Published: December 14, 2021
Behind the wandering eye of Steve Erenberg is an otherworld – a dramatic universe of discovery and rebirth under constant investigation by an insatiable mind. Walk into Early Electrics in Peekskill, N.Y., and you’ll find the tinkerer at play, scouring through his shelves for the right part, or sitting downstairs among his Radio Guy collection of industrial tribal wares, playing shopkeep. It wasn’t always this way, but in a sense, it was. A collector/dealer whose curiosity led him through numerous collecting categories in his free time, Erenberg spent much of his career in the advertising world, though buying always and selling when he wanted to. His collection grew into a force and that force filled a store, above it a studio he founded with his son where the two repurposed old parts into industrial lighting that could’ve been. The projects keep coming for Erenberg, lighting a new way forward for his three-story shop on North Water Street. We sat down with him to hear all about it.
When did you start collecting?
When my wife and I first got married, we were collecting African art and masks. Then I started collecting some radios and early technology. I’d go to Brimfield and buy anything that was in a wooden box with hooks in it. I was selling on eBay from the first days, pretty much. I was no scholar, I was a creative director. But you learn a lot buying and selling, you become a detective when you try to find out what these things are. So I got into the radios, not so much the electronics but the cosmetics, the real early stuff with the horns and the loops, the antennas. I was really shrewd, I bought low and sold high. Then I collected antique toys, the early character stuff. This was all the early stage of my collecting in the 1970s and 80s to the early 90s. Then I started finding some of the early medical stuff: bones and equipment and early quack medical devices. Then I got into smoke masks. When it came to scientific and medical, I started buying things that had character. Not so much the tools, I liked things you could see a person in or a character in – and that goes back to the African art. That’s when I started discovering that a lot of these helmets, masks and headpieces were very tribal in their own way. Then I started collecting in my own category: industrial tribal art. I loved the look of it. It does compare to African art, if you look at an early smoke mask, it has the feeling of a Dan African mask. The tribal aspect drew me to it, to have personality and character. I wasn’t really selling that stuff unless I had a duplicate. I became known for that.
What were you doing for work throughout that time?
I started in architecture, went to school for it. I worked for Core of Engineers, did drawings for Picatinny Arsenal, and then I worked at Raymond Loewy Studios. I lost the taste for architecture – to make it as an architect is to make it as a rock star. When I was with Loewy, I saw package design, product design, and I started gravitating towards that. I liked the print, books, brochures, advertisements. You do them and you see them immediately, you’ll see it in print two weeks later. After that I worked for a couple advertising agencies and wound up as a partner and creative director at the last agency I worked at for the last 30 years. Then it got to the point where it was time to retire, that was 12 years ago. I was still sort of buying and selling, but not so much selling.
What’s the stuff you don’t sell?
I have a museum section on our site Radio-Guy.com, that’s the stuff I don’t sell. That’s the core collection, it’s been in a number of books, I’ve lent it to museums, it’s sort of like a reference for the people who are involved in steampunk, because it’s the real stuff. The steampunk people were drawn to it.
And the stuff you do?
The shop now is anything from a lamp to an airplane engine. I like transportation-related things, which is part of technology. I’ve always been a car collector, I’ve restored antique cars and still have a couple. We have a couple motorcycles here in the shop.
Are you most attracted to mechanicals?
Yes, with the exception of computers. Early technology. I was mostly looking at it for its aesthetics. I like the honesty of a steam engine, you can see all the moving parts, the gears. In the scientific stuff, you see the mahogany boxes – it was more decorative than it needed to be. The better a presentation, the more a doctor could charge. I look backwards, most look forward. Sometimes it’s hard to figure out what these things did.
The smoke masks and the medical helmets, they’re very striking. They’re scary and interesting at the same time, I’m finding as newer generations are less interested in formal antiques, these things have been accepted and embraced by the younger crowd – the tattoo crowd. They come in all bespoke from Brooklyn and Manhattan and they like this scary stuff, they’re drawn to it. And artists, too, we have a lot of artists and Hollywood types that come into the shop. We’ll get people like David Copperfield, Harvey Fierstein, John Malkovich. The things I sell and collect – they’re edgy, macabre, it’s not your grandmother’s collectible. I’d go to an antique mall and I’d usually give them a doily rating out of 10. You won’t find that stuff here.
Any dealers you learned from?
I had a lot of my own ideas but I had my favorite people that I bought from over the years. Before I started selling professionally, I shared a booth with Aarne Anton at The Pier Show. He has a great eye, he sees things no one else sees. The first year, I took 25 percent of his booth at The Pier Show with one little case. I think I did $15,000 from that case before the show even started. I said let’s do 50 percent of the booth the next year, then I did $8,000. Then I took a 16-foot booth and did $3,000. That’s how it goes. I was there for five years, Stella liked my stuff and she wound up giving me the booth for free. I was on the Today Show with her with my helmets. It was like I started a segment of collectibles that didn’t exist.
How do you find something that people aren’t collecting or haven’t collected for ages?
It started innocently. But the helmets and the masks turned into tribal art. You develop knowledge over the years and that’s the only way you can learn the craft. You can pay what others think is top dollar and know it’s a bargain.
Why are the smoke masks alluring?
Every country made smoke rescue masks and each with their own personality. They were more striking and decorative than they needed to be. Some looked like Captain Nemo, others Darth Vader. I did a blog where I had a shiny aluminum smoke mask from the turn of the century next to a big black leather mask, and it’s striking how close it looks to C-3PO and Darth Vader. The blog went viral – they were 100 years before Star Wars.
How’d you get into lighting design?
I wanted lighting for my own home and the pricing was crazy, but I started looking at flea markets for the parts and everything was so cheap. If you could put them together, the decorators appreciated that. So now we have a restoration shop, I’ve got three people working here full time and an entire third floor that is just parts. I’ll pay $1,000 for a great part – I’m a big buyer, they’re hiding stuff under the table for me at Brimfield. A few decades ago, all the old lighting places and repair shops were run by older guys, if you had something that didn’t work, there were places you could go. There’s no place to go anymore. There were places that had a million lights hanging from the ceiling.
When I retired, I bought a building and I didn’t know how it was going to work out. It’s amazing how it fills, it’s 10,000 square feet. An 1800s building, I restored it, and as I finished lamps, I kept hanging them. The lighting became much more of an easy sell because decorators kept coming back with someone else’s money. Every week they have a new project, a new hotel or a new restaurant. I’m pretty proud of the fact that we’re doing landmark projects – we’re doing a Frank Lloyd Wright house, one of the concrete tapestry houses. We’re doing a ceiling light and a floor lamp in bronze from his drawings. We also did 100 lights, maybe more, for the Chelsea Hotel in Manhattan, they used one of our original designs. We must have 100 original designs in the catalog now.
We’re selective, we don’t buy in any one style or category, we curate our own stuff. It’s a little humbling, but I was an art director and creative director, I probably won 400 graphic design awards and Clios. My eye is what I did for a living and I’ve moved it here.
Loewy designed lighting too, did you see it there?
Not just lighting, he also did radios and pencil sharpeners that looked like they could go 60 miles per hour. If you ever saw him, he dressed in paisley pants, a striped shirt and bright scarf. His car had shag carpeting. He had incredible taste and he was an industrial designer, there were a few in the business that fought it out, Loewy and Walter Dorwin Teague, but they had their own style. They were contrarians.
I started doing it for myself, I liked it. It’s fun to restore, you get to plug it in and see it light up. There aren’t too many lighting shops, it’s not an easy sell. People don’t really collect lighting, it’s not something most people yearn for. They buy it when they have a need for it, when they’re restoring or redecorating and then they come out looking – and it has to fit the space. You need a shop with 500 lights in it before they find one they like. There came a tipping point when lighting became 75 percent of the repeat business.
What’s the style of your originals?
You have a hand-blown lamp shade in glass, it has a period feel to it, and you can turn it into a chandelier, into a pendant or a sconce. It’s exclusive to us. We’ll restore a light as-is if we have enough of the parts, and it’ll be something as it was. Or we’ll take antique parts and create something from them and it’s an antique light you’ve never seen but could’ve been. We think them out, balance them, and make them look like they should have been. We’re acting as industrial designers in the 1900s or the 1920s. Then there’s stuff we design, replicate and manufacture. We probably add a dozen new things a year. After 12 years, we have a lot of stuff that’s exclusive to us.
Lighting is constant for us now. I can barely keep up with it and I don’t want it to grow anymore. I don’t want to make it a factory. We’re still doing it by hand, we’re finishing by hand. Everything I buy, I buy it in the raw. It’s raw brass, glass or parts. We wire, finish and patina everything to order. We do it from scratch. That’s what the decorators like, they say, ‘As far as patina goes, you guys get it.’ It has an old feel, and an inconsistent feel with age, who knows how things will weather.
Any designers from that period that you look to?
Not so much, a lot of these things were created by anonymous people. I do like Charles Rennie Mackintosh and the Wiener Werkstätte. We’re not replicating it, but that aesthetic, I love it. I try and keep that simplicity. We just designed something new with the 1920s industrial wavy corrugated glass with the chicken wire. We bought ourselves cutting machines and we’re slicing up the glass.
I’m in my 70s. I started this business with and for my son, and he was very good at it. He passed away about a year and a half ago unexpectedly, so here I am by myself. I was buying for the next 30 years with him, but I love doing this and I’m not slowing down. I like working with my hands and I keep busy. I’ll just do it until I can’t. All the dealers we were buying from were his age. It’s not an old guy thing anymore, it just so happened in the old days that the lighting people were working for 30 or 40 years and they grew older. The lamps go well with the edgy antiques, the anatomical models. Lighting shops used to be just lighting, or antique shops just antiques, and if it was a lighting antiques shop, it was Tiffany. But this is just my eye. That’s what you’ll find here and you don’t know what you’re going to find here.
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