Recently "steampunk" has become quite the buzzword. I first heard it from a friend in the estate and secondhand home furnishing business. In her experience, steampunk is hot in design right now. My smarty pants friend tried diligently to explain this design direction, but I must admit I was still a bit confused.
During a recent visit to New Jersey, I went to one of my favorite interior design stores in Summit. Barbara Peyser, one of the owners, is always so generous with sharing her East Coast design direction and she is always a wealth of information. I knew she and her business associates had probably attended the recent High Point market in North Carolina, which is the crème da la crème of markets for the home furnishings. So, of course, I was eager to visit with her about what she had purchased for her store. There was that word again: steampunk. She had picked up some steampunk lamps, which she described as a bit edgy, but not so science fictional that they were scary. According to her, "Steampunk is Victorian style meets 21st century. A blend of romance and technology. Usually artisan-designed pieces combining wood, metal and leather. A good look to blend in with modern or traditional."
I was still not completely clear on this design focus, but determined to understand this trend. Nosy by nature, I knew that research was a must to comprehend this influence in design. I admit the concept is complex: A truly theatrical combination of early 20th century power (steam) and the science fiction storytelling of Jules Verne. Part of it is about life in the Victorian period when our world was into industrial advancements. Things were run with pulleys, gears and lots of wood; this is how factories functioned and how products were made.
As I pondered this design, it suddenly dawned on me that I have seen reproductions of similar pieces in Pottery Barn and Restoration Hardware catalogs—I just didn't realize it was a mild version of steampunk. Carts that ran on rails with wheels intact sold as wonderful coffee tables, for example. These items have literally been snatched from the factory floor and put into modern interiors! All of the mechanics of what ran the factory are front and center; nothing is covered up or hidden in any respect so you see the cogs, the wheels, the cranks, the machinery stuff. But here is where the genius of steampunk comes into play: The mechanics are embellished and overindulged with additions such as copper piping, steel and more gears until the piece becomes true art.
This artistic medium does not stop with interiors. Oh no, it is an entire subculture that shapes fashion along the far-reaching fantasy world of science fiction. The series as well as the Will Smith action movie Wild Wild West is loaded with this type of design—who knew, back then, that it was referred to as steampunk! Beefy, heavy with wood and leather, and expressing its own creative personality—I'm telling you, these pieces are theatrical in presence!
Page 2 of 4 - So, how do you introduce this art form into a room without looking like you have completely lost your mind as well as your design direction? For most of us, you add this look in small doses. For instance, over an entryway table you might try a combination of cogs and gears blended with clocks set to different time zones as with time travel. Lighting that adapts this wonderful ornate style could look amazing over the pool table or kitchen island (check out http://blog.rejuvenation.com, a favorite of mine that offers a milder interpretation of this design direction).
In my research for this column, I had the pleasure of meeting a fascinating person, Bruce Rosenbaum, who is described as a Steampunk Artist, Designer, Master, Guru, Godfather, High Priest and Evangelist (and sometimes Steampunk Rabbi) from Massachusetts. Clearly, my task of finding the exact person to explain this wonderfully magical design was complete when I located Mr. Rosenbaum! I am sharing my questions and his answers with you!
Q: Could you give me your definition of steampunk?
A: Steampunk is a reimagining and blending of two (or more) distinct time periods and the fanciful and functional inventions that are produced. For example, imagine (or reimagine) if the Victorian or Industrial Age happened at the same time as the modern or Information Age. What would have been produced in art, inventions, innovations, gadgets, art, dress and jewelry? Really, you can steampunk anything.
At its essence, steampunk infuses and synthesizes opposites to create the best of both worlds: future and past, old world craftsmanship and modern objects, humanism and technology, utopian and dystopian futures, art and science, self and society.
Q: Who do you think it most appeals to?
A: Literally everyone—preteens to seniors, men and women. Steampunk design is about combining opposites: old and new, past and present, form and function, art and science, male and female. There's a little bit of something for everyone.
Q: Is there an age group?
A: In the beginning, we saw mostly people in their early 20s and 30s, but we now see a lot of families (including the grandparents) showing up to steampunk festivals and events.
Q: When did you actually become attracted to this form of design?
A: I've loved the idea of combining art and science since the early age of 7 or 8 years old. One of my most favorite TV shows growing up was "Wild Wild West" (à la James Bond-like gadgets in the Victorian period). My passions always centered around architecture, antiques, salvage, technology and gadgets. Steampunk was the art movement and culture that brought it all together for me.
Page 3 of 4 - Q: Why do you think I am just now hearing about this form of art and design? I spent the last 20 plus years in the Denver, Colorado, area and I will be very honest: I never heard anyone even peep about this marvelous design. Not until I came to Kansas did I hear about this crazy delightful form of art.
A: The steampunk movement has been picking up steam (pun intended) for close to 30 years. It's just been recently that social media and the Internet has given a forum (and virtual place) for steampunk design to flourish. IBM also just announced their new Social Sentiment Index based on pattern tracking in social media and found steampunk the new and long lasting design trend! See the article/press release below:
Steampunk is now sweeping the nation, appearing in movies such as Hugo and Sherlock Holmes, bestselling books on Amazon and Barnes & Noble. Also, Newell Turner, Editor in Chief at House Beautiful, just deemed steampunk to be the next big design trend. I also was recently quoted and featured in two publications on the steampunk design trend: http://articles.chicagotribune.com/2013-01-13/features/chi-steampunk-trend-20130111_1_term-steampunk-sci-fi-magazine-justin-bieber and http://blog.nehomemag.com/2013/01/laurie-gorelick-steampunk-style/.
Q: Do you think it is a bit more regional? Are certain areas of the United States more immersed in it? And how about Europe?
A: This art movement and culture started mostly on the West Coast and spread to the East Coast. (I've been instrumental in making New England the hub of steampunk on the East Coast.) But now you can find steampunk groups, festivals and events all over the country and world. Steampunk is now big in Germany, France, Italy, Russia, Poland, Japan, Australia, New Zealand and, of course, England.
Q: Do you agree that Johnny Depp is an example of the way one might dress in steampunk!
A: Not sure about Johnny Depp, but Prada's menswear line in the Fall 2012 was decidedly steampunk! Check it out: http://www.buzzfeed.com/steampunk/prada-goes-steampunk-for-fall-3n9d
Q: Could you direct me to any fabrics you think might be appropriate, or do you see this art as objects and not fabrics so much?
A: Yes, steampunk design is a fusion of technology into period objects. However, you can have fun with fabrics by going to www.spoonflower.com to print your own steampunk graphics on fabric.
So there you go: A trend and design form that has found its way to the heartland. Clearly if we pay closer attention to the magic this design offers we will find much to smile about. I don't think Steampunk is for everyone, but learning something new about a lifestyle and design direction that is sweeping around the world is entertaining! I learned to appreciate things that have a bit more girth and weight and are the perfect blend to complement an eclectic lifestyle—a little of this and a dash of that and a room suddenly becomes visually exciting, and in the case of steampunk, a bit theatrical. Check it out and I think you will find that it is not only interesting, but a totally captivating design direction.
Page 4 of 4 - So until next week, Steampunkin to you my fine readers!
Jan Colvin has been a professional interior designer for over 25 years (Allied ASID).
Jan welcomes questions, which will be answered in her columns. Send your questions to: email@example.com