Making our junk shop find of a house livable is our first concern, but even at these early stages we have to make aesthetic decisions. So if you wondering if you’re ever going to see anything on this blog that actually looks steampunk, the answer is yes, in time. Art is definitely part of a steampunk lifestyle, and for me the coolest art is also functional. Which brings us to the subject at hand, the interior design direction we are taking for our home. It’s not really enough to say it’s going to be “steampunk” since the word itself is evolving so rapidly. Our house will also evolve but we need to take stock of the various influences that will define that evolution.
Victorian and Early Twentieth Century
People a hundred plus years ago were enthusiastic decorators who were deeply in love with the opulent, the exotic, and the fanciful. Victorians couldn’t lay bricks for an underground power plant without a few flourishes in the masonry. Look around the Edison bar in downtown LA some time to see what I mean. There is a treasure trove of design ideas from this period. We are particularly drawn to Craftsman architecture and Art Nouveau.
One of the biggest mistakes people make when they first hear about steampunk is to think that it is some kind of anti-technology movement. Hell no! We love technology. We hate the way its hidden away from us, like how things work is a shameful secret. We think how things work is cool and want it all exposed. We love big gears, exposed circuitry, pipes of iron and copper. Bring on the soot and the stench of oil! Okay, maybe not in the house for those last two. The heart of steampunk design is the dynamic opposition of the look of Victorian opulence and Victorian industrial technology. There is a good discussion of this on the Steampunk Home.
The term “shabby chic” has been seized by some designers to describe white and pink dollhouse-like atrocities, but at its roots it’s a very simple design idea. Let old stuff look old. Worn things convey a sense of permanence. They’re comforting. The trick is to make it a consistent look. You generally can’t put shiny new next to lovingly beat-up without making both look like crap. Since a life based on reuse and repurposing means you have a lot of lovingly beat up things, it’s important to make newer things look lovingly beat up too. That’s where things like distressed finishes, patinas and the like come in. A lot of the look of steampunk comes from these ideas.
Steampunk is not just about Victorian England or even Western culture. It is increasingly multicultural. As urban Californians multiculturalism is not something to aspire to but something we grew up with. Our décor will reflect this.
That’s not usually a stated influence on steampunk design but here’s a dirty little secret. Steampunks aren’t actually temporal adventurers from an alternate Victorianesque universe. Most of us were actually born sometime in the late twentieth century and this shows when steamers do up their homes. Actual Victorians would think nothing of putting a Persian rug in front of a wall covered with elaborately patterned flocked wallpaper and then putting a heavily carved chair upholstered with brocade on it. Personally when I see something like that outside of a museum I don’t think “wow that’s so steampunk”, I think “a weird old lady with too many cats lives here.”
There is always a modern influence on steampunk design. We have a longtime fascination with the peak of modernism, the 1960s. The sterility of the look no longer appeals to us but the brightness, openness, and pop sense of it will balance the excesses of Victorianism. Besides actual Victorian furniture is an ergonomic nightmare.
In 2010 a family of four sold their charming little condo in the increasingly fashionable neighborhood of University Heights. With the money they bought a stripped out house in East San Diego previously owned by human smugglers. Their goal was a radical change in lifestyle that would allow DIY Makerism, self reliance, alternative technology, permaculture, and urban homesteading into their lives in ways their HOA would have never allowed. The ideas that lead them to take this plunge came from the steampunk movement as it was during a brief shining period when art and philosophy seemed at least as important as brass, and great essays, speeches, and letters were written. These days they don't worry so much about what people call "steampunk." They call what they're doing the Greyshade Estate.
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