A few months ago, this delightful creature turned up on my facebook feed, courtesy of Boing Boing. He announced himself as ‘steampunk Lego’. I have loved Lego, as I’m sure most of us have, since a young and tender age… but what on earth was steampunk? I’d heard the term used a few times but thought it was time to investigate.
I almost lost the will to pursue my enquiries when the first webpage I turned up informed me that steampunk was difficult to define. It was broadly a literary and film genre in which the 19th-century-style heroes face malevolent technology, as exemplified by The Difference Engine by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling and The Anubis Gates by Tim Powers (books) and League of Extraordinary Gentlemen and Sherlock Holmes (films). I’ve never been massively into this – or any other – strand of sci-fi, so this didn’t help me much.
Steampunk literature and film has given birth to a design aesthetic which is easier to get a handle on through the wonders of Google images, and which I would describe as techno-Victoriana. Think polished wood, brown leather, glass and brass; exposed clockwork and other cogs, wheels and levers; engraving; fretwork; ornate keys and dials. This can be applied to a whole range of objects, and the result is normally quite ornate, tactile and at once magical and industrial.
For example, consider this variation on the skeleton clock, the computer workstation, or even Star Wars’ R2D2. I find them all rather beautiful to look at, and the skillful and creative use of ‘period’ materials certainly contributes to the appeal, but am somewhat deterred by the thought of having to keep such ornate objects clean. It’s worth remembering that the rich Victorians who filled their houses with similar clutter also had staff to dust and polish it.
The features of steampunk design have also been carried through to fantastic personal style. This, says Jess Nevins, is ‘what happens when goths discover brown’. Steampunks look like missing characters from League Of Extraordinairy Gentlemen, appearing as brave adventurers carrying weird and wonderful anti-evil contraptions. I wouldn’t mind dressing up like that, it’d certainly be more my style than the funereal black usually associated with goths… but I’m really not that outlandish in my dress and can’t see that I would ever be able to justify the time and money required to introduce my inner steampunk to the world. I have enough trouble finding the time and opportunity to engage with the real world without disappearing into an alternative reality for prolonged periods.
But, back to the Lego. I don’t think it can be really be classified as steampunk as so much of this aesthetic originates from the choice of materials; perhaps ‘steampunk-inspired’ would be better. It’s still pretty cool, though.