Neo-Victorian Design: Meet Steampunk

In this series of posts, discover how a literary genre became a Neo-Victorian design style.


Steampunk computer


Combine DIY enthusiasm with a nostalgia for Dickens’ London and you get Neo-Victorian design, an offshoot of the Steampunk movement that celebrates faith in human ingenuity. From books and films to fashion and home decor, enthusiasts clothe imaginative technology with 19th-century style. Here’s how a few quirky sci-fi novels created a design culture that loves antique Victorian armoires, leather-bound books and functioning gears and goggles.


Steam-Age Storytelling


A profoundly visual movement, Steampunk slowly came into being as technological advances enabled filmmakers to adapt the “scientific romances” of Edgar Allan Poe, H. G. Wells, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Jules Verne for film and television. These writers’ stories illuminate Edwardian- and Victorian-era fascination with scientific invention and discovery. Their works describe imaginative but scientifically plausible machines with extraordinary detail, inundating readers with high-adventure romance as well as the dangers of imperial cruelty and over-industrialization. Verne became the most influential author of the bunch when his Nautilus fictional submarine had the good fortune to be displayed on the silver screen via Walt Disney’s 1955 adaptation of Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, a massive box- office and Oscar success. As a result, countless Steampunk artists—including Sean Orlando, Mike Mignola, Scott Westerfield and Brenda Mattson—cite the Nautilus as their inspiration.



Clockwork Universe

“Clockwork Universe” by Tim Wetherell (Photo via Wikimedia Commons).


The Steampunk of Mignola and Mattson, however, wasn’t invented until the 1980s, when college friends Tim Powers, K. W. Jeter and James Baylock began writing adventure novels with intricate plots and whirring gears set in alternative visions of Victorian London. They revived interest in Victorian scientific fantasy, coined the term Steampunk and then waited until the Internet enabled their literary subgenre to transform into a cultural movement. In the last 10 years, Steampunk-style has become a money-making machine, as evidenced by the box-office success of “Sherlock Holmes” (2009) and the exploding popularity of the BBC television series “Doctor Who” (1963-1980, 2005 to present).


How did this literary genre remake itself into a fashion and interior design movement? To find out, read our next post.

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by Elaine K. Phillips



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