The Art of Steampunk
By Courtney M. Holbrook
Smooth metal time machines adorned in distressed velvet. Delicate earrings cast with sharp, iron edges. Solid, modern clocks detailed with ornate mahogany.
Welcome to the world of steampunk, where futuristic design meets Victorian gilt.
“When the steampunk movement came out, it was so revolutionary,” said Art Donovan, an artist whose lamps and clocks make him a leading designer in steampunk. “The idea that you could be original with ornate designs from the Victorian era — how that could be futuristic — was so different from the stale, sleek futurism everyone saw on TV.”
Donovan will discuss his book, “The Art of Steampunk,” at Canio’s Books in Sag Harbor on Saturday, August 6 at 6 p.m.
“The Art of Steampunk” chronicles Donovan’s steampunk exhibition at the Museum of the History of Science at Oxford, which ran from October to February of last year. The book contains photography and discussions from the exhibit.
Donovan first broached the subject of a steampunk exhibition with the museum’s director, Jim Bennett, after he based one of his own works on an astrolabe from the 13th century held in the museum. He chose the astrolabe motif because of its status as “one of the earliest forms of functioning machinery we have” — a fitting tribute for steampunk, where functionality equals aesthetic beauty in importance.
“[Dr. Bennett] was just remarkably open to the steampunk idea,” Donovan said. “I sent him pictures of some artwork, and he was just willing to jump into the project.”
It would seem that Dr. Bennett’s reaction is the normal response to the steampunk movement. At first, steampunk’s intense world and artistic views can seem daunting; yet, the beauty of its design and the skilled labor of its adherents has won over even the most modern of critics.
That resistance and embrace of aesthetics has also characterized steampunk’s history. Donovan notes that the first instance of steampunk came with George Pao’s “The Time Machine.” That film depicted futuristic technological development, while characters and styles remained firmly in the 19th and 20th century.
“You had this unbelievable time-traveling machine, a genius work of craftsmanship,” Donovan said. “But there it was made with mahogany and cut crystal and pleated velvet.”
In the 1960s, depictions of the future involved clean, sterile lines and metallic surfaces — the space age meets hospital room. Steampunk offered an alternative to artists “bored with that dry, flat design,” Donovan noted. The term ‘steampunk,’ however, did not arrive until the 1980s. The science-fiction novels of K.W. Jeter coined ‘steampunk’ as a response to the cyberpunk movement. From there, steampunk crossed the boundary from aesthetic preference to lifestyle choice.
“Steampunk just took over,” Donovan said. “It can be anything now. It’s in jewelry, watches, lamps like I make, LARPing, clothes you name it.”
Although Donovan has never put on goggles and gone LARPing, he’s an advocate for the steampunk artistic way of life. Steampunk design is handcrafted, and the complicated craftsmanship of one of Donovan’s lamps can take up to a year to complete. Other designers relish the technique, because it allows for futuristic complexity with the intricate, “retro” aesthetics of the past.
“Steampunk artists tend to be heavily into genre,” Donovan said. “But most importantly, they are dedicated to the work — when I work, I’m cutting metal, finishing wood, I’m covered in sawdust at the end of the day.”
The labor-intensive process can have its monetary costs. One well-known designer, Vianney Halter, is known for his elaborately crafted watches. Those watches can sell for about $150,000.
Donovan believes his background in industrial design set him up for life as an artist in steampunk. He’s learned how to sculpt in small spaces, working with difficult materials. His wife, Leslie, is his partner in his business, “Donovan Design.” She also names every lamp and clock.
“We are absolutely a team,” Donovan said. “[Leslie] has a background in couture fashion, so working together is perfect.”
Donovan hopes the event at Canio’s and the book itself will open more East End eyes to the virtues of steampunk. Although the typical East End design is often directed toward English Country, Donovan is quick to note that fans of steampunk can stretch from “eight to 80 years old”
“When people see steampunk art, which is modern and geometric with 19th-century flair, they’re stunned,” he said. “There’s nothing like it.”