For me, the steampunk aesthetic is perhaps best defined by the object-based work of its fans. The literary tradition can be traced back to the Victorian Era works of H.G. Wells and Jules Vern, or in the more recent era to authors William Gibson and Bruce Sterling and their ground-breaking novel, The Difference Engine, but the steampunk movement truly gained momentum with the fan interaction available through the internet. Web sites, blogs, Facebook, Pinterest, and other social media sites created an easily accessible platform for fans of the steampunk genre not only to share pictures of their finished creations, but in many cases to share detailed plans and/or blueprints. Some may see this as ironic—that an art form seemingly dedicated to a simpler time and technology is actively promoted through modern technology—but that would be missing the point. Technology and design are essential to many steampunk enthusiasts and form the center of many of its most insightful statements on the nature of human interaction with craft and production.
Brass, copper, wood, leather, glass—these materials are used, are tooled, to form steampunk items that are both beautiful and functional. Indeed, part of the aesthetic of this art form is not just in how an object looks, but also in its intended function. Decoration is not separate from form and function. The expression “you can’t just glue gears on something and call it steampunk” emphasizes this fact. The gears need to do something—need to fulfil some function in the design—to be part of the steampunk aesthetic.
The designers of these works of art not only share the finished products online, but also describe in detail how to create them. Understanding something from the ground-up—knowing what purpose each part serves and how it integrates with the whole—is part of the steampunk aesthetic. How different is this process than the creation of most modern technology? Look at how difficult would it be for an average user to assemble a modern invention like a smart-phone or computer from its component parts.
In “Meet Mr. Steampunk,” Jack von Slatt (an IT Professional) explains that “the Victorian era was really the last era in which a high school graduate was given the complete set of scientific concepts to fully understand the technology of the age” (as ctd. in Brownlee, 2007). It was an era where people did not need a specialized set of skills to work with technology. Almost every adult was capable of designing and creating the marvels of the age. Why wouldn’t this be an era that fans of steampunk would want to revisit through their creations and through their appreciation of other peoples crafts?
People who enjoy making and sharing steampunk items, then, can be viewed as artists and inventors who are enamored of technology. The technology they seek to create, however, has function and form as well as beauty and elegance. It is a type of technology that an average person can understand and can appreciate. It is a type of aesthetic that is available to all.
Brownlee, J. (2007). Meet Mr. Steampunk: Jake von Slatt. Wired (29). Retrieved
Originally Published on Milo James Fowler’s Blog