As a little kid, Steve Swango had dreams of becoming a cartoonist, then later an artist and a sculptor.
It took several decades, including a 16-year stint as a civil engineer designing walls, roads and interchanges, before the Indianapolis native would fulfill one of his childhood dreams.
Even that was serendipitous.
A self-described tinkerer, Swango was starting to tire of his day-to-day role as an engineer.
- Shelby Roby-Terry
Surrounded by a few of his pieces, Steve Swango sits in his home workshop. Here tinkering translates into a host of creative commissioned works.
"I guess I was getting burnt out, which happens. But, really, I was just kind of dealing with it," he says. "But I don't know if I would have ever pulled the trigger on totally stopping doing that until my wife, Shelby, and I started talking about ways to kind of slow life down."
Like many professional working couples, the Swangos found themselves climbing the corporate ladder. Both engineers, they noticed that their hours in the office were getting longer and longer, and their family time as a couple and as parents to their daughter, Lydia, was dwindling.
"We started exploring the idea of having one of us at home and the benefits that would provide us, and weighing that against the obvious salary decrease," says Swango. "And with me sort of losing the love for the engineering field, it was easy for me to stay home."
So in May 2012, Swango became a full-time stay-at-home dad.
At first, he admits, it was awkward watching his wife get up in the mornings to head into the office (the same office where he had worked), while he got their daughter ready for school, followed by household chores, preparing dinner and helping with homework.
That feeling, however, didn't last long.
Swango soon realized that while being at home gave him an opportunity to spend more quality time with their daughter, it also allowed him time to explore his many hobbies. One of the first ones he latched onto was his love of making things out of industrial, found or repurposed materials.
- Steve Swango
The first piece Swango made after retiring from engineering was the Burlap Coffee Sack Cube, made from 100 percent salvaged materials, including coffee sacks and twine.
He began creating tables out of old barn wood and discarded cast-iron industrial machine legs; sculptures with driftwood and limestone; and ottomans from old burlap coffee sacks and repurposed couch cushions. Basically, pieces that he would then use to decorate their home.
It wasn't, however, until he made a lamp using black-iron pipes and an Edison bulb that resembled an industrial-looking robot, that his childhood dream of becoming an artist came to fruition.
As a surprise Christmas gift for his wife, Swango made his first robot lamp. Once she put the lamp inside her office at work, people started commenting about it and eventually began asking for one of their own. He now has several inside of offices throughout the city and various shops around town.
"They just have a look; you sort of like them," says Swango about the appeal of the robot lamps. "Several robots later, people have started coming up with ideas on how to personalize their robots. I've got a couple in attorney's offices where they have the scales of justice, and others that fit the businesses that one might have."
As an artist, Swango does have limits on how far from his original robot idea he wants to stray.
- Steve Swango
The "Themis" robot art lamp features black iron pipe fittings, a brass balance scale and sword, and an Edison bulb. The “Themis” is popular with lawyers.
"I don't want the coolness of why you want to look at them to go away," says the 41-year-old. "It looks steampunk, it looks like it's something from 20th-century technology but using 19th-century materials. It looks like it could be powered by steam or by gears. And it's all heavy and out of place, and I like that look."
To say that Swango has an affinity for industrial-looking items is an understatement. Inside his workshop, located in the basement of their home, are deferential gears, pressure gauges, valve handles, chains, pulleys, turnbuckles, and both black and cast iron.
There's also a couple of work benches, a vice or two, loads of power tools, and metal draws with labels for small items like screws, nuts and bolts.
Most of the pieces he finds are either online, or among the "junk" that people are planning to throw away or have forgotten that they still have. His daughter, Lydia, will often accompany him on his scavenging trips ("she calls it picking") and helps with some projects.
"I do like the idea of taking something and saving it from being thrown away," says Swango, who has a pair of cast-iron machine legs in his garage that he's planning to use to make a console table. "We have an old house, and most of my stuff is old stuff. Not that I don't like modern stuff, but things were made more attractively back then or maybe they were made chunkier. I just like that heavy look, and that's why that industrial aesthetic is more interesting to me."
- Steve Swango
Swango created this Steampunk bar light, which he made from from black iron pipe, a salvaged valve handle, vintage pressure gauges and Edison bulbs.
When he's not on dad duty, Swango often can be found tinkering away inside his workshop on commissioned pieces or getting some of those thoughts that are swirling around in his head onto paper. For him, ideas can come from anywhere and at any time. "I was in my car during my last epiphany."
But like a true engineer, he always sketches his ideas before he creates.
"Sketching is the fun part of the civil engineer coming out, but I haven't pulled out CAD (computer-aided design) yet," he says with a hearty laugh.
- Steve Swango
“Playground” is a sculpture the former engineer built with his young daughter, Lydia, who found the wood on her school’s playground.
These days, most of his work is done on commission through Swango Art & Design, and most, if not all of it, is through word of mouth. It's a business he never thought of starting until requests for his work began to increase. In fact, he doesn't have a company website. Instead, he uses social media (Facebook in particular), business cards and clients to market the company.
But as his business grows, Swango says he wants to maintain that one-of-kind feel to the pieces he creates.
"I want to avoid making an inventory of items because I want them to still remain not just a light but a hybrid of light and art. Or whatever it is I am making and art," he says. "So I don't want to be cranking them out; I want them all to be kind of individual feeling."
So far, that "individual feel" is working.
Swango says several clients with robot lamps have actually started naming them. It's an unintended result of the unique pieces he creates.
"I've found that people come back to me and tell me what its name is," he says. "How many pieces of furniture or lights in your house do you name? It (shows that) people have a connection to something if you just spend the time to make it artsy."
Another unintended benefit for Swango is the joy he's experiencing from his newly found "gig."
"Life's more enjoyable because I'm working differently."
Overall, he believes everyone in the family is reaping huge benefits.
"(With me being at home), we're giving our daughter a good example of strong, successful non-gender roles, and she's seeing this creative stuff in life that's satisfying as well," he says. "My wife is happy, too, because when she comes home all of the family time is enjoyable time.
"And I'm happier. I sleep better, and I'm getting to explore creative stuff that I think as a kid I must have had it right."
- Anne Buskirk Photography
“Edison” and “Volta” Robot Art Lamps are among Swango's sought-after creations.