Monday, March 23, 2009

Inspiration: Steampunk Style

Photo by Phil Mansfield for The New York Times

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:

Photos by Phil Mansfield for The New York Times

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.

Photos via The Datamancer and Newsweek magazine

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.

Photo by Kat Bret (via the Brass Goggles blog)

Aviator goggles, corsets, and lace-up boots figure prominently in steampunk fashion. (Note: If you are, by chance, my husband, you can put your tongue back in your mouth now.)

The sets of the films The Golden Compass, A Series of Unfortunate Events, and City of Ember showcase archetypal steampunk stylings.

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.

Photos from Because We Can (via Wired magazine)

The offices at San Francisco game company Three Rings were designed by Oakland firm Because We Can to resemble the Nautilus in Jules Verne's steampunk classic, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.

Photos by Moi

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.)


Unknown said...

wow- that's some impressive post! i know (as only another blogger can) the work that went into that, so kudos, leah!

i quite like a touch of two of the industrial aesthetic in an an otherwise spare and modern interior. it's great for a bit of whimsy as well- i'm using that pottery barn chandelier in a little boys room, with some vintage home movie cameras as decorative objects to keep the theme going, without being overwhelmingly retro.

and i quite coveted that steam punk laptop when i first saw it- wonder if it's mac?

great post leah- you've outdone yourself. thank you!

Anonymous said...

i have got to say, i feel as if x-mas came around quite early. i love how eclectic your choice of products and venues are. thanks for such a great post!!!!

Anonymous said...

p.s.s. leah,
i know you are a fellow oaklander like myself, so if you want to check out a great example of "steampunk" i would recommend heading out to cafe van kleef in downtown (and do try the grayhounds). have a great day!!!


Anonymous said...

a lot of my inherited/cl furniture happens to be victorian (including a huge double fainting sofa), though my preference is for the simplest of styles. for a while I've thought that moving in this direction (especially in light fixtures and occasional furniture) would help bridge the gap. thanks for tracking down so many purchasable items!

Anonymous said...

I have to echo maison21's comment...Wow! Great job! Such a comprehensive vision of what steampunk means and is. Thanks for the lesson.

Sarah Bradley said...

Leah- What a great post! I learned a ton as I'd never hear of Steampunk! I tend to agree with you though, I think a whole room of Steampunk is overly dramatic and dark but do find myself drawn to a few key pieces here and there. Maybe a coffee table or the gorgeous Jade Rise and Fall Light!

jackie kersh said...

you are getting up way too early these days. i love this whole concept, though don't think i could sport a corset or lace-up boots, but you never know. thank you for such a thorough introduction to this intriguing (though a bit over the top) genre.

Anonymous said...

well... the concept of steampunk is that it's an alternate history where electricity is either non-existent or not the main power source, hence why it tends to seem dark. However, I find that some of the best examples of steampunk are actually in video games like myst.

Anonymous said...

Another good source are the movies of Miyazaki - Howl's Moving Castle, Castle in the Sky, are totally steampunk, to the point that the environment becomes a protagonist in the story.

Myrnie said...

I thought the anonymous comment was interesting, since I adore Miyazaki's films. I really, really DON'T like steam punk. Which probably means I'll be adding it to my decor in about 5 years, because that's just the way I work :)

Great post, thanks! I've been wondering what "steampunk" was :)

monaluna said...

fabulous, thorough and enlightening post! i am a big fan of a small amount of steampunk (though i didn't know what it was called before now). in the right amount, it can seem both fantastical and authentic. but i have to agree - too much can be over-the-top. i'd sport that laptop in a second, though...

Anonymous said...

Wonderful post! Thanks so much. I like the richness of it and, like any trend, it will be updated as it hits mainstream. Dare I say -So tired of the 50's - 70's retro.

Anonymous said...

Excellent post.

Pixie said...

I've only heard of steampunk maybe 6 months ago and fell in love. It's got that old, otherwordly, gothic but not too gothic look that I feel in love with immediately.

I've been wondering how to incorporate it without going overboard. You gave some great ideas.

Thanks for an amazing post!

God Museum said...

I was thinking to myself WHAT A WONDERFUL POST and scrolled down to find that many others shared this sentiment. Thank you so much. I'm intrigued and inspired and informed.

Pigtown*Design said...

My friends at Housewerks (usually write that housewrecks) have a collection of original steampunk goods for sale at their store in Baltimore. They've been selling this stuff for ages. Not usually my style, but I can appreciate it.

dominique said...

We just watched City of Ember the other night.....but aside from that what a fantastic post! I haven't been this excited by a blog post in quite sometime, to the point of showing my graphic design students tomorrow! Thanks!

Leah said...

Thanks so much, everyone, for your kind words!

Truth is, I've been collecting images and info for this post for a very long time, but wasn't sure if I'd ever publish it because I didn't now if many of you out there would even care for the steampunk look. But then I finally got a bee in my bonnet about finishing the post last night after seeing all the SP-influenced stuff at Resto Hardware. As you can see from the timestamp on this post, my eyes were practically bleeding by the time I was done ...

So glad that you all are finding it interesting!

Seraph said...

Hmm, I have an Oakley case (optometrists in the family) and never realized that it would work in a steampunk-inspired space...

*complicated rusty gears turn furiously inside my head...*

eileenerb said...

My friend Susanne has been doing steampunk for years -- I didn't know it had a name. She houses her drinking glasses in an old dental cabinet which always made me go "ewww." In fact, most of her stuff is just this side of yuck for me. My definition of the movement: somewhere between Victorian and industrial but mostly just skin-crawly/creepy.

Heart:Home said...

such a relief to go beyond MCM for inspiration. Great post!

Anonymous said...

LOVE this post!

Anonymous said...

First ever comment from me here. Great post Leah! The impressive length of this post convinced me to air my view on the matter.

I have to agree with the creepiness, but if used in moderation, to 'quirk up' your apartment, I think it's a winner. I've got a 30s green travel trunk as a coffee table, which is probably as steampunky as I will ever get, haha!
I can appreciate dark and mysterious, but as far as living goes I want to be comfortable at all times and do my best to make others feel at home. I don't think a place completely built on a steampunk style would be very warm and welcoming.

But in the end it's each to their own, isn't it? ;)

Anonymous said...

I absolutely loved this post! Very well done!

Regarding your comment regarding The Edison:

(One assumes that absinthe is the libation of choice here.)

Indeed, it is. Not only did I enjoy a fine absinthe cocktail off the menu on my first visit, one can also purchase pre-made absinthe cocktails in souvenir lab bottles off of (what else?) the absinthe cart that is rolled through the club all night by a young lady dressed in a green fairy costume.

Whether you're interested in steampunk or not, The Edison is not to be missed.

Anonymous said...

This is so my style - I just didn't know it had a name until now. I like my house to interesting and even faintly scary, you don't want those guests staying too long.

Turquoise said...

Fab post...Thank you for sharing all these great finds!

Joy Lett said...

We are adding a whole room inspired by steampunk into our store. Thanks for the inspiration. Joy

Anonymous said...

I was sent here from Steampunk Home and really enjoyed your delightful post, Leah! I've decorated with "steampunk" pieces for years before putting the name to it, with old antique, industrial, and medical bits and pieces and a dark esthetic. Some of my items come from my family home and Dad's workshop, others from auctions or the curb. I like authenticity and don't really like to see Anthropologie and others pick up the style and overprice it.

Anonymous said...

Hi all, here‘s some more stempunk gear:

Unknown said...

I really love the steampunkish, Verne inspired design. You may want to check out my home cinema. It is based on Verne's "20,000 Leagues Under The Sea". You can find some pictures here:

lsaspacey said...

Don't forget Jeunet & Caro's City of Lost Children for more Steampunk movie set design.

Unknown said...

I seldom read blogs...found your site on an image search for antique sofas; this is awesome. I love your site/style. Thanks for sharing. =)

Karena said...

Leah, how fascinating to learn more about this style of design! Thank you for all of the great images!

Art by Karena

pve design said...

Reminds me of Mary Poppins (Angelina) gone punk with Oliver Twist added as the kids to try to nanny. Director would be Edward Scissor~hands - played by Johnny Dep.

Anonymous said...

Maison21 had it right--as a writer myself, I really appreciate the work that went into creating this as a well-researched, well-illustrated, informative post on Steampunk. I like the Thomas Mann-as-seen-through-Tim- Burton's-eyes quality of Steampunk. I also like the techno-eccentricity of it.

Penelope Trunk said...

Hi, I can't remember how I found your site, but I had never heard of Steampunk, and you totally rocked my world with your post. Opened up so many ways of seeing things to me, and also, you crystalized why I love walking through Anthropologie in Rockerfeller Center so much! I linked to you from my blog here:

And I have received tons of emails telling me that they loved your post. So, thanks for helping us all!


Jenny Wren said...

It's so soothing to find a name for the style I am constantly trying to achieve! Finally I can rest. Thanks for the great post. (And thanks for the link, Penelope, or I never would have made it here!)

Anonymous said...

Thanks for all the great information. I had never heard of the term until I was asked to design a steampunk angel costume for a friend. Now I know why she asked me, that is exactly my style, I just didn't have a name for it. I'm so excited!d

Surly Girly said...

Very well-researched and -compiled post ... kudos!

However, my opinion is that the steampunk aesthetic will ultimately prove to be a flash in the pan. It's far too derivative, kitschy and contrived - both physically and visually - for comfort ... and should comfort be what a home is all about?


Leslie {Goodbye, house. Hello, home!} said...

This is one of the most excellent posts I have read on the subject of steampunk decor and trying to define it, or at least give some direction for those of us trying to design/recreate it.
My project is my husband's office. As a designer, I have never created a steampunk "look". But, I love the challenge, and I am so very grateful for this post and all the links!
As a blogger, also, I know this post must have taken you a few hours--so THANK YOU!!

Kizmuco said...

Great post! This is so awesome. Thank you so much... =)


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