Steampunk’s florid industrial nostalgia might yet be the defining aesthetic of our time
Less than a decade ago, the idea of turning an unprejudiced eye on the abandoned design practices of an earlier century was sufficiently novel for Jessica Helfand to write an article on ‘The Shock of the Old: Rethinking Nostalgia’, in Design Observer (27 October 2005). The title proved prescient a year later, as interest in the fashions, technologies and overwrought aesthetics of the nineteenth century began to emerge not among designers but among science fiction [SF] writers and their readers. A genre usually concerned with the future turned its attention to the past as a new generation of authors picked up a minor SF trend from the 1980s called steampunk. Readers disposed to the dressing-up displays known as cosplay started arriving at conventions wearing flying goggles, top hats, corsets and other quasi-Victorian gear. There was a resurgence of popular interest in the kind of aesthetics that many would have thought left for dead after a century of Modernism.
Since 2006, the visual style has migrated from the science fiction shelves to infiltrate mainstream culture and fashion. The steampunks themselves have become a small, easily identifiable subcultural tribe; thanks to social media this evolution has been swift and international. So why is this happening now?
The 2012 Olympics opening ceremony, London. Designers: Suttirat Anne Larlarb and Mark Tildesley. Artistic Director: Danny Boyle.
Top: Hugo (Asa Butterfield) and Isabelle (Chloë Grace Moretz), in the film Hugo, 2011. Production Designer: Dante Ferretti. Director: Martin Scorsese.
Read the full version in Eye no. 86 vol. 22 2013
John Coulthart, illustrator, designer, writer, Manchester
Eye is the world’s most beautiful and collectable graphic design journal, published quarterly for professional designers, students and anyone interested in critical, informed writing about graphic design and visual culture. It is available from all good design bookshops and online at the Eye shop, where you can buy subscriptions, back issues and single copies of the latest issue. You can see what Eye 86 looks like at Eye before You Buy on Vimeo.