In Noah Baumbach’s recent movie, “While We’re Young,” Josh and Cornelia, aging Generation X Brooklynites (played by Ben Stiller and Naomi Watts) who are desperately trying to reclaim their youth, are struck by what passes for home décor in the Bushwick loft of their new, painfully on-trend young friends Jamie and Darby (Adam Driver and Amanda Seyfried).
Along with the familiar hipster household clichés (the electric typewriter, the wall of vinyl records), the young couple proudly displays a Reagan-era library of movies on VHS tapes, along with a shelf of music cassettes.
“It’s like their apartment is full of everything we once threw out,” Cornelia says with an air of wonder.
The tech detritus of the 1980s and ’90s is finding a second life as a new generation of artists, designers and geek-nostalgists is repurposing the early-digital-era flotsam of its youth as art, home décor and jewelry, along with plenty of irony-laced kitsch.
Think of it as the next evolution of retro-chic style. Self-conscious analog style may have owned the last decade, at least among tastemakers in shuttle-loomed denim with their vintage phonograph players, typewritersand mechanical watches.
But as the children weaned on Nintendo and Napster mature to the point that they suffer occasional fits of cultural nostalgia, the disposable plastic junk of their youth may finally be ready to have its due.
“We’re just to the point where we can look back at the VHS tape and realize how cool it was,” said Erika Iris Simmons, a 31-year-old Chicago artist who works under the name Iri5, fashioning portraits of luminaries like Jimi Hendrix and Marilyn Monroe not with a brush, but with swirls of tape from old audio and VHS cassettes.
To Ms. Simmons, cassette tape recalls a more physical, tactile association that children of the ’80s and ’90s once had with their gadgets; she remembers knowing how to blow into her Nintendo game cartridge just so, to get it working when it would not load. “We all have that shared experience of interacting with the technology that you don’t get to know with MP3s,” she said.
In a similar vein, Chris McCullough, 40, a Los Angeles architectural designer who creates art for his spaces, renders portraits of cultural icons like James Brown using audiocassettes like mosaic tiles. Not only are discarded cassettes inexpensive and abundant, he said, but they resonate with audiences his age.
“Cassettes represented the first popular portable music medium you could share and personalize yourself,” Mr. McCullough said, before services like Spotify made music “ever disposable.”
(While cassette tapes are technically analog, they reached their cultural zenith in the early digital era of the ’80s, just as PCs were entering the mainstream.)
Old Nintendo peripherals themselves can also function as art, or at least eye-catching home décor. Jeff Farber of Oshkosh, Wis., sells pop-art-style desk and floor lamps fashioned from vintage PlayStations and Nintendo 64s and the like on his Etsy shop Woody6Switch, which are intended to celebrate an era when gadgets, even cheap plastic ones, had a certain staying power.
“When I was a kid, technology advanced much more slowly than it does today,” Mr. Farber, 36, said. “Like a beloved pet, you took care of it and it gave you joy and entertainment for many, many years.”
By contrast, he added, “today’s technology advances and upgrades are so fast that a device you buy today can become virtually obsolete in a matter of months, so there is no real time to fall in love with it the way you could in those golden years of video game infancy.”
There is certainly no shortage of the stuff. As the life cycle of the average electronic gadget shrinks to a virtual eye blink, the mountains of electronic trash continue to rise, expected to surpass 70 million metric tons this year, from about 19 million in 1990, according to a 2014 report by Step, a United Nations-affiliated sustainability initiative. Except in unusual cases — like the story last month about a Bay Area woman dumping a rare Apple I computer from the 1970s worth $200,000, apparently by accident, at a recycling facility in Milpitas, Calif. — few look at that trash heap and see treasure.
But that has started to change. While some regard the so-called upcycling of old gadgets into picture frames or planters as an ecological gesture, others see it as a celebration of shared technological heritage.
Jake Harms, 31, who lives in Hildreth, Neb., started a business recycling old iMacs into aquariums and desk lamps in 2007 after a boss directed him to toss an outmoded iMac G3.
The candy-colored, egg-shaped desktop computer, introduced in 1998 as one of Steve Jobs’s first iconic pieces during Apple’s late-’90s comeback, seemed too lovely to toss, Mr. Harms reasoned. So after some online research, he decided to turn it into a computer fish tank (a longstanding hobby for some techies), and has since sold more than 1,000, he said.
To Mr. Harms, the iMac is functional art, like a classic car. And just as a 1960s Ford Mustang may not make an ideal daily drive but is great for a weekend cruises, “an old computer may not run current software, but make some modifications and it makes a pretty sweet aquarium or lamp,” he said.
Apple products created early in the reign of Jonathan Ive, the company’s design guru since 1996, are a natural for reuse as household objects since many were hailed as classics from the outset. For example, Lonnie Mimms, a Georgia real estate executive who owns a collection of vintage computers he values at more than $1 million, recently staged an Apple Pop Up Museum in a former CompUSA store near Atlanta.
Other die-hards have fashioned discarded eMacs into pet beds, G4 towers into mailboxes, G5 towers into outdoor benches and G4 Cube computers into tissue boxes.
The customer base for these upcycled products tends to be narrow and self-selective.
“They’re geeks, they’re nerds,” said Rob Connolly, a retired Floridian who, with his partner, Rita Balcom, makes intricate wall clocks and desk clocks out of old hard drives and motherboards. A few years ago, for example, their company, Tecoart, which sells on Etsy and Amazon, filled an order for 2,400 such pieces from Google, which passed them out as employee incentive awards, he said.
Not surprisingly, these techie hobbyists share their passion in online communities. One of the more popular forums is a D.I.Y. tech blog run byEvil Mad Scientist Laboratories, a family company in Sunnyvale, Calif., that produces open-source hardware. The site features tutorials on making earrings out of linear regulator chips, wine charms from capacitors and a wooden footstool in the shape of a classic 555 integrated circuit chip from the ’70s.
“Most of us are deep in the maker communities,” said Lenore Edman, a founder, “so these items are symbols of both our history and our knowledge.”
Repurposed tech peripherals are also finding a higher-brow, arty audience.
Retro ironists who wish to express their tech nostalgia may consider thePixelkabinett 42, a sleek handmade reinterpretation of the classic ’80s arcade game cabinet by the Swedish artist Love Hulten. The limited-edition console contains a vintage computer board and costs about $4,200.
“I want to push gaming into a new context, making the arcade cabinet an artistic equivalent to the painting on your wall,” Mr. Hulten, 31, said.
Video games from the “Fast Times at Ridgemont High” era can also be found at major museums. Starting July 10, the Brooklyn Museum will present Deluxx Fluxx Arcade, an electric Kool-Aid urban-art reinterpretation of a “Missile Command”-period video arcade by Faile, a Brooklyn-based art duo formed by Patrick McNeil and Patrick Miller, and Bäst, another New York artist.
This latest iteration of the installation, which has also been shown in London and Miami, is part of a larger Faile show at the museum, and comprises 14 vintage game cabinets painted in collaged imagery and Day-Glo patterns, and reprogrammed with smirky, interactive games that satirize gentrification, pollution and parking in Brooklyn.
In the past, the artists have described the piece, which was shown at Art Basel Miami Beach in 2013, as a reflection of “the art world’s fixation on ideas of relational aesthetics and democratization.”
But there is an undeniable element of Gen X nostalgia at work, too.
“It celebrates and builds on the loss of these somewhat sacred spaces we found growing up going to arcades at the mall,” Mr. Miller, 39, said. “You could be a hero or a villain in these spaces and be transformed in the games before walking back out into the normal, and sometimes boring teenage, world.”