Jeffrey Stephenson, the Frank Lloyd Wright of PC case design

If you look at Jeffrey Stephenson's hand-crafted designs, you can see the same level of clarity, simplicity, and harmony that one still sees today in the buildings designed by famed architect Frank Lloyd Wright.
Written by David Gewirtz, Senior Contributing Editor

I rarely get jealous. I'm pretty happy with my life and I know how lucky I am. But sometimes, just once in a while, I have a little twinge of jealousy. I felt it when Jeff Bezos bought the Washington Post, because I could just imagine how much fun it would be for a political columnist to, you know, own the Washington Post.

Jeffrey Stephenson, holding one of his creations

And then there's Jeffrey Stephenson, who I've gotten to know over this last week. Stephenson has an amazing talent for design, particularly when he merges wood and found-objects with PC case design. I've always wanted to work with wood, but even though my wood crafting skills pretty much start with "big hammer smash" and reach "oops, that wasn't supposed to happen," I can appreciate Stephenson's astonishing talent. I'm a slight bit jealous, I have to admit, but mostly I'm just gobsmacked by how beautiful his work is.

We've got a whole gallery of his work up on ZDNet today, and if you look at Jeffrey Stephenson's designs, you can see the same level of clarity, simplicity, and harmony that one still sees today in the buildings designed by famed architect Frank Lloyd Wright.

Gallery: The most beautiful, one-of-a-kind, handcrafted PCs you'll ever see

I had the opportunity to speak with Stephenson and ask him about his work. Here's what he said:

Gewirtz: Tell us about yourself, your background, and what you do for a living.

Stephenson: I'm a technologist with a lot of time on my hands. I've been a sailor, engineer, accountant and IT director. Lived in San Francisco in the 60's and New York City in the 70's. First job was at Walt Disney World. Motorcycled across country. Sailed around the world. I'm now a gentlemen farmer and landholder.

Gewirtz: How long have you been making these wonderful mods?

Stephenson: It has been 11 years since I first shoe-horned a computer system into a desktop cigar humidor. Most people laughed and it was funny. It also started a lot of semi-serious discussions about computer design and personal tastes.

Gewirtz: What got you started?

Stephenson: A fascination with small things. Who doesn't love a miniature? When VIA came out with the Mini-ITX form factor, it created an explosion of creativity from people who saw the potential of sticking a fully functional PC into almost any object. It was a matter of survival at first, becauseof  the dismal availability and outrageous costs of early cases. I discovered that an executive's desktop cigar humidor was the perfect sized enclosure for a Mini-ITX based PC.

Gewirtz: How did you learn how to develop the skills to create these mods?

Stephenson: I have no special background or extensive experience in woodworking or carpentry. My case cooling solutions come directly from knowledge gained during my service in the US Navy nuclear power program. As a kid I put together a lot of plastic models including many with really bad directions and poor quality parts. I got some quality problem solving and creativity-on-the-fly kind of skills from that experience, I'm sure.

I have a couple of cabinetmaker friends who mostly harass me about how I do things. I learned about lacquer finishing and other woodworking basics from them.

Gewirtz: You told me earlier that the cases don't get warm. How is that possible? My PCs put out a ton of heat. I would have thought the heat of the processor would warp the wood and weaken the glue.

Stephenson: I'm sure you are old enough to remember console TVs? Hot electronics in wooden boxes has a long history. I'm thinking the 20's was their heyday. I remember my parents stereo console from 1962 with its mid-century design.

Cooling a computer system is all about airflow. The material the case is made of doesn't have any role in cooling the system. The amount of heat actually conducted through the case is so small it isn't even worth considering. Contrary to common sense... aluminum cases don't run cooler than steel ones. It is one of those counter-intuitive things.

Don't get me started on "bursting into flames" stuff. Grounding and EMI issues are fun too!

Gewirtz: How long does it take you to make one of your projects?

Stephenson: From the first idea to completion can be years. Once I work things out in my head, then it takes about 6-8 weeks. I make 2-3 computers a year.

Gewirtz: Where do you find your inspiration?

Stephenson: I used to cruise eBay a lot looking at the art deco and machine age stuff. Got a few ideas from that. A theory I have right now is that travel is inspiring me. After traveling to SF in 2010 to display a few piece,s I returned to a most successful creative streak. Within five months I built Level Eleven and Mid Century Madness. These two are responsible for 70% of the traffic to my website. The travel theory has yet to be tested.

Gewirtz: What's your workshop like? What tools do you use?

Stephenson: I try not to use power tools. I have a cordless drill and a Dremel that I use on occasion. I do most of my work on a table on my deck. Hand working doesn't require much space. I like to use non-toxic glues and paints as much as possible because I've been known to work indoors as well.

Gewirtz: Are there any special tricks you use?

Stephenson: I like to use optical illusions to manipulate the viewer's perception. Simple stuff like adjustments for perspective and using black to make things disappear. I'm always mindful of the piece's most common viewing angle(s).

Gewirtz: Do you sell these? Is this a business or a hobby? Are they exhibited anywhere?

Stephenson: It's a hobby. I take advantage of the fact that I can steal pretty much anything I want [from a design perspective] as long as I don't sell it. There is only one of my pieces in the wild. It was last seen in Taiwan. I've displayed at CES several times in the past decade, and in 2010, I got an opportunity to display at a museum. The Exploratorium was perfect because it was just down the street from where I lived at the Presidio in 1969.

Gewirtz: Do you have any suggestions for some of our readers who might want to start making their own hand-crafted cases?

Stephenson: If you have the tools and skills to build a birdhouse or dollhouse then you can get started right away. I have authored several extensive project logs that are publicly accessible. [Many of these are linked to from the gallery.] There is a huge volume of content out there focused on customizing computers and how it's done.

Don't forget to check out Stephenson's gallery. And if you've done any spectacular case mods, feel free to discuss them below.

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