Though it has its origins in the literary world, steampunk is picking up speed as a lifestyle and a subculture. The New York Times recently ran a feature and accompanying photo essay on the movement, and its visual aesthetic is making inroads into fashion, technology, and now, home design. (In fact, at this writing, there are more than 20,000 items described as "steampunk" on Etsy, and more than 2,000 tagged with the term on eBay.)
Still, steampunk is a bit of a slippery concept. SteamPunk magazine, the house organ for enthusiasts of the style, defines it thusly: "Steampunk lives in the reincarnated collective past of shadows and ignored alleys. It is a historical wunderkabinet, which promises, like Dr. Caligari's, to wake the somnambulist of the present to the dream-reality of the future. We are archaeologists of the present, reanimating a hallucinatory history." Umm, OK ... Writer Richard Morgan puts it much more succinctly: "Steampunk is the future as dreamt by the past."
Aesthetically speaking, the definition is loose enough to incorporate everything from high Victoriana to 1930s Moderne, with generous doses of fanciful futurism, vintage industrialism, Edwardian dandyism, and romantic goth thrown in for good measure. Think part gentleman's library, part mad scientist's laboratory, part tinkerer's workshop, and part elegantly decrepit Victorian parlour. Add a jigger of Cabinet of Curiosities and a dash of Memento Mori. Then haul out the clock gears and magnifying glasses, vintage labware and hourglasses, steamer trunks, antique globes, aged brass and dark woods, apothecary bottles and bell jars, surveyor's lamps and factory pendants, campaign and directiore furniture, industrial antiques, mercury glass, and odd botanical specimens. In other words, steampunk is dark and slightly strange and most definitely not cute.
Here, an armchair tour of steampunk spaces and other visual representations of the style:
Mildred's Lane, the rural Pennsylvanian home of artist and fashion designer J. Morgan Puett, is a feminine, romanticized take on steampunk.
Photo from If It's Hip, It's Here
In his Habitat Machines photo composite series, Canadian artist David Trautrimas imagines what steampunk domiciles might look like. Above: The artist's digitally enhanced Sprinkler House.
From a philosophical standpoint, steampunk endeavors to humanize the everyday technology we've come to take for granted. These ornate, customized laptops by Richard Nagy are a classic example of the "retro-futuristic" aesthetic.
Photos by Caroline on Crack, via LAist
Los Angeles' Edison, a nightclub housed in a derelict power plant, sports an uber-steampunk look. (One assumes that absinthe is the libation of choice here.)
The Steampunk Tree House (designed and built right here in Oakland!) is a travelling installation that's made appearances at Burning Man and Coachella.
Designer Will Wick's library at the 2008 San Francisco Decorator Showcase had a strong steampunk vibe, with its strikingly dark palette, vintage wing chairs, curious objets, and industrial lighting.
Steampunk has largely been a DIY movement, but retailers are taking note: In addition to the Restoration Hardware items I featured earlier today, it's easy to find steampunk-inspired furnishings at a variety of other brand-name stores. Anthropologie, for one, has many pieces that would work in a steampunk scheme, and Sundance and J. Peterman also offer a wealth of steampunk styles.
A selection of my faves (and while prices on many of these items are prohibitive, rest assured that you can find steampunk-y decor bargains on eBay, at your local flea market, and maybe even in Grandma's basement):
Vintage Goth Bar Cabinet, $1,895, and Elliptic Library Cabinet from Jayson Home & Garden
Vintage Postal Desk, $2,995 from Jayson Home & Garden, and Draper's Cabinet, $1,895 from Sundance
Vintage Medical Cabinet from Get Back, and Oakley Display Cabinet from Sultana
Cabriolet Leg File Cabinet from Sultana, and Whitman Chest of Drawers, $2,995 from Jayson Home & Garden
Clockwise from top left: French Settee from Woodson & Rummerfield’s; Amelie Sofa, $2,898 from Anthropologie; Velvet Double-Sided Sofa from Horchow; Leather Tufted Settee, $3,200 from English Country Antiques
Clockwise from top: Baxter Loveseat, $4,200 from Jonathan Adler; Antoinette Fainting Sofa, $575 from Urban Outfitters; Snooze Sofa from Ochre
Clockwise from top left: Conversation Chair from Sarlo; Vintage Industrial Drafting Stool, $600 from Get Back; Vintage Chair and Ottoman, $2,995, and Napoleon Dining Chair, $475, at Jayson Home & Garden; Cotswold Chair, $1,000, and Corrigan Chair, $1,998 at Anthropologie
Clockwise from top left: Industrial Two-Tier Cart, $2,200 from Get Back; Armillary Sphere Tables, $7,800 from Downtown; Campaign Side Tables; Adjustable Cast Iron and Glass Table, $18,000 from Get Back; Normandie Side Table, $625 from Plantation Home
Clockwise from top left: French Counter Balance Wall Light, $1,500 from Sarlo; Photographer’s Lamp, $265 from Jayson Home & Garden; Eureka Lamp, $65 from Sundance; Architect’s Boom Floor Lamp, $495 from Jayson Home & Garden; Transit Lamps, $170 to $330 at Velocity; Equilibrium Lamp, $695 from Sundance
Clockwise from top left: Halo Chandelier, $270 from Velocity; Jade Rise & Fall Light from Marston & Langinger; Edison Chandelier, $399 from Pottery Barn
Clockwise from top left: Greetings From the Ministry of Travel, $175 from Etsy seller Winona Cookie; Cora Mirror, $998 from Anthropologie; They Are Always Watching Print, $20 from Etsy seller Attempted Artistry; Vintage Aviator Goggles, $75 from Etsy seller Velvet Mechanism; Belljars, $14 to $35 at Paxton Gate; Shoemaker Doorstop, $18 at Anthropologie; Illumination by the Inch Candle, $25 from Sundance; 19th Century Sprockets from Hamptons Antique Galleries; Vintage Books, $40 from Jayson Home & Garden
Of course, taken literally and adopted whole-hog, the steampunk look can be dark, heavy, and cartoonish. But before I'd even heard the term, I was drawn to certain aspects of it -- namely the battered industrial objects and factory lighting that are key to the aesthetic. I think a few steampunk pieces placed in an eclectic, carefully edited space can lend a hefty dose of mystery and romance.
What's your take on the trend? Do you like it or dislike it? Would you incorporate elements of steampunk into your own home?
(P.S. If the look appeals, be sure to check out The Steampunk Home, a blog devoted exclusively to steampunk in the domestic sphere.)