Is there an architect who would turn down the chance to build a floating stadium? Or a spire on the moon? What sort of abode would you build for magical creatures who don’t need to eat, sleep, or go to the bathroom?
That’s what the background designers for Steven Universe ask themselves when constructing the show’s environments. Currently in its fifth season on Cartoon Network, the series revolves around a teenage boy named Steven who lives with three alien superheroes and fights alongside them to protect the Earth. A big part of its charm lies in the heightened attention it pays to backdrops; it uses architecture in delightful and highly innovative ways to advance the messages at its core: Recent episodes, for instance, show Steven and his friends navigating a strange mix of Earth and alien landscapes while pushing themselves to become braver and accepting what makes them different or imperfect.
Steven’s companions, Garnet, Amethyst, and Pearl, especially exhibit these qualities. They’re sentient gemstones who can take humanoid form and summon personalized weapons. The amusing and familial interactions between Steven and the Gems, as well as the cuteness of the character designs and the futuristic alien technology, help to explain the show’s enthusiastic fan base: It’s beloved by kids and adults alike and has earned plaudits for its radical takes on gender roles, family dynamics, and diversity. Celebrity voice actors (Patti LuPone, Nicki Minaj) and original music (a soundtrack was released in June and quickly topped Billboard charts) add vibrancy from season to season.
But in many ways, the show’s built environments—one of the subjects of a new book, Steven Universe: Art & Origins—are the star. The setting of the show moves throughout the universe, eventually reaching the Gem Homeworld. Along the way, viewers might see anything from geodesic domes to disappearing sand castles to human zoo satellites. Many backgrounds are colored with unexpected, complementary palettes (pink sky, purple trees) and traced in outlines that are slightly off-registration and rough. The architecture is intricate and surprising, and it takes a lot of inspiration from video games. Eschewing styles that resemble watercolor or oil paintings, the show instead looks like something that could only be created on a computer, while maintaining elegance and subtlety. And far from being passive, the design assists in the storytelling: The two distinct kinds of architecture on Steven Universe—Gem and human—ingeniously double down on the show’s messages about coexistence and self-transformation.