Randy Nakamura | Essays

Steampunk'd, Or Humbug by Design

Illustration by Suzanne R. Forbes: Jake Von Slatt and Datamancer working on a steampunk keyboard. Image courtesy slurkflickr

“A little reflection will show that humbug is an astonishingly wide-spread phenomenon — in fact almost universal.” — P.T. Barnum’s Humbugs of the World

Humbug is a term infrequently used in design. It is an archaism straight out of the 19th century, meaning hoax or nonsense. The word has strong associations with Dickens’ Scrooge and the ultimate showman and hoaxer himself, P.T. Barnum. In this time of cultural recycling, it is a word perhaps best used to describe Steampunk, a subculture supposedly born out of a mash-up of DIY (do-it-yourself), Victoriana, punk, science fiction, Japanese anime and the urge to re-skin one’s computer as 19th century bric-a-brac. If the number of recent articles in the mainstream press is any reliable barometer (The New York Times, Boston Globe, Paper, and Print all have featured the movement in the past year), Steampunk is the next big thing. This appears to be the result of a fascination with remixing historical and contemporary aesthetics, as if all eras can be collapsed into the present. What is most interesting and disappointing about Steampunk is the odd DIY design culture that it has engendered.

Refitted computer made by Jake Von Slatt. Image courtesy pushasha

Dissatisfied with their out of the box Dells or Apples, Steampunkers have declared war on mass production. Their solution? Nineteenth-century Victorian England. A strange choice to say the least. Recalling an era that is the ground zero of mass production, the cultural inflection point from the artisan to the manufactured is an odd way to escape the evils of silicon chips, instant obsolescence and homogeneous design, devoid of the human hand. I haven’t figured out whether cracking open your computer, attaching it to an Underwood typewriter, then inserting it into a combination Victorian mantel clock/desk and calling it “The Nagy Magical-Movable-Type Pixello-Dynamotronic Computational Engine” is some sort of daft wit or evidence of a pedantry bordering on the pathological. Steampunkers may have dubious taste, but one cannot accuse them of lacking a sense of humor. However, the jig is up: as a design aesthetic, Steampunk is still nascent, a set of interesting ideas that have been given the spotlight far too soon.

Subculture or not, Steampunk appears to have achieved the level of a cottage industry on the web. From The Steampunk Workshop to the Aether Emporium there seems to be no end of sites showing off these farragoes. Guitars embellished with gears, countless keyboards and LCD monitors embroidered with brass fittings and feet, and objects which merely seem to be fulfilling the formula of: brass + wood grain = Victorian. Conversely, there seems to be a distinct fascination with exposing mechanisms, peering inside the shells of things. This is a popular, almost hackneyed post-modernist trope, an idea about dismantling received structures and conventions that have run rampant through every conceivable medium over the last half century: the turning of buildings inside-out to expose ductwork and utilitarian structures once hidden; the meta-fictional narrative where the conventions of the narrative structure are continually exposed and corrupted; clothing that bares every seam, stitch and piece of fabric, etc., ad nauseam. The Steampunkers seem to take all this a bit more literally. Sean Orlando of the Kinetic Steam Works ingenuously observes, “The wonderful thing about a steam engine is that you can follow the path of power generation and function beginning with the fire box and boiler, follow the plumbing, valves, gauges, gears, d-valves, pistons, eccentric shafts and fly-wheels all the way from the source of power to the final outcome of kinetic potential.” One could easily argue that following the etched surface of a printed circuit board would provide no less a fascinating visual "map" of the processes of a computer or electronic device.

Yet as Peter Berbergal of the Boston Globe notes, “In all of the new Steampunk design there is a strong nostalgia for a time when technology was mysterious and yet had a real mark of the craftsperson burnished into it.” Never mind the fact that the Victorian era was a time of demystification: Darwin’s theory of natural selection upset centuries of received religious knowledge about human origins, and the mechanization of virtually everything meant you could produce objects, designs and books ten or twenty times faster and distribute them to the very ends of the earth. As Philip Meggs, commenting on the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, has succinctly put it: “Handicraft almost completely vanished. The unity of design and production ended." The world had suddenly become smaller. If Steampunkers are looking to the past for some sort of inspired return to a prior era, then they are running in slack parallel with their ancestors. The Victorians were cultural raiders without peer. Rococo, Tudor, Gothic Revival and the umpteenth generation of Neo-Neo-Classicism were not enough. They went abroad to bring back the ill-gotten gains of their imperial aesthetic loot. Moorish ornaments, Ukiyo-e, Chinese porcelain, hieroglyphics all found their way into Victorian eclecticism. Form before concept.

Despite the formal clumsiness of most Steampunk objects, there is a certain conceptual zing to them: the immediate thrill of a counterfactual come to life. What if Charles Babbage’s steam powered difference engines (think of a computer with mechanical gears instead of silicon chips) had been completed and mass produced in the 1820s? Voilà! It would look exactly like this “antiqued” Powerbook, the mutant spawn of a 19th century Sear’s catalog and the Apple Industrial Design Group. Or perhaps not. If one gets past the patina, the quaintly burnished woodwork, the problem is that Steampunk is far too enamored of the look, the surface skin of an derivatively small chunk of the Victorian era filtered through Terry Gilliam’s Brazil and Jules Verne, whose illustrated “scientific romances” seem to have formed the ur-aesthetic for Steampunk. But the inspiration gets butchered in the process. There is nothing yet in Steampunk that can remotely compare visually to Gilliam’s dystopian epic or the ornamental splendor of the Hetzel edition of Verne. In comparison, Steampunk is humbug design, scrap-booking masquerading as the avant-garde.

Steampunk motorbike, "The Whirlygig Emoto," designed by Tom Sepes. Image courtesy nullalux

There also is the larger issue of what exactly the Victorian influences are doing on the level of meaning. If Terry Gilliam’s Brazil is really a touchstone for Steampunkers, does that not imply that they are substantively misreading Gilliam's use of the Victorian? In Brazil, it is fairly clear that these aesthetic anachronisms are instruments of oppression and surveillance: the omnipresent, naked CRT monitors with magnifying glass attached and typewriter keyboards give a sweatshop aura to every office. Or, the labyrinthine ductwork that emerges from the walls clumsily conceals the infra-structural guts of a society that is cheap, totalitarian, and constantly at war (the lack of finish and recycled nature of most contraptions in the movie seems to indicate war time shortages and rationing). I would even argue that Brazil is less influenced by Victoriana in its aesthetic than say film noir and a funhouse version of Blitz-era London. Was not Brazil once described by Gilliam as “Walter Mitty meets Franz Kafka”? But these nuances seem to be lost on the Steampunkers, who obsessively fixate on a few oddly-styled gadgets from the film.

Steampunking, with its commerce driven, faddish re-skinning of their own history, is closer to Disney than punk or sci-fi. A laptop styled like a Eastlake sideboard is merely a threat of bad taste, not a threatening reaction to massive social and economic disenfranchisement. In its essence Steampunk seems suburban in its attitude: nostalgic for an imagined, non-existent past, politically quietist, and culturally insular hidden behind cul-de-sacs of carefully styled anachronisms that let in no chaos or ferment. The larger, more impossible questions are missing. How would the Victorian imagination conceive and execute a functioning computer? The answer must be more interesting than adding wood veneers to your laptop or turning a mouse into a contraption of gears that looks more like a medieval torture device.

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.

Steampunk keyboard. Image courtesy gruntzooki

Posted in: Arts + Culture, Product Design

Comments [188]

This is an excellent iIllustration.

Thank you! I've been getting internally riled up at all this "steampunk" nonsense recently.

All these modders seem to be forgetting that just making something look like it's old and full of gears does not make it steampunk. In science fiction, the idea is about taking technology and regressing or reverting to a point where it might have functioned in the 19th century. The operative word: function.

Just pasting old parts on a Mac mini doesn't make it steam powered.

I've never thought of Brazil as being even remotely steampunk. The obvious choices for a good use of the concept are 1965's (and the 99 movie adaptation) The Wild Wild West, or Katsuhiro Otomo's Steamboy.

If someone wants to actually design and build a steam-powered mororbike using a Victorian aesthetic, I'm willing to call it steampunk. But until then, all this stuff is mere Halloween costumery.


First, you're doing a first rate job of giving these people attention.
I personally don't mind, I find the whole thing funny - at a comfortable distance. My computers are safe from being encased in brass and faux mahogany.

The fact that they call it steampunk tells me something; and it's not to get my knickers in a twist over the oddness of some peoples' fancies (I find it funny, but most of all, I want to know if these contraptions work. I am a stickler for fuction over form.).

As a matter of fact, I find scrapbooking, collecting porcelain figurines and styling cars with flames and naked ladies far more offending to my tastebuds. And that is industries too. Somehow (with the odd, short-lived exception), these pasttimes and interests have not made any serious furore in the "design" world.
So why this? Because it fiddles with our technology? Because it takes our tools and transforms them into daft dressing tables?
I don't know.

As a style or design comment.. there's an element of sci-fi and fantasy in these things, as well as history (albeit a fanciful one) . The only people who seems to have a need to put historys' diffrent styles in furniture, technology, clothing in watertight containers, tend to overanalyze a tad.
I think these "punks" know that they are not being historically correct in choice of designs, details and wood. And I don't think they mean to be. And I don't think they care. We go to a museum to gape at the analytical engine. Why not this?

I don't think the world will drown in this. I don't think Apple should issue a mac with mahogany casing and brass buttons. I will lean back, smile at some peoples creativity, and watch it all go by.

Hmm...were you mugged by a gang of Steampunkers, Randy? "Pesky kids, modding their nice beige computers! How dare they!" It's like punk never happened, etc.

BTW, the "punk" suffix of Steampunk is derived from its being named during the height of Cyberpunk in the early Eighties. Initially a jokey thing but the label stuck as they often do. Wikipedia has the timeline. In the sf world there's also Clockpunk now (Jay Lake et al) which is Steampunk without the steam power.
John Coulthart

Let's do an article on collecting dragon sculptures next, as part of an inquiry on the "Otherkin" as design statement. Hell, let's throw Furries and Creative Anachronists in there for good measure and we'll have completed our petri dish of internet protozoa.

The whole time I was reading this post I couldn't help but think of Harry Potter-esque inventions. I think Harry Potter (and really J.K. Rowling) inspired the Disney-fication of Steam Punking.
Jessica Gladstone

Great article. I haven't followed much press on 'steampunk' and have only browsed a few pictures of projects online. In the end I appreciate the joke but I'm not in any way inclined to think it "the next big thing". If I get the point of your article, I agree that it should never be considered more than an excercise in irony of appearance.

I was about to mention the Creative Anachronists as well, but it seems earl beat me to it. The design sensibilities of a curious subculture are only entering our cultural radar because of the ability to cultivate interest over the web. Steampunkers have mastered this faster they have mastered adding brass rotary dials onto their iPhones with a sautering iron. But this design ethos being the next big thing? Like any other geeky counter culture this is likely to intrigue another 3% of us and leaving the other 96 percent scratching our heads.

Hello --

I'm a designer and artist who has made several works in the Steampunk style:

The Dihemispheric Chronaether Agitator

The Tiraparator

and The Steampunk Treehouse

And while there is much to malign about "Steampunk" there is also much to praise. It should not be picked on simply because it’s gotten allot of press lately.

* This article is too quick to accept that everything the style sections have lumped together as Steampunk are of the same type. A wooden box with old gears glued to it is unlikely to be equal to, say, a complex set of brass apertures.

* The quick dismissal of a group of artists as”mediocre hobbyists” smacks of the arrogance that makes most people who actual build object think that those who simply design them are over-paid snobs. Design is difficult and so is fabrication.

* Aligning Steampunk closer to Disney then punk or sci-fi exposes a lack of understand of all three. White it is true the “punk” in Steampunk came about as a reaction/comparison to cyberpunk the Steampunk does in fact some elements in common with the essence of punk. While I am no authority on the punk movement I do know it included more then punkrock. A core element of punk culture is the DIY philosophy which Steampunkers have in spades.

* The article tosses the baby with the bathwater in dismissing the media hype (rightly so) it dismisses the creators of the work. It never asks why people have chose to work in brass and copper. Why people have chose to restyle modern objects in antique style. Brass and copper are very workable metals that require simply tools to cut, form and fuse. Unlike working with mild and stainless steel it’s easy to make things from these materials in your basement with tools from the local hardware store. Also building objects with wood, brass and copper is largely a reaction against the over use of plastics by the contemporary design lot.

* However, allot of what is dubbed as Steampunk is largely about style then function. And allot of it also has a cheesy prop look to it. But the point is not that the “Steampunk” object people make on the weekends out of old junk are cheesy and cliche — it’s that they are making objects. Steampunk is part of a larger subculture that is emphasizing the actual making of objects

* The author dismisses Seans quote “The wonderful thing about a steam engine is that you can follow the path of power generation …” by saying “One could easily argue that following the etched surface of a printed circuit board would provide no less a fascinating visual “map” of the processes of a computer or electronic device.” While this statement has some truth in it largely misses the point. Sure an electrical engineer could deduce the function of a _simple_ PCB, assuming he had full knowledge of the chips and code involved (for this reason the authors statement demonstrates a poor understanding of of how modern electronics work) but your average person could not. It is because, as Sean said, you can not just how it works (as is with the PCB) but you can see it working (unlike a PCB). It is for this reason that people will stare and marvel at the steam engines and Steampunk devices that KSW shows.

* I wish I had a good publicist.

Alan Rorie

Wild Wild West: Yes. Brazil: No. The Difference Engine: Yes.

And as NextBigThings go, Steampunk's appearance in the mainstream media is probably the product of lazy editors with pages to fill.

Darrin Stephens

I liked what Jw had to say.

Steampunk at best is a subset of Crafts. Interactive sculpture.

In this day and age people jump at the chance to create new labels for anything with an aesthetic offset. Take the “Sludge metal” musical genre which is basically Metal music with a slow pace and anything tuned below a C.

People make things. It is refreshing. I like that they do. Even though I would not submit my mac to it.

And following lines on a PCB is not going to tell you much. A lot of the off-on-off-on-off is going on in hidden layers. Besides, it's boring.

And the idea that "it should've worked in 1881" is plain absurd. I am sure there are purist in the steampunk-business too. To them, I'll say: grow up. To the entusiasts and artists: if you like it, keep going. And there are no such thing as "genuine".


Some really interesting criticism here - but I'm not sure who it's aimed at, unless possibly it's the press and I really can't speak to that.

As for what I do, it is un-apologetically scrap-booking writ with brass and steel rather then paper and foil. It's damn fun and I'm really happy others are interested because it brings people into a community that understands the shear joy of making things yourself.

And that's the best thing about Steampunk, the community of Steampunks.

As for great publicists, sorry, no. That's DIY too.
Jake von Slatt

Peter, you judge Steampunk by measures it never purported to meet itself. It is too bad you find it insular and simpleminded (and suffering from daft wit and pedantry etc.) but I fail to see how some mild attention from popular media warrants your humbuggery.

I don't think you read Steampunk very well - for example, on one hand you say that Steampunk is participating in the post-modern display of underlying structure, yet on the other hand you say Steampunk does not participate in the demystification central to the Victorian era. Is revelation of the 'internal' a trope from the last 50 years or is it from Victorian times? Does Steampunk participate in this or not?

"We are being taken for rubes. At worst, the Steampunkers seem to be mediocre hobbyists with great publicists."

Ah, yes, because no one could lob that sort of critique (not to mention the critiques of political impotence, of self-promotion, of ignorance of history, or form over function) at designers themselves.

Oops - "Randy" not "Peter". Simultaneous-blog-reading leads to these things.

Well, I would like to think of Steampunk as being a little more elegant then what you have written here. Steampunk is meant to be edgy; yet, I would love having a computer for a decade rather than a year. There is nothing wrong with good presentation and design.

Sure, some of this stuff is "fashionable", but building something to last rather then to discard it in a short time is refreshing. I see Steampunk as the beginning of cultural change. It is about time we all became less of a "throw-away" society.

Just my $0.02,

Ambrosius Amadeus

From a social perspective, there must be something reassuring to folk who want to escape back to a time when conduct was rigid proper, the sun never set on the British Empire, tea time didn't mean golf, and absynthe was the rage. It might be in the wonderment of a world that was just getting mass industrialized with highly-pressurized steam engines, H.G. Wells was writing some off-the-wall fiction and the encyclopedia was getting filled-out. It's a pre-atomic world where explorers made it up as they go. Pirates were on the way out, and Japan was just invaded by the British.

So culture clashes get stuck in our collective heads, like British rock in the 50's, magic in the Harry Potter, LEGO sets for every freaking time period that has an archetype. Maybe making anachronisms is some way of creating an alternate history to work something out. And none of it looks entirely out of place at the Renaissance Festival.

I predict an Art Nouveau comeback.

My name is Tom Sepe and I'm the creator of the Whirlygig Emoto - (the "steampunk motorbike" that you failed to credit.)

Firstly, if you are going to make the point that steampunk is non-functional surfactant, then you really shouldn't use a photograph of my bike as an example. The fully-functioning Whirlygig is built on a junked 1967 frame that has been completely re-tooled, gutted and forced to motivate using lead-acid chemical electricity - an 18th century technology that very well could have been society's primary one if not for the oil and rubber industries. (I am of course using modern electronics to control the input and output of electrons, yet the principle is the same one that powered the first electric vehicles.)

In addition, my bike sports a fully functional handbuilt steam-boiler, produciing 100psi steampressure in just about 20 minutes. If you want to feel the superficial quality of my steampunk art, then please place your hand over this valve while I open it.

Now, I admit that the steam doesn't power the vehicle, but steampunk doesn't mean "runs on steam" - it's an aesthetic title.... The use of the word "steam" in steampunk is a poetic reference to an era, meant to be an evocative and imagebased. We are talking about art and artists after all.

And although I agree that "function" is a primary component of Steampunk, I would also submit that it is the job of the artist to decide what function is fulfilled. If what you get is a working computer - great! If it is a 1940's parachute that functions as a dress - amazing! If it is a tiny steamboiler that gurgles and confuses - incredible! So to critique a laptop-mod as being "all about the look" is really missing the point. And to critique the entirety of the Steampunk house because of the paint-job in one room is lacking journalistic depth.

What you fail to notice in your reductionism - is that there is a lot going on within this genre, bridging multiple countries and cultures. Including fashion, design, literature, music, art, architecture, unique modifications, custom fabrications, community, skill-share, events and just plain 'ole people doing something they like.

If at worst, Steampunk is "bad hobbyists with great publicists" as you say, then perhaps you might also notice that at its best, Steampunk is a vibrant and multi-faceted artistic movement, that includes men and women, geeks, metal-workers, hobbysts, scientists etc..- a movement that is inspiring people to create beautiful, functioning objects in the world around them, and to share that know-how with anyone who is curious.

Tom Sepe
Tom Sepe

This article makes me a little mad. It seems like a big lash out at something he dosen't understand or take any time to actually look into to criticize properly. Calling steampunk in general a hoax because a 'steampunked' laptop dosen't actually use steam and still run on silicon chips is a childish argument and show's a lack of research. Maybe I'm making assumptions here, but it's my understanding that modding look of an object has a goal of just that, changing the appearance. Different people have different tastes, and steamers just happen to be brassy. In this case it's purely about ascetics. It's art, and if it's not to you specific liking, then that's your loss. He also seems to neglect all the projects that truly do bring alive Victorian flare without a hint of insincerity, such as restoring and incorporating kerosene lamps, converting RC toys to run off model steam engines, and other total projects like The Brass Lion (a recumbent trike).
This part sums up my understanding of his understanding:
"One could easily argue that following the etched surface of a printed circuit board would provide no less a fascinating visual "map" of the processes of a computer or electronic device."
Clearly missed the point on what about, and why it's interesting. Basically, I think he just dosen't 'get it' and is bullying something he dosen't understand.
Joshua D. LeBlanc

Ralphy, my comment was actually geared towards the labeling structure of "steampunks" (and everything in particular). I wasn't trying to undermine their work just the fact that they are given a genre.

An interesting read and quite an amusing one. I found your arguments highly entertaining. I would however challenge you to actually participate or immerse your self to some extent opposed to browsing a few web sites and making some understandably misinformed assumptions as to what these enthusiasts are about. Or why not seek a dialogue with a few active participants it would add a bit more credence to your humbugry and research.


Your article is humbug.

Some 20 odd years ago, some really big sculptures appeared on the various lawns of my college campus. Being students of a mostly science / engineering / forestry / agricultural Land Grant university, many of us engineer types kind of snickered as we passed the giant twisted rusty "somethings" that were the embodiments of some artists' visions. But we moved along, thinking, hey, it's someone's ART, and in its own way, it was a work of demonstrated skill.

I parsed Mr. Nakamura's critique with some intensity, trying to understand its basis, or bases. There's the odd claim that the functionality of a printed circuit board can be deduced as easily as that of routed steam piping, of guilt-by-association with the style-stealing practices of the Victorian era, the superficiality of hot-gluing some gears and what-not to objects to achieve the aesthetic, that Steampunk is "nascent," and finally, the really strange claim that "we" were being taken for rubes.

None of these points are bases for critiquing an aesthetic. I bet if Mr. Nakamura asked any one of the Steampunk artists of note, none of them would ever claim that their creations were seminal - in fact, they openly rely on existing works from the 19th and early 20th centuries to inspire new - possibly derivative - works. The term "mash up" comes to mind, and other than the primitive works in the cave at Lascaux, Dark Age European art, Anasazi rock paintings, etc., true originality is rare and therefore prized.

As for the accusation of Steampunk artists taking people for rubes, the word "baseless" comes to mind. All art is optional. A person may fall in love with the minimalism of the Japanese shoji doors, the geometric complexity of Islamic paintings, the ornately floral themes of Western European furniture... yes, folks, truly, there's no accounting for taste.

As for the "nascent" bit, why is that even relevant? Mr. Nakamura is presuming that some maturity is needed for a design or look to be viable. Many young artists and designers would beg to differ.

If Mr. Nakamura is indeed a designer, he should know all this - and if he really wants to spawn a truly creative aesthetic, he ought not to care what others think when he does so. But he should be prepared to absorb useless criticisms such as what he had set down above, because there are many, many other Mr. Nakamuras in this world.

P.S. Mr. Nakamura, if you can indeed divine the function of a circuit by simple visual inspection, I know someone at AMD who would love to hire you, in case your current gig doesn't work out.
Klaatu Nicto

I have lost all respect that you may possibly have ever had. Your lack of intellect, your inability to understand, and your closed-mindedness play out truly to the worst parts of the enigma that society has become. What you could never understand is the open-mindedness and etiquette that comes with the Steampunk aesthetic. A culture of Gentlemen and Ladies, idealists, intellectuals, all with a common goal of bettering a society that, including your article, has become prejudicial. With the recent wave of riots against subcultures, and your attempted instigation with this article, I wonder how far it is before the world has another Inquisition. Your radicalism shows, truly, how far gone our society has become.

I quite understand the aesthetic impulse behind Steampunk. I leave the house in the morning with a laptop, a cell phone and bluetooth headset, a PDA, an iPod and a watch that contains a 256MB thumb drive.

I'm also usually wearing a pair of 1930's vintage sunglasses that wouldn't look out of place at a Steampunk convention. As much as I am obviously connected to modern society and technology, I like the connection to a different aesthetic.

That being said, I don't think I would want to festoon my laptop in brass and wood. It's heavy enough already.
Stephen Macklin

Sir, I'm afraid you've missed the point entirely. Steampunk has very little to do with some kind of opposition to mass production, and using Von Slatt's computer as a kind of "catch all" for how we do things is pure tomfoolery. If anything, Steampunk is the most practical historical wannabe fad. We are excited by historical nonsense and the romanticism of times gone by, so we attempt to capture some of that magic. Unlike the SCA or such organizations though, we do not shun the modern while doing so, giving us things like the Steampunk computer. Rather than try to attain some impossible and foolish level of historical accuracy, we embrace as sort of false and largely impossible past to imitate. That is all.

Tom's bike, in this case, is an exception to the rest of what the mainstream press is reporting... And I'm very glad he came here to explain more about his project. I am definitely a big fan of the level of integrity he put into his bike. Now if the media could understand the difference between design and decoration, we'd be in business!

I'm surprised no one has tied this post to Jessica's earlier post recently about antiquing. Clearly the time has come for my half-witted Unified Field Theory of Contemporary Aesthetics which I dub Integrity of the Surface. Though scrapbooking exalts the faux finish of crumbling, decayed and yellowing ephemera and steampunk celebrates the gleaming collision of brass, glass and wood they both have a point of tangency in their attempt to escape a plastic texture-free (and therefore presumed hollow) present. In short, the emphasis is on Integrity of the Surface. To pick out an obvious example from recent pop culture, look at the battered but proudly heroic surface of Wall-e. In an earlier time Wall-e might have been as smooth as a Tonka truck or as shiny and curvilinear as a 56 Buick Bumper but now we celebrate the trustworthy rusty patina, the earnest dents...Wall-e has Intregrity of the Surface.

In another vein, Randy, I have to say I was annoyed by your annoyance. Your essay put me in mind of an undergraduate sharpening his rhetorical claws on a scratching post made of straw (or straw men). Choose a more worthy adversary.
David Stafford

It's wonderful to see Suzanne Rachel Forbes illustration at the top of the article. She does magnificent work and, I am very honored to say, is one of the featured artists in the Steampunk Art + Design Exhibition that I'm curating for the Hamptons Antiques Galleries in Bridgehampton, NY this August 16 through the 24th. ( Please do pardon the shameless promotion).

Great article and thank you for the post!

Regards, Art Donovan
art donovan

Being compared to P. T. Barnum is one of the best compliments one can give.

If one can live off their art or live out their dreams, and if others can make that happen that is an even greater thing.

BTW, expect to see more steampunk type articles in more publications and on TV as time goes on. That's if I do my job correctly.


There has always been a group of people somewhere that are never satisfied with OEM. Most folks are pleased with limiting their whimsy to one thing (4x4's, cars, hair, computer cases, clothing, furniture, whatever). The Steampunkers like to tweak everything. Not a damn thing wrong with that. And, no, I'm not a steampunker, just some guy. I do respect the creativity involved for some of the projects (steaming -and safe- motor bike, fancy keyboard and monitor). But then again, some people are not happy unless they can complain about something. So more power to ya.
Coffee Haze

Quite shocked to see that Steampunk warrants a post on Design Observer. I remember thinking two years back that it was going to big, but not DO big. But I don't see how you equate a few boing boing articles percolating up to the New York Times as the Next Big Thing. Memetics aside, some earnest and well aimed criticism made in the general direction of steam punk and the irony of harking back to the dawn of the Industrial Revolution as the antithesis to a lush iMac. The origins of steampunk (to my knowledge) came about through two brilliant cyberpunk writers William Gibson and Bruce Sterling - The Difference Engine. That is the problem with steampunk, that there is very little of the anti-establishment ethos of cyberpunk, and has merely become a visual shorthand that grew too quickly. It lacks an overall political framework and worldview. One can hardly take the buttoned up, repressive and dickensian attitude to life and claim to be punk. Gibson mildly disowned his term steampunk (maybe for fear of spawning another movement), but loves the DIY and aesthetics of it (something that Steampunk has in spades).

But I think what really let this piece down is the aggressiveness in which you attack the craftsmen who take simple joy in creating gorgeous contraptions. There's nothing wrong with reveling in post post modernity, even if it is to make an awesome looking keyboard. More time should have been spent attacking the lazy news reporters for basing an article on nothing more than misread noise than mercilessly attacking a group of people willing to learn how things work and to tinker with objects that most people too easily take for granted.


Good sir, you are sorely mistaken. Steampunk has a political side, a world view. We aren't anti-establishment and that makes it a problem? We simply find that people should choose their own way. Our world view is one of that of gentlemanly nature and kindness. Yes, there will be quabbling in our ideal world, there will be wars, there will be fights, yet without those things, no society could exist. Every government on earth, with the exception of, maybe, the government in Exile of Tibet, has a strong war-driven aspect to their economy. Every government holds a military force, and this contributes to and against their economy. Because our world view isn't one of complete war-lessness and extreme liberalism, anarchy if you will, doesn't mean we don't have one. Just because you neither understand, nor know, our world view, doesn't mean we don't have one, it just means your ignorance shines brighter than the rest of your personality.

It's fun. Anyone remember fun?

I don't have anything to do with steampunk, other than a passing glance at an article on the web occasionally. I appreciate the DIY/Maker aesthetic of it, and it seems to be practiced with a sense of humour.

Well, a sense of humour, except maybe for the anonymous poster above me.

I thought that post was funny as well..

At the end of the day, we're designers and we're working with aesthetics and steampunk is an aesthetic. We could all drive the same vehicles, use the same appliances and have one typeface if we were concerned truly with just the function. Our job with pure function only goes so far and beyond that we're enhancing or just plain decorating a function. And as someone said in another comment - remember fun?

Dear Sir,

You presume steampunk devoid of meaning, an aesthetic at most, invented by artists who seek to self-promote their work. This is not only incorrect—for had you researched steampunk more thoroughly, you would have found that the aesthetic nowadays commonly associated with it, emerged so much as fifteen years after the genre was devised—, it is ludicrous and unbecoming of someone who blames the media for supposedly failing to grasp the significance of steampunk.

Steampunk is more than a design philosophy, though its design is an important aspect of it, for the DIY attitude of steampunk enthusiasts provides a clear alternative to the modern-day anonymity of materialism—that is, the contemporary lack of appreciation for technology.

More than that, however, steampunk seeks to revive sensibilities nowadays considered old-fashioned and associated with the Victorian-Edwardian era—concepts about gentlemanly behavior and proper appearance, in defiance of today's mainstream fashions and the lack of courtesy and kindness perfectly displayed by yourself where you presume to understand steampunk better than steampunk enthusiasts themselves, and feel free to dismiss it as irrelevant in spite of your ignorance about it.

People, people—please calm yourselves and disperse to your homes. There is no need for panic here.
Clearly Mr. Randy Nakamura (if that is the author's real name) is writing in the put-on characature persona of exactly those whom steampunk is rebelling against; look at his over-inflated cul-de-sac ego, cookie-cutter, buy-everything/build-nothing, become-an-expert through page stuffing and feelgood sideshow mainstream media, entrenched in credit card debt, humvee-body-on-a-minivan-chassis disposable lifestyle. The P.T. Barnum reference should clearly reflect on the "author" of this story.
Bravo, Mr. Nakamura; I say, good show, old chap.

This is the most cynical article I've read in a long time. It is apparently written by someone who has lost all sense of childlike wonder and adventure. I am not a Steampunker, but I applaud all forms of active delight and creativity no matter what form it takes.

It seems that those who live in a world without wonder just want to take it away from everyone else by way of arrogant derision that no doubt masks a certain level of jealousy.

I wouldn't be surprised if this "journalist" leads a profoundly dissatisfying and flat existence. Here's hoping this "Scrooge" has a creative epiphany that revitalizes his imagination.
S. Farthing

Goodness. Someone certainly has a high opinion of himself.

Enjoy your cynicism, it would seem few others do.

A simple question: why? You seem obsessed with the idea that followers of steampunk are thumbing their noses at those who, like you, choose to remain outside its boundaries. You go a long way towards attempting to point historic flaws with regard to the hobby (yes, I think of it as a hobby). My question is: why?
It's simple enjoyment. The last time I checked, fun never really needed any sort of historical precedent or justification. It's not supposed to be avant-garde. It's not supposed to be any sort of grand political statement. It is supposed to be a form of artistic expression, and it is supposed to be fun.
Now lighten up, for Chrissakes.

The whole time I read this article, I got that feeling that you're the guy on the left.


"Steampunkers seem to be mediocre hobbyists"

Mediocre hobbyists? This makes me a bit mad and I'm NOT a Steampunker! I'm in to DIY btw.
Do you think Jake von Slatt and Datamancer are mediocre hobbyists, just to say the ones I know best?
Nakamura you need to actually work with your hands to say such a thing so don't talk about what you don't know!
Hope next time you write about computer modding and Tunnig because you'll write an "amazing" article just like you did about steampunk!

Anyway I had to feed the troll so I'm sorry! Now I feel like a little unknown designer that tries to say "I'm here look at me, I'm gonna write a really agressive article and like that ALL DIY community will know that I'm a humbug"
You are lucky you live in USA in Japan Sepuku is still used, I'm sure some people would love to be your kaishakunin.

So yea I'm mad because some people should actually work in design and forget about writing!
Nakamura stick to design or go work to AMD I'm sure you have the mad skills to see their CPUs !
Rafael Lino

Perhaps in these fast-paced, competitive days of cut-throat design, there has become something wrong with imagination. This thing that collectively calls itself "Steampunk" is approached by the article in an angry, flustered, and shotgun-wide fashion. The author complains bitterly that the happy inhabitants of the steampunk world don't understand that in his eyes, their design sensibilities are wrong. He rages against them primarily for not paying attention him and his tastes more than for any want of design. For this, I lend him no respect or credibility.

The author does correctly point out a few notable details. For example, he tells us that if steampunk aims to break the establishment, it does uses a formerly ubiquitous style--hardly a new aesthetic. He also informs us that when several disparate elements containing electronics and wood are combined, they are not inherently powered by steam. And of course, he informs us that the primary source period for steampunk is in an age of demystification rather than mystery and obscurity.

Now, these scattered accusations are valid, but the author misses the mark as a designer quite unforgivably. Please allow me to elaborate for your consideration:

For one; steampunk as I have encountered it is not anti-establishment. Perhaps I simply came across its existence through a different set of web links, and did not get the same impression. Steampunk, as I have seen it, is entirely about rediscovery. Modern marvels are too complex today. The remark about tracing a circuit board, for example...Has anyone tried? Having studied electrical and computer engineering in my college days, I can assure you that tracing billions, or often trillions of transistors connected by microscopic circuitry is not done. But more importantly, I think, is the pattern it breeds. We no longer know how the devices we use really work because everything has gone to such levels of compounded complication. We may know some of the basic theory, but we never truly know the set of mechanisms that power our lives. Steampunk hearkens back to that age of demystification where people began to look at devices, understand them, and work them into the first "complicated" systems. A different kind of knowledge was needed then. If I were to use a parallel, you couldn't have built a computer and then decided which processor to put in based on your understanding of performance criteria. You would have built the processor yourself, as part of the machine. Too many of these basic, underlying skills are being lost and Steampunk seeks to rediscover them for the sake of "what if" and "what would it have been like." The author, then, has missed the intent entirely--nostalgia, not rebellion. Such notions come only as the result of affection for that nostalgia.

And what about the comment regarding demystification? I can answer to that, too. I have already mentioned that the author misreads steampunk. It is a bitter retort fit only for jealously. Here, we have a designer dismissing an aesthetic because the adherents have committed the sin of having the wrong mood about it. And, apparently even worse, they're making money from it. Well, in my book, an outsider to any aesthetic, is well out of his or her league when commenting on which aspects appeal most to the "insiders." And it's flat jealousy to complain that people are paying for what an outsider thinks shouldn't be popular. It's also called "being out of touch." Steampunk is not real, my unfortunate author. Surely you must realize this. It's a playland, a fantasy, an escape. It's about dressing up the bits of our modern lives in an image of a by-gone era. It's finding that spirit where crowds once gathered to see terrifying bolts of electricity and "wondrous" scientific spectacles. Yes, it was the beginning of demystification. But, for a time, it was a foray into a new world.

Now, finally, the great sin of a designer I have left for last. For the lack of imagination, this author lashes out at a style. Far more care and design go into some of the complex mechanical projects of steampunk than many of the appliances in my kitchen. But the author complains that they aren't steam powered. That many are just skinned, and whoring for quick cash. The author forgets again the purpose of steampunk. To recapture a nostalgia from a time when anything was possible if a man and his mind and his materials could dream of it. Unfortunately, as I mentioned earlier, the world is losing much of that knowledge, and besides, we're not all mechanical geniuses to begin with, are we? So, you have found people who love the idea but haven't the time, funding, or knowledge to pursue the application. But, in the spirit of the age, they try. They use their imagination, to dream up what they wish could be, and they model it. Surely, author, you have nothing against making models? But you do. You said as much.

Apparently, the author has looked upon this "aesthetic" of steampunk with hasty, jealous, and unseeing eyes. He has missed not only the entire premise and the means, but even the result. While many clumsy, crude "first efforts" exist, there are so very many exquisitely crafted, often fully working art pieces generated by adherents to the steampunk moniker. True, the term is used overly broadly, and the aesthetic is often very loose. But the childish complaints leveled here are malevolent and slanderous to the genuine craftsmen who work their designs.

You ought to be ashamed.

I see those who work in the steam-punk genre a quixotic bunch and really the world could use a lot more men and women of La Mancha. Part why steam-punk focuses on the Victorian era is because many feel that is "where it all went wrong". The glorious science adventure that was he halcyon days of innovation became the oppressive fist of "progress" hammering down the populace, choking our minds and bodies with toxins.

Sure many get into steampunk from the nostalgic aesthetic. The brass and wood veneer of some grandiose lost world is an attractive sirens song. But from there many take their experiments further. And some of these experiments can produce actual change and may help put right what once went wrong.

We currently live in a world of "waste heat" where we engineer based on the last iteration. When heat was the resource that was the foundation of the Victorian world. So many discoveries have been forgotten over the years that could improve our current designs. For example, one of the most efficient propellers for moving air is still the Wright Brothers original design. One of the first engines to convert heat to motion, the Stirling engine, has been virtually non-existant in the last decade, now MSI is developing a CPU fan incorporating the engine. Soon we will be seeing computers that use their own heat to power their cooling systems.

Myself, I am working on a Stirling engine that mounts on a car engine to drive the cooling system and the alternator, removing all the belt mechanisms from the motor. We are looking at a 10 to 15% boost in fuel efficiency. I would never have heard of a Stirling engine it without steam-punk. Sure I may have started out gluing broken clocks to hats and cufflinks, or chopping up lamps to make toy ray guns. But it opened me to a world of experimentation that my cubicle life would never have allowed for.
Tysonof the NW

I quite enjoyed this article for defying the usual fellating received by the same half-dozen "Steampunks" in most articles. It's nice to read an article by someone who is sick of the "movement", rather than just endless reams of insightful comments about how absurd the whole thing is. As if by magic, the beauty of it was confirmed by the sour eggs and bent noses of those Steampunks bothered by not recieving their usual fawning adoration.

Something that I felt the article missed, probably by virtue of focussing on design, is that the Punk on which Steampunk is obstensibly based is itself a humbug. Perhaps that is something that Steampunk actually did inherit from the Victorian Era: the bohemian belief that the most enfranchised members of a society expressing their malaise through an alternative aesthetic constitutes a legitimate revolutionary activity. The only thing that Punks did was look weird and sing bad music. The only thing Steampunks do is look weird in top hats and build useless things. Neither one is important in any socially progressive sense, like a legitimate movement towards social, economic and environmental justice. They're humbugs.

I don't personally find anything wrong with scrapbooking, pasting gears onto things or any of the other examples of artifice one can dig up. I'm quite fascinated by it and built a degree in Museum and Heritage Studies on it by way of exhibit design. Considering that specific design choices went into making laptop shells out of white and silver plastic, I don't see what is wrong about making them look like brass and wood. My stereo that looks like an old time radio is every bit as legitimate as a stereo in chrome and black plastic. But then I don't consider my old time CD player to be an important part of a movement away from mass production. Actually, I bought it at Sears years before Von Slatt and co. decided that Steampunk should mean pseudo-revolutionary DIY aesthetics and not just Victorian Sci-Fi kitsch.

I mean, it's still kitsch. Just now it's pretentious kitsch that thinks it's important.
Cory Gross

Throughout your article, what I didn't get is how Steampunk is bad and how collecting, or preserving, actual Victorian examples of eclecticism is not bad. Since the 1960s, Victorian houses, with all their architectural eclecticism, have become things to carefully conserve, rehabilitate, and publish magazines about. Victorian antiques, with all their design eclecticism, are high-ticket collectibles. So what's wrong with Steampunkers joining in on the fun?

BTW, part of my real-world job is dealing with historical steam engines, that do, or did, real work. There are many more steam geeks out there, dealing with historical steam engines, and keeping them running. I am also a Steampunker who builds things that don't run on steam.
historical steam geek

As a steampunk, I'd first like to thank the author for providing us with such wonderful publicity. Doubtlless many more people now know about the æsthetic, some of whom will agree with the article. Hopefully, some of them will become more involved.

We don't care if you like us or not.

I think that alot of the comments here are slamming the article for missing the point of steampunk, but in turn have missed the point of the article.

As near as I can tell, the central critique of steampunk in this article is that he doesn't like form being valued over function: the addition of bells and whistles and cogs for no functional purpose. He goes on to argue that all that ornamentation *might* be justifiable in an artistic sense, except that the steampunk aesthetic brings nothing new to art that hasn't been done before... indeed, the Victorians gleefully engaged in much the same activity, looting fragments of culture and history that were anachronistic or otherwise out of place in their own time.

In this, he is looking at steampunk as a designer. It offers nothing new in functionality, and nothing new in artistic sensibility, and so offers nothing new to design. And he's right. Gluing cogs on your laptop really shouldn't be 'the next big thing' in modern design (or postmodern design, or post postmodern avant guard new age design, or whatever the term is these days)

Unfortunately, by looking at Steampunk purely as a designer, he's missing the point. Steampunk isn't about design. As has been pointed out by dozens of commenters, Steampunk is about making things, the joy of building (or at least owning) something that is unique. And as has also been pointed out, the 'victorian look' is popular because it's easy to work in metal and wood. Desire for uniqueness clashes with the desire for something that looks professionally done, and it's alot easier to make a unique brassy neo-Victorian piece than a unique sculpted plastic post-modern piece.

And last, there is the very simple reality that many people like the aesthetic. Everything more than track pants and a t-shirt is probably the addition of aesthetic doodads at the expense of practicality. But it's not sensible to judge someone in a miniskirt for sacrificing comfort for look because there is no artistic meret in that aesthetic. Sometimes people just like the look of things.

Finally, as a designer? The job is a fairly scientific one, with the primary aim to ship something that sells lots and costs little. You can do that by making it ergonomic, highly function, stylish, marketable or any other number of angles, but at the end of the day your personal taste doesn't enter into it. You make what people want, and apparently a lot of people want Steampunk. A good designer will try to understand that desire so they can cater to it. A bad designer spends their time trying to convince people to like something else.


I find the author's comment about how one could "easily" see how a circuit works by looking at the traces on a PCB....

I'm an electronics technician, with over 8 years of experience (including 4 as a radar repairman for the US Navy), on top of which, I'm working on earning my degree in electronic engineering technology.... Even with this kind of background in electronics, it still takes me quite some time to reverse-engineer even a relatively simple circuit board.

Furthermore, suggesting that steampunk is all looks and no substance is completely laughable: I've modified old World War II US Army field phones to work on modern POTS lines (and steampunked them up a bit while I was at it), and sadly, these phones, which are over 65 years old, work better than, and have outlasted every single one of the cheap, plastic cordless phones my parents have owned.

On top of that, I designed, and built a phone from the ground-up based on the old Bell Systems technology, but with a modern selectable pulse/tone dialer, which I also designed. This phone, in addition to looking good, will probably still be functional (the voice part of the circuit, if not the dialer) 100 years from now, and if it DOES break, it is designed with end-user serviceability in mind, and all the major and/or most likely to fail parts (read: the one microchip that handles the dialing) are easily changed out.

in the case of the over-hyped piece of crap iPhone, on the other hand, the end-user can't even replace the dadgum battery!

I would suggest that Mr. Nakamura learn a few basics about electricity, electronics, mechanichs, wood-working and metal-working before making outrageous statements about those who do such things!
Benjamin Bonebrake

Oh dear, the steampunks are trying to take over with their "so called humbug". This merited an article for what reason? Or is this your hobby, to diss the hobbies of others? What's next? Hot air ballooning? Knitting? Attending the Rocky Horror Picture show in full drag?

Sir, your article is a waste of space, and a waste of my time.
-Ainsly Wordsworth, no relation to the poet, a humble tinkerer/steampunk
Ainsly Wordsworth

"We don't care if you like us or not."

Of course you guys care! As we speak, this article is making its way around the Steampunk "aetherweb" where it feeds the scene's insatiable appetite for consuming mainstream media articles about themselves and then complaining about getting "discovered" by the plebian rabble of that same mainstream. And then here you guys are, jumping on Mr. Nakamura for not "getting" how gosh-darn awesome, revolutionary and important you guys are.
Cory Gross

"Steampunkers seem to be mediocre hobbyists"???
What have you created lately? if you have made anything with the quality or attention to detail that i see in a lot of the work put out by some of the steampunk guys, then i will back down, but untill i see it then i'm just gonna assume you are just bitter.
Prove me wrong please

It is articles like this that make me dread receiving links to design observer.
Thank you for reminding me that no one can have fun anymore, that no amount of ingenuity or self expression won't go un-bitched-about on a blog somewhere.
Steam-punk is not necessarily an aesthetic I would choose or emulate, but a large amount of the people who craft these steam-punk projects are remarkable craftsmen, and I can appreciate that at least.

And in regards to steampunk borrowing from an aesthetic which borrowed from other aesthetics (repeat ad infinitum). What hasn't?
There is little that is made today that is original and new. I'd rather see "brass and woodgrain" that the current '80s regurgitation.

Thanks, and I'll remember to save myself the acid-reflux in the future and avoid design observer and the articles that make me hate what design has become.


And then here you guys are, jumping on Mr. Nakamura for not "getting" how gosh-darn awesome, revolutionary and important you guys are.

People are defending the fun of a hobby against willful mischaracterization and unsupported criticisms, such as the ones you provide. They aren't doing anything close to what you are projecting. Calm down.

That article says a number of things about the author, namely:

"I don't get it. I don't WANT to get it!. Nobody else should like it either"

Also a general prevalence running through the article (and a large number of the comments) is the comments about laptops and computers that have been "steampunked". Most of these comments have mentioned "Mac" or iMac" - and here we have the crux of the problem. It sounds like every Person (designer or not) who has commented here against steampunk, their argument boiled down to:

"I love my Mac, I worship at the feet of Steve Jobs. Anyone who would sully the *perfect* design that is .... 'Mac', should be burned at the stake - For they be heretics, fear them! "

Seriously, there are other computer makers out there, not everything is about Apple computers. ever wonder why Mac users are derided in the same way as steampunk in the main article ?? Maybe that sort of snobby attitude has something to do with it?
So what if somebody choses to NOT have a plain off-white box for a computer, people have been DIY styling computer cases for YEARS - get over it allready! Not everybody likes the same thing.

Steampunk is about being different from the mainstream, not following the sheep. Steampunk styled items are not available in mainstream commercial outlets or highstreet shops, so they have to be made by the end user instead.

But, in the main, steampunk is about being FUN.

Hi, I would very much like to get into contact with one of you. Do you have an email address that I may mail you?

Kind Regards, Jade

Farragoes? Seriously? And you're calling them pedants?

Every generation attempts to revive what it perceives to be the best parts of a past era. In the 1970's we subjected to the "Bohemian" look, a mix of Art Nouveau and Eastern European-inspired clothes. Steampunk is no different; it's the incarnation of a bunch of "what if" imaginings by some creative minds. As with any fad or trend, there will be groups of people who will become totally immersed, attempting to carry the concept as far as possible. It's just a fad; let it run its course and fade away.

P.S. The Babbage Difference Engine was never designed to run on steam. It's hand cranked.
The Navigator

It is easy to ridicule what you don't understand.This article is a perfect example of how a "journalist" tries to hide his lack of understanding by using too many words.

"People are defending the fun of a hobby against willful mischaracterization and unsupported criticisms, such as the ones you provide. They aren't doing anything close to what you are projecting. Calm down."

I think you should reread the responses, then reread all the puff pieces from New York and Boston, then check out what Steampunks say in their forums and blogs about how important and revolutionary they are.

That leads to my comments here... I find it interesting how a culture built on saying how much other people's tastes suck crawls out of its holes when someone says that their shite doesn't smell like roses either. I can't imagine what possible grounds Steampunks have to complain about "mainstream sheep" complaining about them when all they do is complain about "mainstream sheep".

I guess Cory is right - any and all criticism of Steampunk is legitimate (no matter how ham-handed, inaccurate, or contradictory), and any problem with those critiques (whether with the conclusions or the specifics) is evidence of arrogance and self-importance. Thanks Cory!

I contend, ladies and gentlemen, that this article is sheer genius. (Please note that I make no claims about the author.) The few points that might actually have basis in reality are completely irrelevant to the discussion. In fact, the article is nothing more than a purposeful refusal to understand the good points about the subculture.

In doing so, it has prompted one of the most in-depth and varied discussions I have ever seen on the essence of Steampunk. What amazes me is that nearly all of the analyses so far are in agreement. For all we say Steampunk is a mish-mash of different things, we are in agreement that it requires a certain mindset and outlook on life.

it's just the Burning Man-ness of it all that's such a big turnoff- though I do believe that one day Steampunk will have its own "Ren Fair", if it doesn't already.

The whole premise of the article seems wrong to me, to wit:
"Recalling an era that is the ground zero of mass production, the cultural inflection point from the artisan to the manufactured... " unfortunately the rest of the sentence, except for the "homogeneous design, devoid of the human hand." Strikes me as pure malarkey.
It seems to be the ideal point to which to return, the point where things "went wrong," and we lost uniqueness and hand-made quality. The chips and technology are wonderful, and why I (or anyone else) should seem odd for wanting the technology to reflect an earlier, more beautiful era seems an odd target for this rather heavy-handed attack.

You take an era and imagine modern devices in that context. It's the same as the devices in The Flintstones. That's all.
Joseph Francis

Your opinions are fair, but it seems a bit more independent research might be of benefit to you and a few others here. Your comments section has some excellent insight from people I assume are also Steampunks.

Also, a very small thing. If you're going to reference us, it would be nice for you to use the correct terminology: Steampunks, not Steampunkers.

The editors apologize for not crediting Tom Sepes as the inventor of the Steampunk motorbike, "The Whirlygig Emoto." His credit has been added to the photograph in the article.

Tom Sepes replies to this essay here:
The Editors

Pious and self righteous,
The concept of “Steampunk” is a niche, not unlike the early American craftsmen period or those crazy guys Degas and Picaso pasting clippings to canvas or deconstructing form. To be so dismissive so quickly is like having a self proclaimed photographer that has a cheap instacam discuss the subtleties of the early impressionist paintings. Honestly, any chimp with access to a computer can make a negative comment about something in which they are disinterested.

When we drove into the industrial revolution and into the nuclear age the artistic community went deconstructionist. A rage, comment or disinterest in the technological advances. I truly find the righteous proclamations of the "Class system" in our current society to be offensive. We have a higher ratio of "educated" people than there has ever been. Yet the masses are still spoken to as Victorian children, in an indignant tone mixed with a pseudo sarcasm. "HEY, teacher! Leave them kids alone!" Maybe it will be developed further. Maybe, for some, the act of using "craft" worthy tools to develop their works is part of a comment on the commercialism that removes the qualities of hand working metal, wood, plastics, and so on.
B. Stearns

Oh, and Cory, darling, you seem a bit obsessed with the very thing you seem to loathe. Something personal, perhaps?


"I guess Cory is right - any and all criticism of Steampunk is legitimate (no matter how ham-handed, inaccurate, or contradictory), and any problem with those critiques (whether with the conclusions or the specifics) is evidence of arrogance and self-importance. Thanks Cory!"

You're welcome!

I agree with you that Steampunk is full of arrogance and self-importance (and I would add elitism, judgmentalism, materialism and a high-handed, unflattering contempt for the common man), but I fail to see how Mr. Nakamura's criticisms were ham-handed, inaccurate or contradictory.

The main bones of contention seem to be over his analogy to computer chips and the issue of demysticfication and the Victorian Era. I can see where the chip image works and where it doesn't. It might have been clearer if he stated that to a non-specialist, the workings of a steam engine are just as alien as those of a computer chip.

I think the basis of his reference to the Victorian Era holds: Steampunks have a very poor understanding of the very era and authours they claim to draw inspiration from. I sometimes wonder if they've ever read Verne or Wells whenever they speak of Victorian fascination with machinery. Authours tended to be highly critical, with the exception of the Edisonades. As Jess Nevins noted in his essay in the Steampunk anthology, their techno-fetishism, like that of the Crystal Palace, is deeply intertwined with the forces of capital, commerce and empire that Steampunks claim to decry.

Either way, my point stands in that a culture based on criticising everybody else has no real place getting bent out of shape when it is crticised. Maybe if Steampunks stopped calling everybody else sheep, everybody else would stop calling you losers? If you want to be left to integrity of your hobby, stop telling everybody you're so much deeper and more enlightened than them because of it.



"Something personal, perhaps?"

Well yeah... Some habits are hard to shake, and it doesn't help when everybody else insists on calling you a Steampunk because you run a blog on retro-Sci-Fi.


it is obvious that you haven't quite understood the concept of steampunk and the mindset of its followers. I have but one word in answer to you:
We delight in the whimsical, in the beautifully crafted yet maybe utterly pointless. We are just a bunch of people who do what they like and are a bit overwhelmed by a media-attention most of us didn't even want. We'll still be tinkering away in our cellars and workshops when all this hype is over.
You rightly criticize the media for hyping steampunk but I can't help but feel that you as a designer are either jealous or feel threatened by a bunch of amateurs who are getting all the attention.
But, to repeat myself, most of us don't want that attention, we don't want to steal your limelight, we just want to make our own and other people's lifes a bit more interesting and whimsical.
So why can't you just leave us alone?

Sincerely yours,

Buford Mathias
Buford Mathias

I am one of those "mediocre hobbyist" and I'm proud of it ! You can call all my work a pointless waste of time but it won't stop me. For me steampunk is the joy of creation , the joy of using my hands and tools.
The modern world does not value DIY anymore since everybody can afford cheap , disposable , machine made products and nobody is interested how things work . Nobody will admire a boy who can make a radio or a girl who can sew her own dress . This is why some of us , DIYers , relics of bygone years , created our own fictional world with its own aesthetics. You may like it or not but it is OUR world !

Mr. Consciousflesh

Great article. Mr. Nakamura hit the nail. Self-promotion is the keyword to understand so-called "steampunk subculture". In many cases this label serves as a substitute for talent (Abney Park).

Besides, it's not the victorian era -- it's kitch you worship, DIYers. Brass, leather and wood are so boring. Why don't you dare to try some art nouveau asthetics? Is it too difficult?

Good god, are you guys still on this?

"I agree with you that Steampunk is full of arrogance and self-importance (and I would add elitism, judgmentalism, materialism and a high-handed, unflattering contempt for the common man)"

It takes one to know one. Maybe what you see in their act is a reflection of your own value judgements.

You *do* know it's all an affectation, like a cheesy accent or handlebar mustache, don't you?

Lighten up, Francis.


I must say, people love to go off half-cocked. 'Steampunk' is an emergent term, and as such can not be/has not been defined as of yet. It has several meanings at present, and the concept is not a new one. Multiple meanings and paths are developing at the same time. I was startled by the negative responses and the flip attitudes of people summing up a race that is still going on, as it were.
My personal awareness of the 'Steampunk' concept is on several fronts, and is years old, yet I am certainly aware that I am not seeing the whole picture. Steampunk can be...
Jules Verne, the future seen from the past.
An aesthetic applied over technology.
An attitude of 'can-do' that embraces modern technology and steam or antique mechanics in a way that allows innovations which are genuinely new.
Probably also stuff I'm not aware of. But, the new Ipod dock
sold by Hammer Sclemmer is a perfect example of what I mean when I desire steampunk... it is a horn-shaped passive amplifier using modern electronics linked with functional antique design, and it WORKS. A device that charges a battery with a candle is steampunk. and check out the Steampunk guide to the Apocolypse, a half tongue-in-cheek commentary, half guidebook for living through the collapse of civilization, complete with instructions for digging latrines.

I believe there is a Steampunk movement, and it has to do with thinking outside the box to take our modern knowledge and actually use it to improve our quality of life, aesthetically and practically, by increasing our independence from mass-marketing and mass production, and providing food for thought and the vision of a future in which 'technology' doesn't have to mean sitting in a sterile cubical divorced from the earth, the past, and one another.
It is not merely one thing or another, it is what you make of it, so check it out!
Katie Christman

If you don't like steampunk then go do something else.

You are like Blackwell, who is famous for his worst dressed lists, yet for all the people who know that much about Blackwell I doubt that one per cent know (or care) what he does for a lving. Same to you, Mr. Nakamura.

"Besides, it's not the victorian era -- it's kitch you worship, DIYers. Brass, leather and wood are so boring. Why don't you dare to try some art nouveau asthetics? Is it too difficult?"

Well, as the old saying goes, "Opinions are like anal orifices: Everyone has one, and they usually stink." I find going to parties and listening to stupid, shallow, boring people drivel endlessly about their stupid, shallow, boring lives to be incredibly pointless and a waste of time, but usually have the courtesey to not say so to their faces. As a wise man once said, "Boredom is the symptom of a boring mind."

BTW, I tend to preferr Art Deco to Art Noveau, and incorporate much of the former in my own steampunk creations.

Cory: You remind me all too much of certain people whom I absolutely detested in the Electronic Music scene: To whit, the kinds who would visciously attack anyone who DARED call a song Breakbeat Techno, when it was OBVIOUS to EVERYONE that it was actually Happy Hardcore (or vice-versa), when I couldn't give 2 cents' difference between the two styles.

So it is when it comes to my definitions of steampunk: I consider your "Voyages Extraordinaire" to be a facet of steampunk, as well as Dieselpunk, Clockpunk, etc. Anyone who spends too much time over-anylizing (or should I say over ANAL-izing) different sub-genres either has way too much time on their hands, or is the type of self-important prick who thinks their obsession with minuatae makes them better than everyone else.

Before you jump on my "lack of knowledge," I've read numerous works by Verne (de la Terre a la Lune), Wells (The Time Machine and War of the Worlds), and Stevenson (most of his books, although the only one that would qualify as VSF would be The Strange Affair of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde).

Finally, I'd like to add this to my previous comment:

Most of us "steampunks" were into the style LONG before we were aware of it as some kind of social/stylistic movement... I was aware of Steampunk purely as a sub-set of science fiction films and books for quite some time. However, I only became aware of it as an actual style when I was searching for circuit diagrams and pictures of antique telephones so that I could build a retro-style phone with some modern features (like tone dialing).

I have always been into trying to figure out how things work, and appreciated the quality of craftsmanship that goes into antique goods and electronics, and sought to build my own stuff using those high standards....

Back in the late 1800's and early 1900's, over-engineering means making something about 3-4 times more durable than it really needs to be so that it will last.... Now, over-engineering means that "if it's not broke, it doesn't have enough useless features", which results in most of the iCrap that's recently flooded the market.

Yes, my tastes in design and clothing might have gone out of style over 100 years ago (although I'm convinced that true quality and beauty NEVER really go out of style), at least I don't treat anyone as less than human just because they don't dress, act, and buy what Madison Avenue and the Mass Media Machine tell them to (yes, I was the victim of constant, unceasing bullying in school because I did things differntly than "everybody else").
Ben Bonebrake

I find it amusing that you both compare steampunk with the Victorian aesthetic, then dismiss both as not being original enough!
The Victorian era was one that embodied exploration, boundless frontiers in science, history, nature, manners as well as depravity and decadence. This is the zeitgeist that appeals to steampunkers.
Would you give more weight if the movement encompassed neo-German expressionism and the theme of social despair? Must it serve some higher purpose than to make its adherents happy? Its popularity can attest that it strikes a chord in many people. Whether it will become a major or minor trend is in the hands of the public, not the critic.
As to its "authenticity"...No one can tell me that if the Victorians had access to computers, motorbikes, cars and the other trappings of modern life they would not have made full use of them and embellished them as thoroughly as any carriage or gaslight fixture of the time. Steampunk embodies the Victorian collecting urge, marrying function and ornament with the influence of different styles and technologies into something that need serve no other purpose than to please its maker.
In my opinion, at its core, that is what art is supposed to do.

K Koesler
BFA University of North Texas

"BTW, I tend to preferr Art Deco to Art Noveau, and incorporate much of the former in my own steampunk creations."

O rly? Please, provide us a link to your creations to prevent us from getting bored?

Oh dear, silly Mr. Nakamura!

It's simply not possible to create authentic versions of everything! Do you realize how hard it is to catch faeries for preserving in jars? It's terribly difficult; far easier to just make one from clay....

Not to mention the fact that other, less... [i]ethical[/i] props might get one in trouble with the law enforcement officials if done [i]authentically[/i].
Doctor Z-kun

Wow, you guys are still at this...


"Cory: You remind me all too much of certain people whom I absolutely detested in the Electronic Music scene: To whit, the kinds who would visciously attack anyone who DARED call a song Breakbeat Techno, when it was OBVIOUS to EVERYONE that it was actually Happy Hardcore (or vice-versa), when I couldn't give 2 cents' difference between the two styles."

I imagine that in the twisted, looking-glass world of Steampunk, this might seem so. However, an objective examination would demonstrate that it is Steampunks themselves who quibble endlessly over their various denominations and over who is Steampunker-Than-Thou. Yet here you are condemning those who just exempt themselves from the scenesterism by acknolwedging that they're not Steampunk. What is it with these insecure DIY types that they want to keep around an audience of people who don't care about their projects so that can call them worthless poseurs? Isn't it just enough to think you're better than the rabble in general because you have a hobby? Isn't it enough to be Steampunk without needing to be Steampunker-than-thou?

In the mean time, this is boring, so I'll leave on this observation. The next time you Steampunks feel compelled to expound on your social theory of being better than the mindless sheep because you reject mainstream consumer aetshetics in favour of Neo-Vicorian kistch, remember that, like you're saying to Mr. Nakamura, "opinions are like orifices: everybody has one and they usually stink."


As a "steampunk" outlaw, I'd agree with the general tone of the article: a cool idea , not yet a subculture or even a movement.
Sure, some rather influential folks would have it both ways (Cory Doktorow among them), but cheering on any mention of the term on a "Style" page does not equate to getting off your rump and making someting happen.
Too danged many cheese-eaters will smother "steampunk" in the cradle.

What I am left pondering is what the bloody hell happened to the author to make him despise steampunk so much. Someone wearing a top hat and goggles must have stolen his girlfriend, I am assuming.
Miss Grace

To be frank, this is a very rare piece of complete and undiluted equine manure. I know that in the twisted minds of people like Mr. Nakamura despises actual research or even looking into things more than five minutes before blurting out such a humungous load. It makes me sad that something like this soils the Design Observer pages.

He should at least TRY to look at the movement and art style without such obvious childish contempt. Dear Randy: Grow up, get a life, try again.


Oh Dear Me.

It seems, my Good Sir, that the spirit of Puritanism has reared its ugly head again. In a post-victorian age of Modernity and Equal Rights For All, one might have been forgiven for supposing that the notion that Someone Somewhere Might Just Be Having More Fun Than One Is, And Should Therefore Be Stopped is a vestige of of an earlier, less liberal age. I humbly suggest, therefore, that one should mayhaps Get Out A Bit More And Perhaps Find A Nice Hobby. I believe that Football Supporting is now quite the vogue. That will, perchance, take your mind off Other Peoples Business and allow you to take a more respectable view of your fellow men and women, and their lifestyle decisions. Yours faithfully etc etc

When you tack a Victorian picture frame up around your computer monitor, it's not worth paying attention to. But real, mechanical DIY is worth a nod of respect. It's a parallel to the resurgence of knitting and crocheting. More at the intersection of craft and hobby than of craft and art, it's kitschy, but it's still creative.

"That which is least understood, is most easily belittled." –Some Wise Guy

THIS is worth paying attention to. It's big, it's red, it's sooo ugly and it's a dentist's dream come true. Steampunk at its worst, but still very "creative" :)

Pedantry bordering on the pathological?

Tzzzz, Tzzzz, Tzzz , this a no-no Mr. Nacamura, and I think that you are making a terrible choice of words . It reminds me (even though he was talking in another context) about F.W Ruckstull, an obscure name (today) in the history of art criticism. After a great dedication to "the true, the good and the beautiful" on the first page, Mr Ruckstull gets down to business and starts his book "Great works of Art", (1926) with two pages of examples in sub-cultural expression. The first on his list was Constantin Brancusi, a Romanian sculptor who was living in Paris at the time. Under the photo of Miss Pogani, a sculpture carved in marble by Brancusi, Mr Ruckstull wrote the words, "an example of insane, symbolic sadism in art". and than, he continues his demolishing job with a sculpture representing a nude woman, signed by Matisse, "deformation of the form with a vengeance, un insult to intelligence". To make the things worst, he returns to Brancusi and writes about his bronze "Princess Bonaparte", the words "an insolent piece of abstract symbolism, an lechery in art", to conclude triumphantly in the front of a portrait done by Picasso "looks like a coal-chute in Mauch Chunk". By this time, Mr. Nacamura, I believe that we laugh together. The first think you need, in order to apreciate and understand Steampunk, is love for culture and art, which I assume you have, but then, you need pacience and vision, which I'm afraid you lack.

Mauch Chunk. Should I play with the word through the flour of your brilliant ideas? It sits like a mint on the tip of my tong, but I will let Bruce do it.

Darla Davion
darla davion

In my limited understanding, Steampunk had nothing to do with Terry Gilliam. It arose as a sub-genre of the heavily-overcooked Cyberpunk genre, around writers like Neal Stephenson who imagined how life might have been different if modern ideas had been achieved using the technologies of the Industrial Revolution - the so-called Golden Age of Steam. The changes worked by that age upon the human condition lend the genre a critical dimension this article seems entirely to have missed.
Daniel Reeders

This wasn't an article aimed at dissing Steampunk/ers.

This was an article simply to increase the notoriety of the author.
I mean the writer has to write about something yes?
He doesn't really care what he writes about, so long as it gets people to interested enough to read it in the first place.

That is the sole aim of journalists...they need to write something that they believe people will read.
The subject matter is unimportant in that respect.

Today it was an article dismissing Steampunk/ers.
Tommorow it will be an article dissing people who walk around wearing camo pants or motorcyclists who wear black leather vests and ride American motorcycles.

All this article has proved is that the Design Observer is happy to print crap...just as much as the mainstream media do.

Amusing, but ultimately pointless.


While i don't really like steampunk designs (btw, there are some real steampunk items like an steam powered motorbike, industry robot like toy, even an steampowered rss telegraphy kind of machine) i kinda missed the memo making everything nonpolitical illegal or bad taste, especially when it comes to design. So it doesn't have social or political implications (at least some steampunkt themed books and films had)... so what?

It is much more pleasant to look at then the mainstream of the "modding scene".

"O rly? Please, provide us a link to your creations to prevent us from getting bored?"

Why certainly, my good man, although I'll admit that I even have some 1950's design aspects in some of my stuff (Hey, I don't necesarily care what it's called as long as it looks good and serves some kind of purpose).

This is the home-built telephone I alluded to earlier:

Phone Hanging up
Phone Detail 1
Phone Detail 2

...Although about 2 weeks after building that prototype, I found a better hookswitch (both from a design as well as functional standpoint) from a pay-phone parts company called CEECO....

These are the two modified World War II US Army field phones (complete with "before" and "after" pics):

Field Phone A, Before
Field Phone A, After

Field Phone B, Before
Field Phone B, After

The Schematics for both the phone mods (although Sanyo no longer makes the Touch-Tone dialer IC chip used in that circuit :( )

...and my modified APC uninterruptable power supply, which the very computer that I'm typing this message with is plugged into right now:


I hope you enjoy them! If not, oh, well, no skin off my nose. :)

Ben Bonebrake


That must be annoying for people to call you Steampunk when you're not, but it's not really our fault, is it?

I checked out your site. Very interesting.


Benjamin Bonebroke:
"I tend to preferr Art Deco to Art Noveau, and incorporate much of the former in my own steampunk creations."
"I hope you enjoy them! If not, oh, well, no skin off my nose."

Despite your claims, your telephone mods have nothing to do with Art Nouveau or Art Deco. Plus they are not Steampunk at all (dieselpunk at best), so I can't see why you've decided to show them here.

I am an industrial designer of products that are either mass produced or custom for a specific client. While I am proud of all of my work, the mass produced products are resonsible for mass consumption of energy and resources and the work goes to a mostly foreign (China) work force. Most (often all) of the energy a product uses during it's lifecycle is spent in it's manufacture so it makes sense to create products that are durable and recycleable. Mr. Nakamura is comparing apples to oranges here with Steampunk and some broad design movement but there is something important to note within Steampunk design itself. Steampunks are creating objects using durable, largely recycled materials. If this can provide them some direct profit while simultaneously maintaining a minimal impact on resources then more (steam)power to them!
Brian Sibson

"I think that alot of the comments here are slamming the article for missing the point of steampunk, but in turn have missed the point of the article.

As near as I can tell, the central critique of steampunk in this article is that he doesn't like form being valued over function..."

I think your lucid writing gives the author way too much credit. What the article is really about is the pseudo-intellectual compulsion to "debunk" and "disabuse" in the most pretentiously convoluted terms possible. Steampunk is kind of cool, if it suits one's taste, and more fun to do than to buy, I presume. And, no, it's not "important"--and certainly didn't ever expect to be. But it would be a great service to readers everywhere to delete the original article and substitute the above response in it's place. Or does lucid and sensible commentary not generate enough "discussion" (ie, poo-flinging).
Jim Mossa

I do not like the steam punk aesthetic,
It seems funny to me that moding things to look like they are from the 1800's victorian times is in style, and not moding things to look like cavemen made them or any of the various other time periods.

its not my cup of tea (and in fact, it kind of grosses me out, but then again so do many other styles and fads) and so I don't drink it.
Jeremy Daly

Right, I'm confused.

Steampunk is a movement? I thought it was just a general sort of aesthetic impulse, like postmodernism. Oh wait, no...that's a movement, too, right? But aren't people allowed to make things they find beautiful just because it's beautiful? They're not, to my knowledge, being given government grants for this or forcing people to look at their stuff.

And who's the "we" being taken for rubes? How are "we" being taken for rubes? I didn't know steampunk had some sort of central command base or grand manipulative plan. Has there been an influx of mass-produced Neo-Victoriana goods that people can't avoid? Are artists being forced to design chairs with room for bustles now?

Seriously, I don't like scrapbooking, but I don't feel like it's impinging on my life. This sort of bile is generally reserved for something with some power over the writer. So what gives? When did steampunk get so mighty?

Or was the writer just really stuck for material?

i think the "we" is professional designers being left behind by the media success of a grass roots movement, they perhapse feel slighted that, alot of people like it but they don't.
matthew mcgrath

I dont know if its just me, but dont you think coldplay have a similar aprroach to this steampunk thing in their new album?the clothes, and some instruments and other stuff in their live appearances...
Pedro Leitão

"Despite your claims, your telephone mods have nothing to do with Art Nouveau or Art Deco. Plus they are not Steampunk at all (dieselpunk at best), so I can't see why you've decided to show them here."

You say Po-TAE-toe, I say Solanum tuberosum. ;-) According to Wikipedia, there are a number of works, such as The Rocketeer that are set in the 1930's that are considered steampunk, and considering that at least two of the phones were made in the early 1940's, helps give some credence to my claims.

See also my rant directed to Cory and his narrow definition of what is and is not steampunk... You're falling into the trap that the author warned about being "pedantry bordering on the pathological."
Ben Bonebrake

I usually stay out of these kinds of discussions but this article just makes no damned sense whatsoever.
For starters, I have no clue how anything we steampunks have ever done or said would merit this kind of venomous backlash. I agree with the other posters that this seems like rather shameless web-traffic-generating keyword-of-the-month bandwagoning. Where do people get this idea that we all arrange huge hatefests where we burn ipods in effigy and self-importantly expound at length about how we're going to change the world through cultural revolution?
I'm gonna let you in on something, people.
All us "Steampunks" (by this I mean the modern incarnation, the modding/cosplay/DIY/music scene)....We're all just sort of making it up as we go along. Most of us just create things in this style because it looks pretty and we like it. End of story. Then we're pressed by the media and other enthusiasts to add a little more depth to it, and we were forced to romanticize things slightly, but by no means are we pretentious or particularly forceful about it, especially because its a barely-formed half-ethic. Truth be told, "Steampunk as a subculture" has only existed for probably less than a year and is far too embryonic to have been polluted by "more steampunk than thou" sentiment or scenester pretentions. I'm sure it will get there eventually, but as it currently stands, I find steampunks to be the most open-minded, friendly, helpful and accepting people I've ever encountered. Everyone's just having fun here. I think people WANT us to be jerks. It makes us easier to despise and validates their completely unfounded biases.

Its art. Its fun. Enjoy it or don't.

Good call on the xkcd comic too.


Benjamin Bonebrake:
"According to Wikipedia, there are a number of works, such as The Rocketeer that are set in the 1930's that are considered steampunk, and considering that at least two of the phones were made in the early 1940's, helps give some credence to my claims."

If that was supposed to be an argument from authority, it was rather a poor one. According to the same Wikipedia page, even Georges Melies' movie "A Trip to the Moon" from 1902 [sic] is considered steampunk :)))

Give the gentleman a nice cold Pimms on the terrace Simpkins, he's obviously been out in the sun for far too long and needs refreshment.
Victoria The Mistress

So what? Why do you care? If we/they enjoy it, why does it bother you so much?

We don't like your toys, we make our own, and so then you have to go around telling everyone how we don't know how or why we're doing what we're doing?

Maybe we are just people who want to do things, make things that please us, that are pleasing to OUR eyes, not yours, we do not need your validation, but you seem to feel that it is worth insulting that we do something different than the norm.

If an influence was Brazil, could it not be just a superficial one? If you are a person looking for a design aesthetic, then what else does it matter. Do I need to cite references when I build a brass box around my monitor? I don't think I have to.

But you need to tear it down, thinking "people like this stuff, and I don't understand it, therefore I must tear it down," like the ignorant childhood bully that destroyed many a spawning artist's work.

In the end, you just sound like everyone else, while the steampunker is busy making their own voice. No two steampunkers are the same, even if they are influenced by exactly the same thing, have the same tools, and work on the same projects, they will not end up with the same finished design. And that's why it's awesome, because they are different than you, and you will never get it.

Alas, but one word materializes from the aether to describe this article: Repugnant

Congratulations, good Sir. Despite your vaunted eloquence, you have managed to pen absolutely nothing of substance! Truely a marvel of literary form, an accomplishment for the age. Would that you employ that selfsame passion to a useful end, this world may yet become a better place! Imagine if you are capable... if your infantile comprehension can fathom the concept... a world in which the everyday item is asthetically pleasing in it's function, as well as durable enough to stand the tests of time rather than being slated for the recycle bin or rubbish heap after a very short lifespan. Another fantasy to consider... a world which isn't addicted to the evermore expensive oil industry! Such a thing of beauty, unfortunately for us, would neither be easily mass-produced, nor would it be in the benefit of the rich capitalistic monopolists who strive only to make that next million dollars. Verily, it is easier to mock a dreamer than to share the Dream.
Captain Mac

Captain Mac vs. Datamancer. One of these men doesn't know what they're talking about.


My bet's on Captain Mac: "Another fantasy to consider... a world which isn't addicted to the evermore expensive oil industry!"

What a beautiful vision ;) 19th century coal-miners (especially children) were probably much cheaper than present-day oilfield workers. And they did without pension systems, medical services and trade unions.

@on: I'm not sure what you mean, exactly... "Captain Mac vs. Datamancer". His comment was directed at the article, not at me....unless you're saying I don't know what I'm talking about?...but I don't see how Mac would factor into that at all.


What a load of bull. This is clearly a niave article in to the world of a small few, which has been taken and as you put it, been given the spotlight far too soon. Now bugger off and stop throwing your rattle out of the pram and actually do some RESEARCH!!

Datamancer said "Where do people get this idea that we all arrange huge hatefests where we burn ipods in effigy and self-importantly expound at length about how we're going to change the world through cultural revolution?"

Captain Mac said "Imagine if you are capable... if your infantile comprehension can fathom the concept... a world in which the everyday item is asthetically pleasing in it's function, as well as durable enough to stand the tests of time rather than being slated for the recycle bin or rubbish heap after a very short lifespan. Another fantasy to consider... a world which isn't addicted to the evermore expensive oil industry! Such a thing of beauty, unfortunately for us, would neither be easily mass-produced, nor would it be in the benefit of the rich capitalistic monopolists who strive only to make that next million dollars. Verily, it is easier to mock a dreamer than to share the Dream."

So which one is right?


A caution to Steam Punks- You really should stop talking with the Media. I lived in San Francisco for ten years during the rise and fall of the Swing Jazz revival. And the fall came quickly, at the end. With the coming of the false dot com economy, SF Advertising Gulch flush with $, were descending on every element of SF nightlife and took elements of all nightlife/subculture lifestyle culture and used it in advertising. I knew it was over when I heard Benny Goodman’s “Sing, Sing, Sing” being used to sell Chips Ahoy cookies.

Also, at least it did for SF, brought out a lot of rude people who thought of themselves as paper millionaires, who thought they ruled the city. Well, considering the economy now… that might not happen for your collectives. I really liked that several people pointed out that having a playful interest in earlier times is a way of finding better times, as in manners and politeness because our present culture has a diminishing return on these ethics.

One of the aspects of this article that confuses me is the argument of design vs. DIY. I’ve looked at SP maker sites and these things are beautiful (I’ve a minor in jewelry and understand this is not easy work ). Ergo- Design had to happen first, before a re-build could be constructed, and they are beautiful. And Fun! And as someone else pointed out- The strong reference to the American Arts & crafts movement where anyone could make beautiful functional objects for their domicile.

To throw out a little theory… Sounds to me that a designer is feeling threatened. It’s been a few years but didn’t Bruce sterling bring this up in his “Heavy Weather” novel that a had a sub-plot about people being able to drop their electronics into what ever type of case they wanted? I remember recycled bamboo.

My advice? Stay covert and stay culturally alive

Tsk. Typical of most critics. Like a eunuch who works in a brothel, they cannot perform yet they feel qualified to advise and critique.

Of course Steampunk is mere aesthetic. It is, like most "retro" movements in taste and style, based on picking and choosing what one finds pleasing from a past era, discarding the dross, and seeing what one can do with the remains. This is what one used to call "progress."

Fans of the Steampunk style are merely those of us who, still appreciative of the baroque and the art nouveau, have grown tired of all the gas and blather from the would-be Edna Modes of our cultural aesthetic.... small garish lawn gnomes who bellow and blare about "daring" and "bold" and "innovative" style--- yet when all the theatrics are done hand you something little different from everything else their sexually ambiguous coffeeklatch produce.

We weary of "daring styles" that amount to cars shaped like lozenges, buildings shaped like legos, clothes that look like a traffic accident and hi tech goods that look like they were squeezed out by Wall-E's girlfriend after a healthy dose of stool softener. Our consumer products have all the sleekness of a streamlined turd.... and don't work or serve us one whit better. Why NOT strip off that godawful shiny plastic coating and replace it with something with a bit more patina, if not more panache?

Of course most of the Victorian overlay is fake. That's the precise point. It's as fake as that which it replaced. Yet it has more style by decades.

Are there really any fundamental differences between cosplay/mod/diy Steampunks and other Historical Reenactment groups, especially those from Society for Creative Anachronism? What (in your opinion) makes your movement so unique and revolutionary?

I'm sorry, but do you have any idea what you are talking about? Did you do any research at all, or did you just see a few pictures of steampunked items on the internet and make up your article around that?

I mean, where do I start with the innaccuracies? Any relation to anime would occur after the fact, else you are using a similar connection to if I were to say that the horror genre took inspiration from Dracula. Brazil doesn't come into it; I have read a number of steampunk film lists and it is never mentioned once, nor in any kind of casual or involved discussion on steampunk media. Steampunk is not about counter-mass-production either, to get to the BIG issues with your articles. It is to get back to what was good about the Victorian era, not to get away from anything, much less the woes of the present, woes though they may be.

Oh, and perhaps I should get to the biggest problem:
Steampunk is a hell of a lot more than just a "design aesthetic". This must surely be the biggest sign of a lack of research; he you done any, even just on Wikipedia of all places you would have seen that there is a lot more to it.

Basically, and without going through every problem there is with this article, I will summarise in a formally critical manner, saying that this article is sloppy, and is a clear example of where a lack of research ruins what may (may) have been a good argument, had you actually adressed more than one part of the issue at all, or, better yet, more than the parts of this "aesthetic" that suit your purposes to mention.

the big problem here is using the word punk to help describe this movement. it sort of feels like the use of the word somehow pushes steampunk into something more rebellious than it is. punk would give more of a middle finger, and, to my knowledge, there weren't many middle fingers being extended back in the victorian era.

" there weren't many middle fingers being extended back in the victorian era."

You quite sure about that?

"In London, post offices were blown up and public figures were targeted. A bomb went off on an Underground train as it was passing from Farringdon into what was then the Aldersgate Tube station. The carriage was shredded. Miraculously only one man was killed. Bombs were lobbed from upper galleries on to the floors of the Paris stock exchange and the French Chamber of Deputies. Army barracks were attacked. A bomb was detonated in a café near the Gare Saint-Lazare. Another device was tossed into a Madrid theatre, killing 20 people.

"These indiscriminate acts caused widespread alarm. Dark and shadowy bearded figures, with capes concealing orb-shaped bombs with fizzing fuses, stalked the popular imagination. The Times warned its readers of the “anarchist epidemic” and told the Home Secretary, Herbert Asquith, to quit his “masterly inactivity” and get a grip on the problem. For a brief moment in the mid-1890s, the Western world shook before this new enemy within."


Then there's the emergence of "the New Woman" which led to the window-smashing Suffragettes of the Edwardian era, Aubrey Beardsley's "obscene" drawings in The Yellow Book, Oscar Wilde and his following of green carnation-wearers upsetting the columnists in Punch and leading to demands in The Times that "this sort of thing" should be stopped (as it was when Wilde was imprisoned) and so on. Victorian England wasn't all about conformity, despite the stereotype.
John Coulthart

Talk about scratching your head, I still cannot fathom why "DIY" would ever be considered a four letter word by a **DESIGN** publication.

Seriously?! DIY craftsmen in a nascent field like steampunk almost always design their own projects, because there do not yet exist paint by numbers instruction manuals yet (if there ever will). How could a design professional possibly condemn a movement that encourages people far and wide to spend their free time designing things?? I suppose if we all joined a soccer club instead and left our design choices to the 4 options of shirts at our local Target, it would serve the design community much more successfully, yes? Blue octopus lamp or black octopus lamp - would that make you happy?

I'm just blown away by this. I mean are you being paid off by the manufacturers of shoot-me-in-the-face-now gray chunky keyboard manufacturers or something? Because those are pretty much the antithesis of good design, and you seem to spend a good portion of the article railing against any would would deign to breathe some life into them.

Somebody needs to take a break for a moment and read the title of their own website.

I know where the author is coming from. I had a steampunk enthusiast try to explain to me how Zeppelins would have been a legitimate weapon of war had internal combustion engines not been invented. He even went so far as to invoke his engineering education to try legitimize his argument. I recognize that it's all harmless fun, however there's something about the crowd that's a little irritating. It's displayed above in many of the comments that start with "Good Sir!".

Dear Jewelry Makers and Craftspersons,

Steampunk is lame. Please stop disassembling perfectly good old pocket watches and other such antiquities in order to make your incredibly lame jewelry. It pains me to see it. Also, it brings up the question “How ‘punk’ is anything that refers back to early railroads, pocket watches, and other appropriated antique gadgetry?” For your consideration…
Thank you,

PS. If you don’t know what I’m referring to here, please go to Etsy and keyword search “steampunk” under handmade tags and titles, and you will understand.

I don't understand why anyone would attack the steampunk crowd. I have never read anything that said it was the next great thing to come along. I have found that it is a group of people that have found joy in a world of what if.

How many people here have wasted there time and energy playing computer games, watching TV or going to the movies. At least they are enjoying themselfs without hurting anyone. And as far as modding there computers in a steampunk fashion, does it really matter? You see computers modded in Animee, as scifi, Fantasy.

Does attacking someone that is different than you make you feel like your better than they are? Try doing proper research before you write trash like this. And if your going ot tell me you did your research try not writing anymore.

Also I am not a steampunker. I am a 52 year old that has many different interest's and I have looked into this to find out what it is all about and prefer real history. But I find the steampunk community a very nice group of people willing to explain their hobby to anyone.

This guy has missed the entire point of steampunk. It's not the politics and social blunders of bygone eras that we want to recreate, merely the aesthetic style and mannerisms. He's right that the Victorian period was the beginning of industrialization and mass production. But for the next 70 years or more, everything being mass produced still LOOKED BEAUTIFUL!!! All the way through the 1950s, technology was still being packaged in a pleasing shape. In Victorian times, everything you bought, hand-made or not, still retained the same style as if it had been hand-made. Whatever prototype they were basing their production off of HAD been hand-made, so the resulting copies still kept the same flavor. Not to mention the fact that there is something inside human beings that finds wood and iron and brass and porcelain more pleasing than plastic in every way. The writer of that article also fails to realize one important detail.

Steampunk, as far as style and aesthetics go, boils down to one thing. Form doesn't always have to suffer for the sake of function. And we want the form back. The reason that steampunk is catching on as virally as it is, is because most people, whether they realize it or not, also want that form back. My dad of all people, when I introduced to him the concept of steampunk, he immediately took to it, because he already liked the style but had never heard the term. I think most people feel the same way. That writer can keep his sterile, cold plastic. Leaves more steampunk for the rest of us!

wow, I thought I was at ESPN.com again. An article which the author knows little about and probably hacked it together with google searches and personal bias.

well. it seems youre trying to advertise modern life, more than creativity.
in short.

which is a sad thing.
because creativity is what got us all going.

creativity is what made this world.
even our fancy modern computers.
they were, at first, a DIY project too.

and furthermore, get to know the subject more before you slam it down like that.

p.s. i bet you saw all these angry people coming from a mile away, didnt you.
why even bother doing this?

I read the entire article and it's still not clear what exactly you're panning about here. Are you saying that steampunk is misguided and insincere? That these people are "outsiders" who don't belong in the legitimate design world? That it's not utilitarian? That brass and gears are icky? Fairly superfluous arguments IMO, if it's just a bloated fad, it will come and go, only time and public interest will decide.

As to the "Brazil" argument (that by emulating its art direction, people missed the point of the film), most of Gilliam's films feature this "cobbled nostalgia" art direction to some extent, and I seriously doubt he'd be doing it if he didn't hope audiences would find it pleasing on some level. There can be beauty even in dystopia.

eh, I think you are just jealous. These folks obviously have the mechanical and creative skills that you can only wish you had.

I agree. Steampunk is lame weirdness, definitely. I couldn't agree more when you said it was sort of disney-ish, it kinda reminds me of Waterworld and lame junk in general.

Though I'm definitely a cyberpunk (william gibson) and post-apocalyptic fan (Postman, Fallout 1-3). What do you have to say for those genres?

I've personally always found the steampunk aesthetic fascinating; while I do not disagree with any of your individual judgements regarding meaning or usability, I feel you come to a skew conclusion.

I respect the aesthetic at a distance, which is to say I would not want these devices in my own living space, but I am delighted and enamored that they exist.

If you have time (doubtful), and can find it (also doubtful), you might find the computer game Arcanum worth playing. It's not a bad game on its own, but I feel like the steampunk aesthetic is most fully embodied in the counterplay between magicks and early technology in that created world.

"Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic" -- perhaps it is the lust for truth in that statement that drives steampunk; and perhaps that is the frame through which its beauty can be most fully respected.
Greg Perkins

By contrast, a few seconds on Google reveals Mr. Nakamura's staggering genius.
Colour me Impressed

Two important points to note about the Steampunk genre.

First, you note aptly that the Victorian era was a moment right on the cusp, when mass production was first starting up. While this is true, I think you have taken the wrong view of this cusp! As others have already commented - there is a desire among the Steampunks to be gratified by the fruits of one's own artifice. It is apropos for me to point out to you that the Victorian era, just as it was the starting point of mass production, was likewise the last and latest period in which artisans practiced en masse. It therefore should be no great surprise that there is an appreciation of Victorian artifice: it is the nearest era in memory when artisans produced major components of the cultural milieu.

In further defense of the Victorian era, one must note that many of the immediate precursors to those modern technologies we have seen so successfully romanticized in Cyberpunk novels arose during Victoria's reign. Steampunk would trace back to these precursors: Hence, the elements of Victorian style so readily adopted. This is apt, more than apt: the Victorian era saw the emergence of the telegraph, telephone, and of course several decades of Babbage's lifetime overlapped the Queen's as well.

But there is a more subtle and important point, and this point is so very relevant to the modern System of the World and to design: the Steampunk movement also contains, as you have duly noted, the element of the bared: technology which is spare, exposed, sometimes almost hodge-podge. What you don't mention about the movement of Exposure, the movement of Seeing the Guts that you seem to find so pornographic, is that it is a call for transparency: a call, in short, of knowing the truth, of knowing the Reality Behind the Mask. This, I maintain, is what it's about. Modern corporate designers hide everything - as much as possible - behind sleek encasements and chassis rife with corporate branding. A lifetime of this is mind numbing and dull. I reiterate the following point others have made in order to make my own: The notion of adding one's own touch, of adding one's own design, is apt simply because in this day and age there is no other way to avoid the stultifying designs imposed upon the consumer market. This is - as one of your commentators noted - precisely why people find the contraptions of Harry Potter so interesting: they are original, they are Other, they contain elements which stimulate the imagination. I'm afraid that the Bauhaus - though it began a great era of new and interesting design - does not in its spare and simple forms exactly stimulate the dreams and fantasies of normal folks, so used to its progeny in office buildings and modern architecture - normal folk, who enjoy not boxy and spare work, but things of interest, of curiosity, of precious fantastical levity.

The designs of mass production carry a subconscious imputation of anonymity, a sense of massive economic engines which have grown, over the centuries, larger than any of us, which impose, for better or worse, their own tradition of taste into the store shelves. This tradition looks for cost effectiveness and function: The common man must opt for function over form, and so form is sacrificed.


The author takes 'steampunk' far more seriously than anyone I've ever read or met who actually makes art in that style. He's taking himself for a rube.
Andrew Slater

I love the way the term "suburban" is used as a put down. Sir, your biases against suburbia are outdated, demonstrate your ignorance, are dismissive of a huge swath of people, and, frankly, are offensive.

I'm more into baroquepunk, myself. Need to see more of that.

But I don't agree with the author's claim that there's something wrong with Steampunk, it's just a geek fashion wave. You're either into it or you aren't.

The idea here, is a return to a kind of craftsmanship. While the Victorian era started mass production, there was a general artistry to work of that period that appeals to some people.

Personally, I like even older styles. But don't have the time to retcon my junk.
James Hudnall

b, Your comments and critique are most welcome on Design Observer. However, calling peoples asses is not considered acceptable language in this forum. Your comment has been removed. You are welcome to repost with less inflammatory language. Thank you.
William Drenttel

Thank You, Thank You, Thank You!
Lord Baltimore

First, I would like to say that there are points within this blog/article that I can appreciate. However, I fail to see why these DIYers upset you so much. I would much rather see a mild sense of individuality reinstituted into our society by way of mods than the cookie-cutter world we usually see. So you don't like their taste in design because it contradicts itself when referring to history. Big deal. Art and design have been recycling ideas for as long as art and design have existed.

I think you might actually be a little jealous that there are DIY designers out there that might be doing some stuff you simply can't do. That's not to say that you can't come up with something better, but you sound frustrated that whatever you do isn't appreciated by the masses. So, I have three words for you. GET OVER IT. I'm a photographer, and a pretty good one at that. I don't go writing blogs about how people have no taste or that the current trend in HDR is a laughable gimmick. Why? I don't do it because I am not the art & design dictator. I do what I do because it makes ME happy. I don't need to take photographs for you. Would I appreciate it if you enjoyed my photos? Hell yes. Do I demand that you respect what I do? No.

Why don't you try making some steampunk mods? You might find it enjoyable. You might also push the trend into something more suitable to your taste.
HP Hatecraft

So, you have attributed a lot of politics and angst and other bullshit to steampunkers. I assume a lot of them are like that. But I personally love steampunk style not because of any kind of underlying message it may or may not portray, but because it looks cool. It simply looks cool.

Not everything has an angst-filled, anti-social message.

I suppose when one doesn't really understand it, their frustration can only criticize it. Steampunk is many things to many minds. It's that little niche not being able to "pin it down at all times" is that which makes it so fascinating! I find the romantic flair of it all refreshing. Steampunk is fantastic in every individual expression out there. What it means to one artist/creator might mean a whole other thing to another. The meshing of future and past is a bond that takes on a new twist in the steampunk world. It's lovely.

I am not a steampunk fan, but I appreciate just the pure exploration of the look of the style, just for arts sake.

One could use the same dismissive tone as this article does towards various school of art, say cubism, impressionism, etc. etc. for not depicting reality as reality SHOULD be depicted, dammit.

Uh, hello? It's an art style. It exists for the sake of the fun of the art work and style itself, not a literal representation of history or reality.

That is... unless it actually exists just to annoy the hell outta overly-judgmental design commentators - well hey, THEN it's a lot of fun! ;)

This article very superficially criticizes the 'steampunk' aesthetic. Your analysis of steampunk does not adequately compare it with current modes of design, nor does it attempt to understand the motivation of steampunk designers.

You have examined some of the ironies of steampunk - for instance that it idolizes an era that also drew heavily from other cultures and older designs, and that it draws influences from an era that was almost as mechanistic as the one we live in today. However, I believe those ironies form part of the fascination with steampunk.

People are attracted to steampunk because it is far removed from the dull minimalist stylings of today and because they can still relate to the cosmopolitan yet socially stratified and mechanized Victorian era. Steampunk is a reaction to modern design in much the same way modern design has been a reaction to antique styles. People like things to look attractive, not just plain and functional. People also like fantasy and make-believe, and there's nothing wrong with that.

Sure, the style and genre of 'steampunk' could use a healthy dose of criticism, as much as any other style, but this article was not up to that task.

Not to sound too harsh, but I think you should go back to design school, try out some different styles, or even rethink your occupation.

Thank you, Elustran. Well said.
art donovan

I take it you had nothing better to do. So people retrofit their generic looks dells with old gear, get over it nancy boy.

For the record, I've never case modded. One last thing, 'steampunk' is a stupid term.

I thought the point was to visit the unfamiliar without losing entirely a sense of that which is current.

Wow, who put the rusty cogs in your Cheerios? You're really taking this WAY too seriously! I think that most steampunks would agree with you on several points, but they'd be laughing as they did so. What's wrong with being silly, foppish or overly embellished once in a while? Can't people have fun anymore?


Oh noes, these DYI abominations of kisch is poopooing my cultural authority over the artistic real deal! Begone from my vestibule at once!

*Bleep* that meta-fictional narrative *bleep*. I like looking at wizzing doodads in my gizmos. Seriously.

I get it, you like Terry Gilliam, and these part time tinkerers who might also like Gilliam are not representing what you think is Terry Spam Sausage Spam Egg Spam Gilliam's grand vision to your satisifaction. And now these kids want to start a business selling their work? Oh My *Bleeping* God the sky is falling!

Jesus Raptor Christ. Your theory is so bad, you wouldn't know style if it *bleep* *bleeppidy* *bleep* *bleep* *bleep*!

Behold arrogance. This guy is throwing a hissyfit because a certain design style is getting a bit of attention, and it is a style he does not like.

Can anyone pass him the contact information for the animation studio behind the anime cartoon "Steam boy"? That way he can ask the studio to redo the whole fictional cartoon in propper historicly correct style.

Steampunk for me a great mental exercise on the question "what if". Dispite it's bulkyness, would 'old' technology and material be able to recreate current devices? It's a hobbyists work.

This guy is rallying against the work of hobbyists. Doesn't he has anything better to do?

did this writer have a glass of hater-aid for breakfast?

My problem with Steampunk is that it doesn't (yet) seem to have enough bakelite paneling, steatite socketings, and genuine ivory knobberies. I mean, the brass and the exquisite hand-dovetailed walnut, beech, and mahogany (with, of course, hand-rubbed French polish) are all wonderful works - but, they are only _part_ of the total package. Where's the lovely black bakelite, with brass switchgear contacts and luminous radium-painted D'Arsonval analogue meter movements and naked steatite socketry and carved-ivory knobbings and everything, hmm? Look to antique radio design for inspiration! That's where it really lives... any logical extension of putative Edwardian computational technology would've sprang from the same branch, I'm certain. More double-silk-covered _wiring_, dammit! With proper waxed-cotton cable lacings and phenolic terminal strips and maybe even a touch of real ebonite on the bezelry.

You come across as some kid who saw "the next big thing" and decided to oppose it early, with a brand new thesaurus to aid him.
I've an affection for SteamPunk I won't deny it, I've had one since before truly knowing what SteamPunk was and I don't care if it's "the next big thing" because I like it, just like all those people who toil away for hours don't care cause it's something they enjoy, this isn't a simple fad like getting the right haircut and liking the right bands this is a time consuming and rewarding pursuit.
Whether they're doing it for the art, for the love of the scene or just because it's something they are good at doesn't mean you can belittle them because it's not your taste, to be honest I wouldn't be surprised if you're only inclined to write such an article becauseof your insistence over SteamPunk being that next big thing, is the only way for your opinion to mean something to take an automatic stand against anything different?
As for your writing style, it seems like you randomly throw in a $5 word every line to make your article seem smarter than it actually is, I've read some truly convoluted works in my time but your insistence on "smartening it up" every half dozen words started giving me a headache, try keeping it simple.
Now I'm not going to bait you with personal insults, but if you think that what you regard as a few "hobbyists" are responsible for what gets printed about them in the news I can't help but laugh, one second you're dismissing them as nothing then seem to be giving them enough power to sway media, I tell you what, if you don't like anything different I suggest you turn off the computer, disconnect it from the net, black out your windows and line your walls with bubblewrap cause there's a whole world out there and your self-appointed entitlement to tell the rest of the us how to think isn't going to wash with anyone cause there's a whole lot of comments on here of people who don't feel they've been taken for a ride, could it be that your opinion is just that and nothing more?

Don't speak for the rest of us and don't imagine you have any bearing on how we see the world.

Such a serious academic approach to analyzing what is basically just a fun design aesthetic!

This treatment of what is more a hobby than a school of design is overblown and smacks of narcissistic rhetorical indulgence.

Gee... I'm sorry; I never meant to give anyone a headache... I thought the "real ebonite" was a dead give-away... oh well. As for being "some kid", well... that part got me chuckling! When I _was_ a kid, I'd have to list my tv "contemporary" as being more 'Will Robinson', rather than some 'Transformers' character... hell; I've been watching Doctor Who from the _beginning_... have you?

Anyhow; chill, dude... bottom line is, I've recently woken up this morning and I'm being a little 'cheeky', as usual... I meant nothing by it; hell, I've done it myself - albeit in somewhat different fashion, as I'm really more 'Retropunk' than actual 'Steam', so... well, here it is:


overthinking accomplished
steve steiner

Awww really? And no one saw through Barnum self-promotion of this article, with its assumed superiority to all design and fashion, laughing at the new media darling?

But hey designobserver, instead of measuring your fashion sense through chrome keyboards and veneered LCD monitors, let's do it through PageRank. Ta daaaaaaaaaaaa!

It's fairly clear that steampunk isn't some sort of high art or design - for a start, it's not often that high art is quite so derivative or eclectic. Steampunk is just people expressing their creativity in a particular way, reusing elements that are associated with a certain kind of romance that the steampunkers obviously appreciate. It's classic craft.

Nakamura writes as though the profession of design is under extreme threat from this trend, so that he must use every means at his disposal to strike it down. He's the Darth Vader of the design world. His weapon: an excavation deeper into the semiotics of the subject than any steampunker has ever contemplated, to expose the foundational flaws that once exposed, will surely ultimately lead to the destruction of steampunk!

Of course, this is nonsense - the nonsense of a man who feels threatened by something he fears and does not understand, who strikes out without even understanding his own motives.

The result is that most of Nakamura's points are extremely irrelevant. Pontificating about whether the Victorian era is really an appropriate choice for romanticization is ridiculous in the extreme - since when has romance been hindered by the mere factual details of its subject matter?
There's an implicit notion in Nakamura's writing, that ordinary people with ordinary sensibilities shouldn't try their hand at design, and if they do, certainly should not garner any media attention for it. Such things should be left to trained professionals like Nakamura (MFA in Graphic Design, California Institute of the Arts). This ivory towerism is hardly a new phenomenon in the art world, and it's one that has been challenged many times in countless ways throughout the history of art - something Nakamura would know well if his art studies had been a little broader or deeper. This creates an irony underlying Nakamura's criticism - he's analyzing and criticizing something at greater depth than the subject matter can sustain, for reasons that are incredibly cliched, while at the same time displaying a staggering lack of self-awareness of the conflict inherent in his writing.

But at the end of the article, all is revealed: Nakamura is simply jealous of the media attention being given to steampunk. You can almost hear him wailing, "Why doesn't my work get such attention? I have an MFA, dammit!"

(For the record, I'm personally not a particular fan of steampunk, beyond the respect I have for anyone who pours their passion into something they love.)

I believe you have achieved your objective, as the only purpose I see for this rant is to garner attention and publicity for your own views. Now if you would kindly stop spreading your hate for other peoples ideas.
Shorty McGavin

It's impressive the way you set the tone to your writting, which is obviously biased by your own personal taste, and a bunch of lambs expresses in comments the way their vacant minds are filled by your rethoric. Only touching lightly the fact that open criticism of aesthetical preferences is extremely unpolite, I think you're seeing shadows of ambition being cast by a style which has none beyond its small sphere of influence. There is no drive for world peace or social nirvana, no obscure philosophy, there is just bringing a bit of stylized fantasy into the mind of the onlooker. No more intent of historical accuracy in portaiting the victorian age, than a fantasy novelist who writes about a medieval world with dragons wants to make an accurate illustration of the middle ages. I can understand how steampunk will appeal to very few, and unfortunately will also be appreciated by some just because it might favour them slightly in the eyes of another. It happened before with other styles, it will happen again with ones which are still to come. I would hope although, unrealisticaly one might say, that people like you and by consequence the opinionless lambs which commented here with their support, would also understand why some people would like aesthetics of steampunk. Maybe for some all it takes is that brass and wood and exposed cogwheel mixed together in an object of dubious functionality to make them feel something as beautiful, or as magical, or fantastic, or any feeling that makes people confortable. Or to make someone by who knows what reason or past events, feel identified in that style. You will probably find aestheticaly appealing combinations of visual stimuli, craft or/and ideas that many other people will not, that does give them the right to express how they don't share in your preference. It does not give them the right to say what you like makes no sense or is just plain wrong. Design experts have in my past experience been the most arrogant lot, thinking that taste is a matter of accademics rather of personal reaction to stimuli. If you are one of that lot I'm sorry, I'm truly sorry, I just wasted a few minutes of my life in a brick-walled mind. If not, spend just enough of your thought time to percieve that what you feel to be right in terms aesthetical preferences, is not the standard the rest of the world has to follow.

Diogo Teles

Are you going to over analyze the psychosis of Star Wars costumers because their lightsabers don't actually work next?

Basically you've just told a lot of people 'You're playing make believe wrong!' silly human.


Aww. This is almost cute. You've got a little bit of history, a little bit of eloquence, and are gabbling the logic as you go. If it wasn't so transparent, it might be a worthy article. It is easier to destroy than to create, as you so amply prove. Cheers!

I'm not "into" Steampunk, myself, but I agree with the suggestion that you rethink your occupation, Mr. Nakamura. You sound far too insecure to have your observations taken with anything other than a boulder-sized grain of salt.


Posted by: docatomic on 08.24.08 at 01:47: "overthinking accomplished"


Thankfully the Randy Nakamura subculture has been rumbled at last


I think there's a couple points being missed here:

Firstly, "Steampunk" as a Science Fiction Genre has been going strong since the late 1980s, when it began as a counterpoint to the then-hip "Cyberpunk" movement (Involving many of the same writers, actually). I realize you're talking about the fashion trend and not the subgenre, but it is conceptually dependent upon it, and it's odd that there was no mention of it in the article.

Secondly, I don't think it's 'cultural raiding' per se (Which, let's face it, has been a hallmark of western civilization for 500 years now). In fact, I think it's a reaction against the fact that Boise, Idaho looks like Rome, Georgia, which looks like Wessex, England, which looks like Yokohama, Japan, which looks like everyplace else. There are fewer and fewer places that have an actual distinct sense of "Place," and given how often movies are set in them (San Francisco, New Orleans, London, NYC, Hong Kong, Las Vegas) they, too, begin to seem rather generic. I think there is a craving for a sense of foreign to separate ourselves from the great undifferentiated glop of our times.

Finally, I don't think you can separate this from the Science Fiction boom of the early 90s, or the Swing Revival of the late 90s, or the Bluegrass revival of the first half of this decade, which goes beyond the desire for the exotic: There's a sense that we've made mistakes along the way to where we are now, that we've lost a piece of ourselves, not to mention our optomism, along the way. Taking a step or three backwards, and then moving forwards again on a slightly different path is not without its psychological appeal here in these hopelessly distraught modern times.
L.D. Bronstein

I believe your point would be better served were you to isolate two subcultures within the movement.

Anyone who's ever picked up a compass and worked along with Euclid's Elements, or appreciated the Hellenic model for approximating the size of the earth, or approached Archimedes' naïve attempt at revealing the essential “trick” of the calculus proves one thing: ancient geometers / philosophers achieved the greatest of things with only the most rudimentary of understandings, sans traditions from which to draw.

To have understood these mathematics ( trigonometry ) and then fused them with metallurgy and physics seems to be a baffling challenge that the modern can scarce comprehend. To have designed, say, a watch based on schematics written in a foreign language ( Latin, German, Italian? ) seems to unify these sudies in a stunning way. Quality control required an additional order of magnitude of discipline and craft.

So let us praise those who have enriched the world with artifacts produces in this fashion. 'Sides, we will need them when the oil runs out.

Now, I concede that there is a material difference between someone building their own watch from schematic and some guy wrapping his Dell in a veneer of gold-leaf filigree and other arabeqsues – your targeted group – and against this contingent your “Humbug” could conceivably be supported.

But those inventors re-discovering what was found in a world lit by candle and the blue gas flame deserve better than calumnies such as these.
Steven G. Harms

Wow, I read this essay weeks ago and just came back to read the newer comments. I must confess, my eyes glazed over as I skimmed post after post of author-bashing, poster-bashing and genre-bashing.

As a professional designer (meaning it's how I pay the bills), I admit that I can be a snob about certain things. Using MS Word for layout and all things PowerPoint, for example. I also enjoy making things by hand. I still have a blazer in the back of my closet that I adorned with old keys and drawer pulls. Did I think it was "high fashion"? No, but it looked great with jeans and cowboy boots.

Before the scrapbooking explosion, collage was considered an art form. Now, thanks to mass-produced decorative papers, faux-metal doodads and press-type (yes, the very stuff we used as "serious" designers), the art of pasting things down has taken a hit. It's now seen as a "hobby" -- such a dreadul word (wink). I believe an entire D.O. column was devoted to it.

I would not be surprised if the same thing happens to steampunk. Let a few greedy DIY supply companies realize how popular it can be and soon Walmart will be carrying kits, complete with faux wood veneer, faux leather handles and faux metal gears that can be glued to most any modern gadget.

To each his own. Life's short. Have fun.

I believe Morgan is on the right track with her comments. Steampunk is basically crafting an object out of designed objects. The movement is headed by a few original minds that become the basis for others to copy. I would like to believe that the Victorian mentality undertones to the very stylistic Victorian overtones was intentional from the beginning, however I believe this was an afterthought to put meaning into the objects that were being bought at thrift stores to transform a modern object. The deep rooted views that are apparently expressed by being "steampunk" are not apparent in the flaunting style.
Chad K

As with any retro fad, nostalgia is key. By nostalgia, I refer to the warm, happy feelings associated with a place, a time, an experience, or an idealized wish to have experienced a place or time.

Do the fancy costumed steampunks idealize the reticence toward industrialization, the grime and filth and working conditions of industry, or the Victorian tendency itself toward nostalgia -- surrounding oneself with dusty mementos from a simpler time?

I've fantasized quite often over the years of living in New York or London from the 1850s onward, but only from an upper class vantage point, without all of the downsides, without the crime or inconveniences or poverty or soot covering everything.

Steampunk as a social fad is ironic because the great lengths toward a look or style of simplification are extremely complicated to produce.

But the other aspect, the desire toward simplification is probably more about people who feel a need to have a degree of transparency in their daily lives -- a need to be able to see a direct correlation between pushing a button and seeing the mechanical results at the other end. We are so separated from pushing a button and seeing the end result with digital technology. It's easier to understand how a mechanical typewriter works versus how a computer works, or at least it looks easier to understand.

I personally don't feel a need for that sense of transparency. And I don't feel a need to dress up and pretend to be living in a future retro time period. Nor to embellish everything I own with wood and brass and knobs and gears and doilies and soot and uncomfortable clothing and mustache wax, so that when I'm talking on my cell phone or posting on a message board like this I don't feel so, oh, horribly put out all stuck in the 21st century.
mr radon

Something to further discussion, a recent NY Times article which pointed out the yearning for the physical world, seemingly paradoxically, in the Valley where everything is virtually mediated.


Perhaps one can see Steampunk as an urge to again touch with focus on that which the practitioners love technology.

Per my previous comment, to approach what you love through the lens of gearworks, clockwork, and springs is a different means of exploration than the GCC complier.
Steven G. Harms

Steampunks are even worse than furries.


to each their own. seriously, why berate them for doing something that makes them happy? it's not like it's harming anyone other then your ego. other then that, your article, as well written as it was, just seemed to be a psychotic diatribe of internet elitism. you're not superior, get over yourself, and let bygones be bygones.

I've got to agree with Cherub on this one. The critic who feels the need to attack those who like what they critique are, in my mind, best ignored and left to their impotent ranting, as there is very little that they can contribute to the proceedings.

Yes the steampunk ethos is a fantasy, but so what. It’s no different than the person who buys Shag prints and drinks martinis while listening to vinyl records on a refurbished Hi-Fi stereo while pretending that their rec room is a room at the Sands in 1964. Yes it’s not a realistic examination of the realities of the Victorian era but then it’s never claimed to be that.

Mr Nakamura I have to say that your article is like a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.

Steven Harms, just consider that there are steampunk furries out there. Also consider that they don't care that you hate them and will just go on having fun.

No, I have to say that internet trolls are the worst.
Failing troll FAILS.

I don't get why some people take themselves so seriously that they feel the need to waste their time on pointing out how something is not, in fact, the way it's historically supposed to be.

Notice the 'punk' in Steampunk? Steampunkers aren't Victorian re-enactors, and they don't claim to be. The things that go with the subculture are, supposedly, not original- but I'd rather dare anyone on this page to come up with something 'original'. The definition of the term doesn't exist anymore in today's world.

So how about cutting the crap and just letting people live the way they want to, instead of pouring your miserable little heart out over something you don't happen to like, you poor, hateful little soul.

This just seems like 5 pages of bantering over a label that will never hurt a sole.

I applaud the "Steam Punkers" their artwork is interesting, original and even inspiring.

Every time something new comes out little writers like you get their innards in a whirl because its not to your liking then it get embraced by main stream and you go back and say you supported it from the beginning!

Relax and go have a beer!

Mr. Nakamura has been most conspicuous by his absense.

Although it does not benefit art, design or criticism to be turned into some kind of competition, I am however compelled to announce:

Steampunks 1
Randy Nakamura 0


On the contrary.

Randy Nakamura: 3
Steampunks: 0

Steampunk moves on different fronts. There are people who are creating artwork that is aesthetically beautiful, intentionally made with a particular look and feel, using Steampunk tropes like wood, brass and rivets, modding contemporary devices like computers, guitars or bicycles, and making them look “steampunk” or “old fashioned” in a way that appeals to techno-savvy hipsters. On the Steampunk continuum there are also a number of artists who are working with recycled/scavenged and reused materials, boilers, steam, kinetics, figuring out how things move, and building creative communities. Keep in mind that Steampunk exists as a social movement NOW rather than at some other time due to wider historically specific social forces. I think it’s a response to car culture, peak oil, environmental calamity, de-humanizing labor and production conditions in a global economy, and the hyper-proliferation of commodity forms.

I read Randy Nakamura’s article and thought “right on.” There hasn’t been enough critical interest in the movement. Without critical interest, the movement can’t grow. Critique furthers the discussion, motivates it. It keeps creativity honest even if the source of the critique is disingenuous. For those who haven’t checked out his article, if I may paraphrase his elitist critique: the steampunk movement is another petite-evil of some Culture Machine, a crass consumption pattern turning into a brand, a sort of unoriginal “bad” post-modern artifact that eats its young and forgets its historical referents, it’s false consciousness masquerading as liberating aesthetic practice, artists are dupes without agency, etc. In his own words, “Steampunk is humbug design, scrap-booking masquerading as the avant-garde.”

Mr. Nakamura’s resume indicates that he’s a graphic designer by trade, with experience in branding and marketing. As a freelancer for Ogilvy & Mather’s Brand Integration Group, he credits himself with having worked on a brand identity campaign for a “laser skin treatment” company. It’s not difficult to throw stones in a glass house of mirrors, except that he neglects to hit himself too. Given his own position in the ideological apparatus of the culture industry, it’s not surprising that his critique comes off as hostile to a movement that questions mass production! In my work I connect people to people and people to art, he connects people to… laser hair removal.

Here’s his publicly viewable resume: http://www.creativehotlist.com/index.asp?linkTarget=fullProfile.asp&indID=75608

His fox in the henhouse positioning aside, I found the critique to be one sided. I give both artists and “common” cultural forms more credit and more agency. The DIY (do it yourself) movement is broad, from solar power, to electric cars, to clothing, housing, transportation, and food… it can be very empowering and liberating to create things yourself and connect with other people doing the same thing. Eventually creative communities form that transcend what brought them together. In terms of steampunk, or good art for that matter, if you can imagine a different world, it can fuel positive social change.

Steampunk is still outsider art, not mainstream design, despite the mainstream coverage, it hasn’t really been co-opted yet. Last I checked, McDonald’s wasn’t trying to sell a “McMutton Chops with cheese” and Coca-Cola hadn’t started laser-etching gears into the top of their cans, Barack Obama isn’t (yet) wearing a stovepipe hat and brass goggles. The steampunk aesthetic lends itself to pre-existing industrial arts creative practices, including creative recycling, scavenging, and reuse. It takes detritus, mass produced throwaways and plays with it, sometimes parodying its origins.

Randy Nakamura cited me speaking about how interesting it is to be able to follow the path of steam from the fire to the boiler, through the pipes to the gears to the final kinetic moment, etc. His response, I’m paraphrasing again, was that anything could be fascinating on that level if you knew enough to understand the technology or underlying processes. And therein lies the rub, circuit boards (his example) are alien to most people. Like combustion engines or brands, they’re hidden inside technology that people feel disempowered by.

His best point is certainly that the steampunk movement can be woefully ignorant of history. This is something we’ve tried to combat in our own work. The Tree House’s back-story is that it exists in a dystopic eco-disaster future where there are no trees anymore and people have no living memory of trees. Instead they take the idea of a tree and construct it as best they can from scrap. While this could be seen as tragedy, it’s absolutely not intended that way! It was designed to be joyful, exuberant, connecting, interactive, thoughtful, regenerative… and if you experienced the piece directly, that’s probably what you felt. Neither is KSW ignorant of history, we understand the irony in promoting, say, a 1920 steam powered farm traction engine as a tool of connection. We do not hide the proverbial “blood on the plough” that steam powered farming methods wrought through displacing indigenous North American peoples from their land. We don’t cover up the railroad’s role in America’s westward expansion and “manifest destiny.” Nor are we unfamiliar with the Industrial Revolution and British Empire.

Being the consummate outsider artist, I’d say the people involved with KSW are more accurately identifiable as “Steamdorks” rather than “steampunks”… we’re just kind of dorky about it… we like old technology and how beautiful it is… we appreciate the engineering that went into designing these monstrous industrial instruments and are having a lot of fun devising and inventing new ways of harnessing and playing with them. We’re artists and mechanics. We own our own agency. There are some amazing “Steampunk Artists” out there, and I’m happy to see that this new genre has gotten the recent attention that it has…!
Sean Orlando

Sean Orlando:
"The DIY (do it yourself) movement is broad, from solar power, to electric cars, to clothing, housing, transportation, and food… it can be very empowering and liberating to create things yourself and connect with other people doing the same thing."

Did you mention housing? Oh yeah, DIY ethos is very strong in Brazilian favelas! And it's so empowering and liberating and blah... blah... blah... C'mon man, take a look at the rest of the world sometimes.

I just wanted to point out there's a strong thread of "you're doing it wrong!" running through this article. If you don't like a style, well, you don't like it and that's just too bad if a lot of other people (press included) do find it interesting.

There seems to be a lot of criticism for people going back in time to satisfy their aesthetics, so were you similarly annoyed when capri pants came back? Retro furniture? What is old is made new again and I highly doubt people involved in Steampunk actually want to be Victorians (otherwise they would be culture reenactors), as you suggest when you say people don't understand all there is to Victorian style, or they're misunderstanding the mindset of the time. Also, the article characterizes people as treating Victorians as some bastion of style rather than a result of cultural raiding...but isn't cherrypicking from the Victorians akin to their cultural raiding? There is no pleasing you, lol!

Genres are as much spectrums as they are classes and how Brazil used certain themes does not set down hard and fast rules about the importance and use of typewriter keys and magnifying glasses. I think you are being a little quick to dismiss this as faddish and meaningless. Calling it a hoax suggests that a lot of skulking DIYers are getting together in monthly meetings, snickering and rubbing their palms together as they carefully coordinate the next phase of Operation Make Steampunk the Next Big Thing, which is just silly.

People like this stuff because they do and there is at least some meaning in that. Maybe this is not so much an expression of people admiring Victorians (because honestly...Victorians were crazy) as it is feeling bored and alienated by plastics and "McDonaldization". It could be that the seamless Apple aesthetic makes people interested in the nuts and bolts - the exposed gears and turned out hems, as you put it (or maybe they're like yours truly and just like looking at the logic of how something is made). And if we really wanted to point our noses in the air, we could say the fascination with this time period or maybe the overlay of organic materials on technological devices is a metaphor for our own straddled situation of maintaining our humanity in the face of increasing technological disassociation (or taking the former, that the drama of Industrialization is ongoing). Or maybe...people just like brass.
I don' t know. I have no clue...the only steampunk things I own are novels and movies. For me, it was mostly something me and my friends would be snotty and nerdy about, and when I started seeing people doing things like reskinning their keyboards I thought, "hey, cool." That's about it. It's really not that big a deal, honestly.

i think whoever wrote this slander of steam punk is obviously a grupy bear and needs a hug
sam taylor

i hate this kind of spam... its poor...
Marko Kolar | graphic design blog

oh... sorry :D i have two tabs open and thi coment was adressed to other post... no for this one...


So many people here have said something along the lines of "steampunk makes people happy and never hurt a soul, so why complain about it?".

I'm sure the author's intent was not to criticize people for doing what they like. That's not the point of the article. The author was simply pointing out that steampunk is nothing new, and gets way too much hype. People can do whatever makes them happy, but when a subculture gets this much press coverage, it's everybody's business, and we all have a right to form an opinion about it.

Why did Cory go away? I love a good nerd-fight. =(
"I'm not steampunk, dammit! I just like old pulp!" Yes, that sets you a long way from steampunk, alright.
Don't get your silk hats all bent, ladies.
Mr. Rubino

Jobs | July 19