Take it upstairs

Thursdays at brillobox are more or less like Thursdays at any other bar in Pittsburgh. Rowdy 20-somethings meet up after a long day at work or in class and revel in their own drunkenness. It’s a familiar scene — until you go up the stairs, that is.

Above the bar is a large, multipurpose performance space. It could be a dance floor, a meeting room, a concert venue, a comedy lounge… or just more bar. “As soon as I saw the second floor I knew this was the place,” said the bar’s owner, Eric Stern. Stern, along with his wife Renee Ickes, opened brillobox in September 2005 after returning to the city that Stern grew up in; the city “reinvented itself,” said Stern, in the 15 years he was away.

“We weren’t interested in opening a typical bar,” Stern said. He and his wife wanted to create a cultural space that would give the artistic community in Pittsburgh — a community Stern said “pulsates with energy” — something special. Even the first floor of the Penn Avenue building, which Stern guesses is over 100 years old, is replete with details that differentiate it from most other bars in the area. Holding flat-screen TVs showing sports games and high-definition movies, the walls are filled with artwork that Stern tries to rotate and vary on a semi-regular basis. He considers himself almost more of a curator than the owner of a bar.

Of course, the real magic of brillobox is upstairs. The entire second floor of the bar is one large room, with a low stage at one end and a fully-stocked bar at the other. The space in between can be anything — in the past week alone it was a dance floor emceed by a local DJ, a meeting space for a group of eccentric nerds, a studio for a sketching session, and a venue for two bands. Featuring a crystal chandelier on one end and tiny golden Buddha statues on the bar at the other, its flexibility is evident even at first glance.

This past Thursday, the second floor was filled with chairs, lit with candles, and populated by area nerds looking to hear a good presentation. Thursday night was the monthly meeting of Dorkbot, a national organization of “people doing strange things with electricity,” as the group’s motto so aptly puts it.

January’s meeting, this past Thursday, saw a presentation by Carnegie Mellon professor Roger Dannenberg, who has gained recognition for working with computerized musical instruments, including the construction of the

robotic bagpiper McBlare. Thursday night at brillobox, Dannenberg presented a foot pedal he designed to allow a computerized instrument to keep tempo with a live band.

With the lights down, there was an air of professionalism in the room. Dannenberg’s laptop glowed on a podium as he glanced at the screen, projected on the wall behind him. As his talk continued, however, it was clear that this was a community of people doing something they love for that reason only. “I’ve never done this before, since I just got this working this afternoon,” said Dannenberg as he prepared to test out the pedal. It worked, and the audience gave Dannenberg a round of applause.

It didn’t feel like a bar, and that is exactly what Stern is hoping to achieve — in his words, to “make a positive contribution somehow.” Situated on Penn Avenue, the border between Bloomfield and Lawrenceville, brillobox is right in the center of Pittsburgh’s ongoing cultural renaissance. Stern spent time in New York before moving back and feels that the cultural districts feel just like parts of Brooklyn, but without the hustle of a big city.

Dissatisfied with the cost of living in New York, Stern and Ickes moved back to Pittsburgh to start their family. “You’ve got to kill yourself just to survive, basically,” said Stern. He feels that many other people may begin to come to the same realization, and that influx of younger adults could do great things to revitalize the city. “If there was just a certain watershed amount of people... it would just explode.”

Stern and Ickes are doing their part to add to the area’s cultural ambiance. “The timing has been so fortuitously perfect,” said Stern. And he continues adding new events to the bar’s schedule to draw in a more varied demographic. One of their mainstay events, besides Dorkbot meetings, is something called “Drink and Draw,” a free studio session every other Tuesday that lets patrons come in and try their hand at sketching live models.

As the Dorkbot meeting drew to a close, the next act came in to set up its equipment. The DJ, Big Throwback, brought his equipment onstage as an episode of the cartoon show Thundercats played on the projector and the members of Dorkbot began to disperse. The founders were discussing next month’s lineup of speakers. There was talk of a schizophrenia simulator, and someone assured the small cluster of people that it would certainly be making an appearance.

Just another night at the bar.