible, could you take us briefly through a typical day?
We usually start at 10 am, at the beginning of the day we open up the workshop and put on some music. Since most of what we sell are keyboards, most of the Datamancer artisans are going through the process of making keyboards throughout the day. Each person has their own projects that they complete on a certain time frame. We usually close shop around 5 pm.
Do you get many private commissions?
Private commissions are approximately 30% of our sales. We love doing them because our customers are extremely creative and it usually leads to new products for us.
You’re best known for producing steampunk contraptions, but you’ve also produced some that would be closer to dieselpunk. Was this a conscious effort to widen the market appeal or do designs just “happen” from creativity?
Most of our designs were commissioned from customers who said they wanted a rough aesthetic and Doc came up with a design to match. This is true of our Dieselpunk and Art Deco designs.
Datamancer.net shows a wonderful steampunk laptop and in one of Richard’s last interviews, he mentioned making a cane with a miniature plasma globe fitted to the top. You seem to be focusing mainly on keyboards now, is that a business decision? Or was it always the case?
Yes the cane was an awesome idea. We focus on keyboards mainly because that is what sells, in order to keep the lights on we have to be a business as well as artists. Doc never knew that the keyboards would be the biggest seller and it was not always the plan to sell mostly keyboards, but that has been the focus for a very long time now. When we can, we will expand to more and more products. I want a to create Datamancer product for every computer peripheral between the user and the wall in front of them. Including the desk. Most of what limits us in creating new items is operating capitol.
The loss of Richard must have been emotional on all the staff. Was their a particular thing you all did to help one another through it?
It was very tough. As time passed we saw things and heard jokes that he would have loved, and talking to one another about how much he would have loved those things helped us come to terms with his passing.
The company has a large following and a lot of respect throughout the steampunk community. Have you had much feedback from customers after Richard’s tragic accident?
The community was amazing during that time. Everyone was extremely supportive and really just wanted to help. We probably had thousands of emails within the first few days and many of them wanted to donate for his funeral. Obviously it was difficult to respond to everyone during that time but we were very grateful to all of them for their support.
You obviously have an extremely talented workforce. Would it be right to say Richard was always the main “ideas man” and would you say it’s now a team effort?
Everyone who creates the pieces also comes up with ideas for them. Doc was always the “ideas man” but he always looked at our feedback and the response from the community when creating something. Now I do the same thing but with more input from others, so yes it is very much a team effort.
Which product is the most difficult to construct? Is it a case of “you get what you pay for” and the most expensive takes the most time?
The most difficult products we have ever made would probably be any of the brass displays. We have to engineer a way to suspend 20+ pounds of brass in the air with a delicate screen held inside. It’s not an easy task and the price does reflect that. A simple mistake can cost us hundreds of dollars.
What is the most outlandish item you’ve been requested to make?
Our most outlandish request would be the American flag keyboard. Someone wanted an American flag faceplate, red white and blue LEDs, and similarly colored parts of the keyboard all over. Ultimately we did not make this keyboard but it would have been an interesting build.
Can you tell us any amusing anecdote from working with Richard?
I don’t have a specific anecdote but he was the type of person who cared for his friends a lot. We spent a number of days sitting around playing video games with him all day because he didn’t want us to work too hard. He always created a fun environment to work in.
Thank you for taking the time to talk to me.
You can commission Datamancer Labs and see some of their work for sale on the main website here:
Go and like their Facebook page to keep up to date with their movements: