Thursday, July 24, 2008

Steampunk and Tiny Motorbikes

Randy Nakamura had a brief freakout yesterday. Topic? Steampunk.

We are being taken for rubes. At worst, the Steampunkers seem to be mediocre hobbyists with great publicists. It seems fine to me that an obscure niche of DIY hobbyists want to create an imaginary Victorian present, no matter how insular or simpleminded it might be. Reality is what you make of it, even if it is apparent that some people prefer reality to look like a discarded sci-fi movie prop. It is entirely another thing for the press, in their endless “style” trolling, to claim Steampunk as some sort of important movement. If the press behaves as a gaggle of inept tastemakers, then the uncritical pimping of Steampunk must serve as a “mission accomplished.” What it boils down to is that instead of inventing something new, the Steampunkers have mastered one of the oldest of arts: that of self-promotion. P.T. Barnum, that 19th century master of theater, hoax and hype, would be proud.

This ending is a bit hyberbolic compared to the rest of the essay, which, as the sole intelligent commenter pointed out, wasn't really a condemnation of the movement as a whole but rather a purely aesthetic dismissal of steampunk as a generator of new or beautiful form. Thus most of the offended people missed Randy with their comments as much as he missed them in his post; steampunk is perhaps a wonderful community / craft movement / source of innovation / party theme, but it has few chances at being incorporated into the larger world of design largely because the vast majority of design objects are rehash of a previous style (Victorian) that is itself an eclectic recombination of even older design.

What Randy ignores are the potentials latent in the current culture of design that are what is making steampunk such a popular (and yes, hypeable) movement. The complaints about contemporary industrial design bandied about by people coming out of this movement -- the predominance of the lightweight and short-life materials, the lack of handicraft, minimalism as an end not a means-- are all quite valid. Designers from every corner are currently attempting to add heft and decorative power to their work, from graphics to products to architecture. This is a nerdy, charmingly DIY attempt to reach a homemade analogue. And while I could personally do without the retrograde (even reactionary) Hot-Topic Victorian throwbacks, I can appreciate steampunk's healthy humor and reappropriative behavior.

In fact, what this really reminds me of is the work of Adrian van Anz, the progenitor of one-off platinum iPods and desktops. Here you have handicraft, longevity, and cultural reference, and it doesn't remind me of Myst at all. Here's a one to one comparison:

Steampunk motorcycle:

Cheap but Ugly.

van Anz equvalent:

Derringer Cycles: Pretty but overpriced.

So while I probably agree with Randy that steampunk won't have any lasting effect upon the world of general design beyond movies and a few video games, it is an important signifier of the yearnings and obsessions in the design-conscious public. People are waking up from their blind love for all things shiny-- we want our stuff to last, we want it to wear, and we want it to hurt when it falls on our foot.

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