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less than a year, it has spawned an actual philosophy and lifestyle among it’s fan base. Although most people have never heard of it, Steampunk has already influenced everything from product design to fine art and fashion. Originally, Steampunk had it’s literary roots in science fiction novels set in 19 th century Victorian England. But, be warned. This is not your great grandmother’s Victoriana! Steampunk is a unique fantasy version of 19 th century Victorian England- now imbued with high tech digital devices, fantastic steam-powered machines and all manner of surreal, electro-mechanical contraptions that could only have been conjured by a mad, 21 st century scientist. The “Steam” refers to steam power- as in the living, fire-breathing machines of antique locomotion. The “Punk” is the important reference to the ‘outsider’ attitude- the lone wolf artist, the DIY craftsman and the amateur engineer, who are not beholden to any contemporary style or ideology. You can bet that you won’t be seeing this kind of design in your next DWR Catalog -and that’s just the way the Steampunks want it. Once you know where to look, Steampunk design is familiar. By reading H.G. Wells, Jules Verne or Mary Shelly or by seeing movies such as “Brazil” or “The League of Extraordinary Gentleman”, one may already have had a peek into this ingenious style. Hollywood has embraced Steampunk and often uses it as a plot foundation for it’s films (think “Wild, Wild West”). As far as Steampunk’s internet popularity is concerned, you can thank today’s young, savvy computer geeks, bloggers, gamers, authors and artists. Obviously, these creative individuals are not Luddites. They celebrate modern technology but firmly believe that the design of modern products like the ‘I-Phone’ and ‘I-Pod’ can’t possibly compete with the luxurious design of the early “Victorian Wonders” of technology. Although it’s techno-centric in styling, Steampunk design is definitely not just a “Boy’s Club” of enthusiasts. The wide appeal for it’s fans and creators are equally divided among women and men, young and old alike, from around the world. Websites dedicated to the style, such as Sara Brumfield’s “Steampunk Home”, feature the most current “New Victorian” designs applied to everything from architecture and product design to home accessories. Ms. Brumfield says, “Steampunk is finding an artistic method to combine the past with the future in an aesthetically pleasing way by taking the detritus of modern technological society and remaking it into useful and unique objects.” No longer satisfied with the injection molded, plastic design of today’s mass produced products, Steampunk artists are crafting a romantic new standard of modern goods- using traditional 19 th century materials applied to 21 st century technology. These artists prefer the “transparent” honesty of the hand-crafted object and, with a surprising disregard for the de rigueur stylings of contemporary fashion, they boldly embellish their work with all manner of historic design references and ornate technological flourishes.
Artist Jake Von Slatt is considered to be one of the first modern Steampunk designers and has very cleverly adapted this style to computers. Gone are the plain, boring plastic keyboards of your modern desktop computer. Von Slatt has replaced them with gorgeous, antique nickel and glass keys, surrounded by hand crafted brass- reminiscent of the ‘old-time’ cash registers. The housings and flat screen monitors of a Von Slatt Steampunk computer are made of wood, marble and ornate Victorian details- Perfectly appropriate for a 19 th century, high-tech home or office. Richard Nagy, a.k.a. ‘Datamancer’, creates modded laptops that are technological Steampunk jewels. Imagine sitting in Starbucks and opening up one of Nagy’s slim, solid mahogany laptopscomplete with studded leather hand rests, brass scroll work, elegant cast claw feet and solid brass, antique keys! (My new HP would be green with envy). For added authenticity, Nagy provides a large antique brass key that is actually used to turn the laptop on! With a few twists of the key (accompanied by the anticipated and satisfying clicking sound) Nagy’s laptop fires up to perform as well as the best, state-of-the-art, computers on the market
These computer designs, as unique and beautiful as they are, beg the obvious question: Why would anyone want to design a computer or laptop to look like this in the first place? On his website, artist Richard Nagy provides a surprisingly serious and eloquent answer. He explains that the computer, along with all modern digital devices, were truly robbed of their “novelty period.” He states, “The home computer was denied what I feel to be the proudest time in the life of any technological device. It was robbed of the fleeting, wonderful period right after invention, where it is celebrated and honored by the finest craftsman, artists and creative minds and given a structure befitting its potential and greatness. When the steam train roared into history, hissing smoke and howling into the night, it was an awesome beast, adorned in the finest woods, ivory, gold, and intricate inlays, like some Serpent King on a sacred tapestry. The automobiles of the 20's to 60's, each was a work of art. The television and radio affected the world in more ways that can be imagined, changing the entire dynamic of human social structure and communication. They were both appropriately gifted with the most lavish of hand tooled, wooden scrolled cabinetry which borrowed artistic details from the grandest schools of architecture and design. Sadly, the personal computer, which has impacted the world more profoundly than probably all of the previously mentioned inventions put together, never received the same kind treatment.” It is true, due to the modern methods of mass production and the need to cheaply produce billions of units, modern design now suffers from an androgenous “digital silhouette”- whereby one cannot visually tell the difference between a cell phone or a remote or even a flat screen TV or computer.
To counter the current generic look of modern products, Steampunk styling is being applied to all kinds of design endeavors. It can be seen in everything from ‘Jack-Built’, piston-driven contraptions to exquisitely rendered fantasy devices and designs in exotic woods and gold. “Steampunk is a wide and democratic philosophy with influences of fantasy literature, Victorian science and 19 th century spiritualism, so there is no single way to approach the genre”, says Art Donovan, an artist from Southampton, New York. He adds, “Whether they’re decorative or utilitarian objects, Steampunk designs are individual artisan creations. They are, intrinsically, sculptural pieces of art and lend themselves to any environment- be it traditional or extreme contemporary.” Donovan, a lifelong enthusiast of science fact and fiction, has been a fan of Steampunk long before it had been given a formal name. He says, “ The 1960 film, ‘The Time Machine’ is a perfect example of designs that blend technology with unexpectedly luxurious materials such as cut crystal, tufted velvet and ornate scroll work.”. Donovan’s work, like the “Siddhartha Pod” Lantern is laboriously hand crafted from solid mahogany and raw brass but “Still”, he admits, “if it serves some alchemistic purpose, the odd, antique Xray machine part may find it’s way into the design”. Donovan likes to employ what he calls, Creative Recycling. He scours the internet for antique machines and tools that are begging to be “cannibalized” and the parts integrated into new and unexpectedly unusual designs. Swiss time piece master, Vianney Halter, has demonstrated how seriously Steampunk has influenced even the most traditional of design disciplines. Halter has hand crafted a relic of the future with the introduction of his “Perpetual Antiqua” wrist watchcomplete with multiple gauges and a sapphire crystal back displaying the clock works. Looking as if the watch was taken from the cockpit of an antique locomotive, Halter spends over 900 hours of intense labor producing these Steampunk masterpieces. Like all Steampunk artisan-produced designs, Halters’ watch is as expensive as it is beautiful. The exclusive “Antiqua” wristwatch is offered as a very limited edition for $64,000. Ultimately, it’s important to realize that Steampunk design is not simply relegated to fashionable decorations and digital devices. Jos De Vink, an artist and mechanical engineer from the Netherlands, is currently experimenting with motors and engines that run only on heat! His Steampunk, “Stirling Engines”, beautifully hand-crafted from solid brass and looking as if they might have been created 100 years ago, use the simple heat from a candle or tea light to power the piston-driven motors. Environmentalists, everseeking the efficient and renewable power source, have come to appreciate the sheer mechanical beauty of the early 1800's Stirling Engine concept, which was all but abandoned after the popularity of the internal combustion engine, but still in use in things like, well...submarines! Using only the small differential of hot and cold air as power, De Vink’s magnificent Steampunk Engines are a true miracle of silent locomotion in an elegant physical form. True to the core of the Steampunk philosophy, De Vink believes that physical form must be equally impressive as the function. When something so unique is created, the great effort put into it’s aesthetics is what lends importance and grace to the object and demonstrates it’s value to the user.
According to Art Donovan, Steampunk, with all of it’s varied manifestations, is not merely an odd new trend, but will instead have a rich and exciting life, “Because it reaches back to our past to claim the most wondrous parts of history, overlooked technologies and design.” Captain Nemo would be proud.