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So retro: Vintage typewriters reborn to be more human

Old typewriters are morphing into humans. CNET visits artist Jeremy Mayer, whose sculptures create a new connection between man and machine.

Josh Miller/CNET

In a garage turned art studio in Richmond, California, the past and future are being melded into one. Typewriters, some dating back more than 80 years, are being reborn into futuristic sculptures. In a twist on man versus machine, machines are taking on human form, and it's all at the hands of artist Jeremy Mayer.

"I disassemble mechanical typewriters, not the more processor type but the very mechanical heavy old ones," Mayer explains. "I disassemble them down to their very smallest components and then I reassemble them into human figures and animals."

Mayer has created hundreds of these types of sculptures over the past two decades, starting when thrift shops were looking to quickly get rid of the heavy, metal, and presumed-to-soon-be-obsolete typewriters.

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Mayer estimates that he has about 100 typewriters intact and the components and carcasses of about 150 machines, some stored in antique typewriter cases. As we walked through his studio, between rows of vintage Underwoods, Royals, Remingtons, Olympias, Smith Coronas and IBMs, we felt a touch of melancholy as we looked at these once mighty, noisy machines sitting idle, dusty and broken. But in his own way, Mayer is giving them purpose again. He starts by meticulously breaking down the gadgets and sorting their parts.

Artist Jeremy Mayer wrangles typewriter parts to create some anthropomorphic magic.

Artist Jeremy Mayer wrangles typewriter parts to create some anthropomorphic magic.

Josh Miller/CNET

"I pretty much use all the parts from the typewriter. I think 99 percent. I tend not to use a lot of plastic, because they just don't look as interesting," Mayer says. "I disassemble the entire thing very carefully. I don't use power tools. I just use regular screwdrivers, some pliers, and very carefully take it apart. I don't break anything. I don't break it apart. I back all the screws out, and I try not to wreck the screws. I want everything to look good in my sculpture, so I don't destroy anything."

He doesn't solder or glue or weld. He just uses the parts from the typewriters to bring it all together. On a big human sculpture, there can be more than 2,000 typewriter components.

A pair of Mayer's reincarnated typewriters.

A pair of Mayer's reincarnated typewriters.

Josh Miller/CNET

"There are parts I commonly use for common body parts. I'll use bells for eyelids," Mayer said. "I use the IBM type-ball. I would use those for eyeballs, testicles, ovaries, all kinds of stuff. I usually use the ribbon cover -- the cover that covers the ribbon spool on a typewriter. That usually is part of the upper chest. I don't know why. It's just the shape lends itself to that."

Mayer has high-tech customers like Oculus VR co-founder Brendan Iribe, but in the low-tech world of typewriter enthusiasts, dubbed the typosphere, some see him as a destroyer instead of a creator. He makes it clear the machines he uses are too far gone to be repaired. In fact he gets many of his materials from local typewriter repair shops.

"I have friends who actually run a typewriter repair shop in Berkeley. My friends will just give me machines that they can't possibly repair or use as parts machines. And the benefit for them is that I have parts. They come anytime they like, and if they need a part I'm happy to give it to them."

Art supplies.

Art supplies.

Josh Miller/CNET

Mayer is far from the only one reconnecting with these old machines.  He joined celebrities such as actor Tom Hanks and singer John Mayer in the recent documentary "California Typewriter," which examines the past, present and future of typewriters.

The artist explains his role in the film. "Representing the future is me taking them apart and talking about this transition in technology that we're experiencing, that we've been experiencing for a long time, going from analog to digital."

SFO Museum's typewriter exhibit.

The SFO Museum's typewriter exhibit.

SFO Museum

In this age of digital distraction, the typewriter is finding new audiences. College students are buying typewriters, embracing a nostalgia for something they never experienced. Guests are tapping out well wishes on typewriters at weddings. Typewriter owners are holding type-ins at cafes to spread the word about their so-called typewriter revolution. A recent exhibit at San Francisco International Airport displayed dozens of antique typewriters, including those used by John Lennon, Ernest Hemingway and Orson Welles. On eBay, bidding wars are pushing prices of these vintage machines, even some that are broken, to over $200 dollars with some typewriters priced as high as $5,000.

A typewriter used by Orson Welles, from "The Typewriter: An Innovation in Writing" at the SFO Museum in San Francisco.

A typewriter used by Orson Welles, from "The Typewriter: An Innovation in Writing" at the SFO Museum in San Francisco.

SFO Museum

Mayer isn't surprised by the resurgence of the typewriter.

"There's no machine that's more more transparent about what it's doing than a typewriter. It's operated by you. You push a button and you see all of the machinery in motion. And I think that's pretty novel for a lot of kids who grew up with just electrons darting around inside of a little box in your hand."

There's one thing Mayer doesn't like about typewriters: actually typing on them. He describes it as torture. So if you get a typewritten note from him, it means he really cares.

Photo of the head of one of Mayer's sculptures.

Metal head.

Josh Miller/CNET

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