If it seems like there's been an explosion of Tesla memes on your Facebook feed, it's not your imagination. Rather, it's an interesting manifestation of the steampunk trend, which is heavily into the retro-futuristic aesthetic of HG Wells, Jules Verne, Mary Shelley and Nikola T.
A few years ago, IBM took the pulse of the people - parsing the blogs, message boards, Twitter, FB and other social media - and found steampunk to be fast evolving into a cultural meme. It was spreading rapidly, they observed, and leaping madly across the various artistic domains. However, this stylish combination of sci fi, fantasy, and the gothic steam-powered machinery of the industrialized 19th century doesn't appear to have taken over the trend-world as IBM predicted. For one thing, most of us love our hi-tech too much, to the point of obsession, really - and I dare you to try and get a Machead to disguise their iPhone 6 under a lacy Victorian doily.
Steampunk, to my mind, has always been less of an actual trend and more of a signpost. The reason I think IBM's feelers picked up on so much steampunk chatter - the bulk of which was centered around gaming sites and NYC ComicCon events, ie. pure escapist fantasy - was because it's actually an expression of a deeper trend: hopeful nostalgia.
"Through vintage, European young individuals are now purchasing a nostalgic journey into the future," opines Massimo Leone of the Department of Philosophy at Italy's University of Turin about the young-married hipster craze for furnishings from the past, particularly mid-century design. "It is an imaginary future, of course, since every future, like every past, is imaginary. But it is not the same kind of imagination of the future their parents would buy when acquiring vintage furniture in the 1960s, when it was not vintage yet but simply contemporary, or even modern. The future embedded in those objects was a future of hopeful expectation, vibrant incertitude, and energetic élan." Thus, when we avidly collect vintage or scour the markets - online and off - for the furniture of our parents' and their parents' generation, we're buying a ticket to travel back in time vicariously in order to steal back some of that feeling of hope for a better future. "A 1950s Brown radio meant existential progress to come when it was bought in the 1950s," continues Leone. "Today, it sadly means nostalgia for that feeling of existential progress to come. It is a futuro anteriore, as the Italian grammar denominates one of its tenses, a sort of future perfect that is used to designate actions that take place in a past projected into the future." (image)
And so it is with many of the gadgets identified as "steampunk" when in reality, what they represent is hope - in a dress, in an accessory, in a hand-crafted pen. For writing things...on paper. Like this Troubador pen. It was made by hand in Chicago using logs lost enroute to a sawmill and preserved for at least a century in silt at the bottom of the river. “Something special happens when a craftsman sets their hands to a piece," says Chad Schumacher, one of the owners of Allegory, which creates these lovely writing instruments. "The care, dedication, and passion they put into the work becomes part of the object. In a world full of manufactured objects that are packed with deliberate compromises…there is something intrinsically valuable about carrying something someone crafted for you."
Allegory pens are available at Firecracker.com.
- Lesley Scott