Defining Steampunk proper

For years I have liked the aesthetics of the steampunk look in various project. Be it clothing, objects or vehicles, a nicely done steampunk project I find very pleasing. I have done some mild steampunk themed project in the past, mainly computers and cabinets, but recently I felt the urge to do some more of that. For a start I did some online research, as I always do and I found myself, quite quickly, to have a strong opinion on certain steampunk practices.

What is steampunk?

Usually steampunk is defined as Victorian/Edwardian style-cues mixed with industrial revolution inspired attributes projected on modern technological and social concepts. That is to say that a typical steampunk rocket-scientist would wear a top-hat with brass welder-glasses and a steam-powered jetpack on his or hers back.

The variations are endless frankly and a lot of steampunk enthusiasts would add to steampunk a sense of make-believe history, roleplaying and subcultural elements, but in essence it’s a style-figure you can categorize as you can Jugendstil. Apart from the Victorian style-ques, which are mostly decorative, the materials play a large role in the overall style. Materials like brass, copper,  wrought iron, rivets, pneumatics, hydraulics, leather, gears, and latches are used a lot.

A proper steampunk object should not look plastic or mass-produced. It should have a feel of history about it with a note of futurism and most importantly, it should suggest functionality. This last part is very important and it’s where a lot of steampunk designs go wrong. The steampunk style exposes functional elements instead of boxing them all up. In a sense it is similar to the postmodern movement of deconstructivism in architecture where structures are open or inside-out, exposing the functional elements of the structure.

Were a lot of steampunk designers go wrong is where this exposed functionality makes no logical sense. I have seen a lot of tutorials and designs that implement gears and wheels. This is great, only if you have a random gear sticking out somewhere with no apparent function or connection to the function of the object, then it’s just a random ornament and for that we already have the Victorian influence.

(c) Dravensinferno
(c) Dravensinferno

Having a steampunk watch, for instance, with all the gears underneath exposed makes perfectly good sense even if it’s faked. It drives the point home that this device has functionality, the mechanics of which you can clearly see and imagine how they operate. Putting a single detached brass gear on a pair of goggles does not do any of those. It perhaps suggest some form functionality, but it’s unclear what this should be and apparent that it can’t possibly work though this specific gear which makes it seem rather obsolete.

Properly designed steampunk should, apart from the aesthetic design, suggest what it does functionally and have attributes/parts that are unambiguously crucial to its functionality. Any bulb, line, gear, knob or other element that seems obsolete, therefor is and should not have  been implemented. This purely superficial form of the steampunk style is to me like Rococo is to Baroque in the sense that Rococo broke the rigid boundaries of Baroque, in the process breaking the logic of the style.

Although Baroque and Rococo never implied functionality in their ornamentation  style, the result is similar. Rules and boundaries in styles do not typically oppose creativity, they indorse it. Only when these boundaries are broken you get a flurry of clichés  and nonsensical gibberish.

Regardless of the creativity and skill of the designer, there seems to exist to forms of steampunk. The first is the proper steampunk where the various influences are implemented with regard to their inherent nature. Decoration is non-functional and functionality is logical. The second form is the Rococo steampunk. perhaps Steamrococo would drive this point home. Steamrococo confuses functionality with decoration and only superficially mimics steampunk.

Examples

Here are some examples of what I consider proper steampunk design and shoddy steampunk or rococopunk. I took these examples from http://www.deviantart.com and all pictures are owned by their respective owners, but as this is a comparative review, fair use is firmly in place. The first two items are from a very skilled maker called Asdemeladen on deviantart. Amongst other things he makes gauntlets and I have chosen two item from his work that represent the good and the bad in steampunk. Note that on both occasions the craftswork is rather good.

Example 1

(c) by asdemeladen

(c) by asdemeladen

With very nice leatherwork, conduits and brass plating, this piece is an excellent steampunk object. It suggests armor and some form of functionality. It fails however to make clear how the functionality travels. The recycled clock gears are disconnected and can’t possible transfer any power to anything. How the loose gears on the back of the hand help anything is quite hard to imagine and makes no engineering sense. The suggested electrical parts are rather nice and can be forgiven not to suggest direction, because the object itself makes this suggestion on its own. This object will provide protection and give your hand superhuman abilities. The gears are to much and take away from this simple form.

(c) asdemeladen
(c) asdemeladen

Example 2

The same maker however mostly has objects that do strictly follow the proper steampunk conventions. This gauntlet by the same guy it much much better in design compared to the first. The skills are, again, outstanding, but this piece really makes sense on all levels. It still suggests that this item will give your arm protection and super human abilities. But it does a far better job at telling the story. The power is clearly connected via containers, conduits, circuitry. One could easily imagine that power is transformed into something useful that the hard can utilize. Switched and lights make this functionality even more apparent. What this functionality is doesn’t really matter. It could be anything, from weaponry to enhanced strength or perhaps analytical equiptment. Bottom-line is that the suggestion of the functionality is connected and flows through the object. The added navigational ring in the upper wrist also conveys a message and the leather and plating are all nicely integrated, telling a compelling story about an object that perhaps a seafaring traveler would use. You fill in the details, but the elements of the object won’t get in your way like a random cog or spring.

Example 3

The next object is a prime example of steam rococo. Only by superficially added steampunk’ish attributes does this object get it’s theme.

(c) GearsOfSteam
(c) GearsOfSteam

I’m not a real fan of the goggles on the bowler/top hat concept as it is. It seems to make it quite cumbersome to actually use the goggles. Certainly a mechanical logical solution for this must exist? But this isn’t the worst part. This specific item uses the old “spray-paint welding glassed” routine and stick some random gears on a spiffy hat. It looks like a random hat with welding glasses and old clock parts stuck on. This does, at a glance, suggest a steampunky theme, but it’s really not. Loose the gears and spend some more work on the elements that do make sense.

Example 4

Here is how it should be done. This is a typical example where all elements are being left true to themselves. It also shows that leaving open spaces isn’t a problem at all. Many designers suffer from horror vacui, it seems, and this shows that you should not.

(c) Ronzilla0
(c) Ronzilla0

Apart from the glasses still being awkwardly situated on the hat, impairing actual use, this isn’t a big problem as I sated earlier. Do not the glasses which scream functionality. Eye protection is the name of the game here and there is no mystery how this is done. The goggles looks industrial, sturdy and well made. The two iris units also convey a clear story : This is optical equipment which has a purpose.

Note that there are gears in this design, but they are by no means detached. The suggestion that this gear mechanism is related to the iris is very strong. The embossing on the leather is just that, decoration, not a pattern of gears or pistons. Precisely what it should be.

Example 5

Now there is a distinct difference between novices and experienced designers when it comes to falling into design traps. Often the novice is more inclined to take easy, quick and dirty approaches to achieve a certain look and feel, but this is not necessarily the case.

(c) HyperXP
(c) HyperXP

Maker HyperXP had a stab at the Nerf Maverick. In steampunk an often seen object to mod and therefor a bit of a cliche, as he readily admits himself. What is apparent in his work, however, is that despite the rather simple and obvious paint-job, the look really works. All elements are true to themselves and tell the story of the object from back to front. Decorations are decorative and functional elements are functional, just as it should be.

A nice touch on this particular mod is the multi-ammunition capacity that is suggested. That and the extended barrel, the aging and decorated reinforcements make this a prime example how true steampunk should be approached, as a story art just like architecture.

Example 6

The last example shows that people who are considered professional steampunk makers/cosplayers do fall for the obvious design mistakes (and then some!).

(c) Cosplayoverlord
(c) Cosplayoverlord

Admittedly, a lot of details in the outfit on the right are pretty good. Both arms have a lot of details that actually utilized the decorative and the functional in a way that tells a coherent story. After that, it goes horribly wrong. This is a steampunk suit build by committee it seems. Even on the arms, the random and often detached elements go back and forth in some off attempt to obfuscate simplicity. The basic flow of the suit is actually quite simple and clean, but this was apparently not to the taste of the owner. To correct this, adding a ton of bells and whistles, which at no point actually feel contemporary or right(same style) themselves.

Then there is the biggest, most damning sin in steampunk design. I haven’t mentioned this before, but it seems to me to be the most basic rule in creating steampunk. Never should you see the original purpose of any element on a steampunk object. I keep wondering what this guy needs with two cheap desk-lights tucked in on his back.

It’s a cluttered mess of hits and misses, with various clashing styles and elements that are easily reconizable. This completely undermines the story of the suit and its implements and that is a shame.

Conclusion

Good steampunk isn’t about the numbers of trinkets you have hanging of you design. It’s not about you skills as a crafts-person and it’s certainly not about sticking some random gears on a obviously contemporary spray-painted item.

A proper steampunk design is about suggesting a continuously logical narrative about the object and it’s uses( or user). A steampunk object should tell the observer : “this is what I am, this is what I do and this is how I do it”, even if this differs slightly from person to person.

No matter what your sub-sub-culture in steampunk is, no matter how you brand yourself within steampunk or how you affiliate with other sub-cultures, if you accept that steampunk uses elements from Victorian styles, the industrial revolution, contemporary reality and science fiction, then you must let all elements be true to themselves for this to be the case.

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