The Ultimate Guide to the Steampunk Movement

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Ray guns, goggles, and giant mechanical creations fill the pages of the beautiful, old-meets-new Steampunk Bible

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Buster Crabe's "Flash Gordon" was the coolest thing ever when I was a kid. It was kitsch when I was older. But guess what? It is cool again. Today whole bunches of people are fascinated with and inspired by fake visions of the future that retrofit 19th- and early-20th-century props to appear plausibly, if comically, futuristic.

Back in my youth, grafting on a swooping fin here and a ray there was always a grand way to make something look like it is from a century or two into the future. H.G. Wells's pseudo-science novel The Time Machine triggered many illustrators and filmmakers to invent visual languages that could illustrate the next century, the 21st. Artists and designers are perpetually obsessed with screwball prognostication.

This obsession now has a hip new/old name: Steampunk, which is a fractured look back at what might have been if only.... This rubric also purports to be a new movement of nostalgia-buffs who, in the argot of today, mash up the old and current into some picturesque hybrid form. And now this movement also has a bible: The Steampunk Bible: An Illustrated Guide to the World of Imaginary Airships, Corsets and Goggles, Mad Scientists, and Strange Literature by Jeff Vandermeer and S.J. Chambers, which chronicles the movement's past and future history. The book has a hybrid-retro look that combines Victorian graphic esoterica and computer fontography.

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Galen Smith is the bible's designer and I recently asked what inspired his design of this tome. "Like Steampunk itself," he explains, "the design heavily references historical precedent such as Victorian book design and mass market print design (interestingly, often printed with steam-powered presses)." It is also a tip of the hat to a strained modern vernacular interpretation of these things. "The design attempts to blend elements of the late 19th century, with its rich and eccentric type and ornament tradition, with some of the pragmatic and stylistic issues of contemporary book design."

The authors and the publisher wanted the book to be about art and information without being too over-the-top with excessive pastiche. "They were looking for an interesting take on some of its visual tropes (gears, borders, fussy graphic ornament, multiple typefaces)," Smith reports, "but also wanted a clean readable layout that wasn't visually fatiguing." Steampunk, he insists, "should be the star, not the book."

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The exception to this was the cover, which was designed to be a real Steampunky object in itself. Smith adds, "The cover design is a modified version of the design used for the spectacular Hetzel editions of Jules Verne novels published in France in the late 1800s. These editions all featured a fabulously detailed standard design that was adjusted to accommodate a particular title, then printed, stamped, and embossed onto the front, back, and spine of the case." All new typefaces were created for The Steampunk Bible and some of the original ornament was eliminated. "The intense detail of the original required an equally intense amount of work in Photoshop to adjust it. In some areas the modifications were practically pixel by pixel." In short the original Steamy Jules Verne cover was sent to the steam room to lose a bit of excess weight (see illustrations).

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Hetzel edition of Jules Verne novel from the 1800s


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Cover of The Steampunk Bible


Flipping through the book, therefore, reveals a little schizophrenia. The illustrations of Steampunk objects, such as modern-day imaginary rocket packs and mammoth animatronic animals, derive, in part, from the Wild Wild West movie aesthetic. The layout, however, looks like a 1990s textbook. Smith, who claims not to be a Steampunker and "knew very little about the movement (if that's the right word) before I started working on the book," did have some inspiring revelations. "The 'Sultan's Elephant' at The Machines of the Isle of Nantes exhibit (page 118) is really incredible." He also came to appreciate the lushness of Victorian eccentricity: The wordy mock-Victorian typographic title pages, he notes, "lent themselves to an overwrought type design, and they also were a place to re-express some of the border elements and basic structure from the cover."

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The Sultan's Elephant


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Title page


When I hear the word Steampunk I think of retro style, and I asked Smith about the distinction. "There seem to be a lot differences to me," he responds, "but many of the differences are related to how people tend to use the terms. Retro seems more recent to me, more 20th-century, interesting and nostalgic but not very re-imagined. The big difference between the two seems to be that the Steampunk aesthetic is referencing an earlier time but uses that environment as a starting point for an exploration of our era, so it becomes a sci-fi-like alternate take on history and a nostalgic look at a reality that never really existed."

So is Steampunk here to stay? "Yes, in one form or another," he says. "It's very comfortable borrowing from the past and reinventing the present, so moving forward these attitudes should allow it to evolve and keep an interesting edge, whether as a high-profile movement or as a subculture. Also the Steampunk aesthetic itself will now be available for future re-imagining. It's part of the cultural memory and it's ready to be morphed as needed."

Images: Courtesy of Abrams Image

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Steven Heller is the co-chair of the MFA Design program at the School of Visual Arts and co-founder of the MFA Design Criticism program. More

Steven Heller is the co-chair of the MFA Design program at the School of Visual Arts and co-founder of the MFA Design Criticism program. He writes the "Visuals" column for The New York Times Book Review, "Graphic Content" for T-Style's "The Moment" blog, and The Daily Heller for Print magazine. He is the author or editor of over 140 books on design and popular visual culture.
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