The Works Cashes In on the Steampunk Aesthetic at the University of Nevada, Reno

A renovation turns a campus building’s lobby into a retail restaurant and lounge with a fashion and design theme dating back to the Victorian era.

UNR The Works serveryThe servery features menu items from Forklift Burritos & Bowls and Waffler, as well as an espresso bar. The flooring was laid in copper and bronze metal finishes with a signature inlay of steampunk gears in the central walkway areaA multiconcept retail dining venue in the Fitzgerald Student Services building at the University of Nevada, Reno, had been underutilized for years. "While researching what was most desirable in a new campus dining location, students from various clubs, organizations and student government told us they wanted a comfortable and inviting space in a centralized location for meeting up with friends," says Russ Meyer, associate director for housing operations and dining services. "They also wanted an environment that was genuine, unique in feel and appearance, something they couldn't get anywhere else on campus or in town. The words they used were 'cool' and 'fun.'" Students also requested a menu that featured real flavors, generous portions and good value. And they insisted on no national brands.

In the spring of 2012, student groups were asked to select among five preliminary themes. They chose a steampunk theme, which Wikipedia defines as "a subgenre of fantasy and speculative fiction that came into prominence in the 1980s and early 1990s. The term denotes works set in an era or world where steam power is still widely used—usually the 19th century, and often set in Victorian era England—but with prominent elements of either science fiction or fantasy, such as fictional technological inventions like those found in the works of H. G. Wells and Jules Verne, or real technological developments like the computer occurring at an earlier date."

The inspiration for the steampunk theme appeared while Meyer took the project's foodservice design consultants from Webb Culinary Design on a tour of the university's mining and metallurgical engineering program, of which there are only 13 in the United States. "Gold and precious metal mining in Nevada began in the same period as the Victorian era," says Webb Culinary Design's Susan Wilkie. "This sparked the operation's steampunk design story, which is grounded in industrial modern aesthetic, steeped in metals and showcasing industrial craftsmanship in a fun and fresh new way and widespread in literature, fashion, design and visual art." The city of Reno is a steampunk haven featuring expos, festivals and a steampunk ball at the opera house.

The location of the newly designed operation, named The Works, presented many challenges for the design team. "The building is in a central location on campus, but the foodservice space isn't very visible from the outside so students don't just see it and walk in," says Costel Coca, design principal at Webb Culinary Design. "The university doesn't allow signage outside of the building, so we wanted to create an identity and experience that people will let others know about through social media and word of mouth."

"We had to maintain the aesthetic of the existing Fitzgerald lobby, a warehouse-like industrial space with expansive and unique windows, brick, metal and concrete," says Linda Midden, interior design director at Webb Culinary Design. "Timeless industrial foundational pieces were layered with synergistic steampunk elements using copper, bronze and other metals, reclaimed and salvaged woods. Industrial antique pieces were combined with modern technology with one part ingenuity and two parts playfulness."

Customers are encouraged to spend a lot of time in the building's lobby, studying and socializing in comfortable seating that includes aviator-style club chairs with riveted steel-clad backs and comfortable black leather cushions. Oversized, studded black leather chairs sit in front of rusty, coppery wall curtains that are made of mesh and set against a two-story, unfinished cement wall. To preserve the architectural cement wall, steampunk art and clock installations hang from a decorative though functional hanging system.

The Works houses two themed concepts: Waffler and Forklift Burritos & Bowls. In this area, industrial vintage and industrial modern lighting bring historic charm to create a repurposed, old-is-new ambiance. The concepts incorporate studded metals with a gear motif throughout. Reclaimed industrial spring barstools, which student employees call "spring break," serve as seating for community tables covered in acid-washed metallic copper and bronze tops. Group seating areas scattered throughout the dining and lounge areas feature reclaimed, salvaged-wood tabletops with adjustable-height wrought-iron bases. Dining chairs in modern steel and vintage metal accompany the tables. A community banquette in modern metallic leather with a fresh and playful Victorian-era purple and green color palate highlights one part of the dining room.