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
Even that was serendipitous.
A self-described tinkerer, Swango was starting to tire of his day-to-day role as an
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
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
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
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.
click to enlarge
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."
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.
click to enlarge
“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
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
"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.
Bio: Shelby Roby-Terry has worked as a journalist for more than 20 years and served as a reporter and editor at several papers throughout Indiana and New Orleans, Louisiana. She is founder and owner of The Forty Group, an Indianapolis-based PR, Marketing and Event Planning agency. During her spare time, Shelby...Shelby Roby-Terry has worked as a journalist for more than 20 years and served as a reporter and editor at several papers throughout Indiana and New Orleans, Louisiana. She is founder and owner of The Forty Group, an Indianapolis-based PR, Marketing and Event Planning agency. During her spare time, Shelby loves reading, traveling and hanging out with family and friends. She also volunteers throughout the community and serves on several boards for local not-for-profit agencies.more