Steampunk art gives Zeppelins its distinctive flavor

Business partner Abby Luther shows off the 24-foot-long steampunk art installation in the private dining room of Zeppelins Bar & Grill. Artist Todd Sabin uses finely crated wood and stripped-down industrial components to create the detailed impression of an industrial mechanism that would actually operate. PHOTO DAVE DEWITTE


By Dave DeWitte

As Zeppelins Bar & Grill keeps growing in Cedar Rapids, so too does its intriguing collection of “steampunk” art by local artist Todd Sabin.

There’s a 23-foot-long wooden propeller, a wooden zeppelin suspended from the ceiling, and the most recent additions – an industrial-looking 24-foot-long installation in the new private dining room and an elaborate steampunk bank vault door separating the dining room.

Dan Marquardt, who founded the restaurant a decade ago, took an interest in the steampunk movement after deciding, with input from Mr. Sabin, on the name Zeppelins.

The steampunk art movement arose in the 1990s from the science fiction genre of the same name, spawning an aesthetic that draws from industrial shapes and materials of the late 1880s and early 1900s, often in ornate and surrealistic forms. Zeppelins are a common image in the movement, which blends gears, valves, pipes, chain drives and other industrial mechanisms in images that balance form and function, and inspire the imagination.

Mr. Marquardt wanted some art to define the restaurant. Mr. Sabin had a longtime interest in airships and aviation history, and both men agreed that a restaurant name starting with ‘Z’ was a plus.

“To me, it just fit with Zeppelin,” Mr. Marquardt said. He encouraged Mr. Sabin to run with the concept artistically, without any specific instructions.

“I don’t have a creative bone in my body,” he shrugged.

Mr. Sabin was the artist for the job. He had worked with the late sculptor Richard Pinney for 14 years, had built many of the reproduction frames for the permanent collections of the Cedar Rapids Museum of Art, and even made 12 copper light fixtures that anchor both sides of the museum’s Winter Garden.

In his day job operating a fine carpentry business, Mr. Sabin has handled some of the more ornate and unusual projects in the region in recent years. He was general contractor for the restoration of the 1915 Lord and Burnham greenhouse at the Brucemore Mansion historic site in Cedar Rapids, as well as for the restoration of the Althea Sherman chimney swift tower in Tipton. He restored industrialist Howard Hall’s terrestrial globe that is now showcased in the main lobby of Linn Hall at Kirkwood Community College, a 1846 log cabin in Washington County and the distinctive copper awning at the entrance to the historic Sokol gymnasium building in Cedar Rapids.

“I was born into an extended family of farm people who made and fixed everything,” Mr. Sabin explained. “We rarely bought new – we fixed or made pieces to fix. Machinery, tools, mechanical conversations, inventing … what we were building next became meal-time fodder and occupied most of our spare time.”

Mr. Sabin’s 24-foot installation at Zeppelins has attracted more attention than his previous steampunk pieces. It covers most of one wall of the restaurant’s 60-seat private dining room.

The project took over Mr. Sabin’s 3,000-square-foot workshop for about seven months. He invested about 400 hours of hands-on work in the piece, and about three times that many imagining how it should go together and what to build next.

Creating steampunk artwork is an organic process for Mr. Sabin, involving more pieces than he takes time to count and plenty of trial and error. He starts by taking interesting objects and breaking them down into discernible shapes, forms and colors, so that observers can’t readily identify what the object is or whence it came.

“I collect objects all the time from whatever sources are available and usually they don’t have a definition destination,” Mr. Sabin said. “Once I have those forms, I start filling in the space between them, trying to make a sense of function – why would this be here, unless it had this connect to that?”

Most of the artwork is made of wood, although some is made from plastic piping and other materials. It’s almost impossible to tell because of the elaborate paint effects he uses to lend the appearance of aged metal.

“It’s all fantasy and non-functioning, but it seems like it might actually fire up and run,” Mr. Sabin said, describing what makes steampunk different than most other art.

The detail and mystery of the finished piece makes a strong impression. Zeppelins’ newest piece was featured in the promotional materials for Clockwork Alchemy 2019, a large steampunk convention held March 22-24 in San Francisco.

“The customers think it’s incredible,” said Abby Luther, a partner in the restaurant who oversees front-of-house operations. She said many clients ask questions about the artwork or take selfies with it.

Zeppelins is located in a strip center at 5300 Edgewood Road NE developed by Clay and Hunter Parks. The brothers brought Mr. Marquardt in to see if he was interested in opening a restaurant with them after the previous tenant, Beckett’s Pub, went under. The ownership team has since been expanded to include General Manager Tim Oathhout and Ms. Luther, and will soon expand again to add manager Dan Schissler.

Original artwork became a differentiator for the locally owned restaurant in an industry dominated by standard corporate design patterns and built-to-order decor packages, Mr. Marquardt said.

“The places that do well design-wise are the ones that focus the energy inside,” Mr. Marquardt said. A dash of artwork or an interesting design element here and there doesn’t create that kind of energy, he said, and it requires an investment.

“If you want it to work, you don’t do it halfway,” he said, declining to discuss how much the restaurant has invested in artwork.

Zeppelins expanded into adjacent spaces in the strip center two years ago, and now has seating for 338, making it one of the larger restaurants in the metro area. A second large installation for the private dining room is expected to arrive from Mr. Sabin this month, and there are now more spaces that could use some artwork.

Mr. Marquardt said he’s already talking with Mr. Sabin about branching out into some other steampunk subgenres, such as dieselpunk – imagine steampunk with technological influences from the early era of diesel power – or frankenpunk, with surrealistic imagery drawn from Frankenstein films.   CBJ