Steampunk – from ‘Satanic mills’ to 21st century DIY

Theme for 4.2

‘Steampunk’ reflects a retro-Victorian machine aesthetic. Currently in vogue, the contemporary phenomenon of ‘steampunk’ raises some curious questions.

This ‘back to the future’ nostalgia seems to contradict the modernist aesthetic normally projected onto technology. It also evokes the industrial revolution against which the Arts and Crafts movement reacted. But is it possible that the ‘mechanical age’ of the nineteenth-century have a craft value, at least from the perspective of the 21st century?

Furthermore, Is it the destiny of all technologies to become a potential inspiration for craft, once they are no longer useful? Guest bloggers are Mila Burcikova and Linda Hughes.

Flickr image from Urban Don, with Creative Commons license
‘Satanic mills’ reference is from William Blake’s poem Jerusalem .

Journal of Modern Craft 4.2



The second issue of 2011 casts us back to craft futures of the past.


Editorial introduction

Corporate Craft: Constructing the Empire State Building by Ezra Shales

Coal-powered Craft: A Past for the Future by Ele Carpenter

Crafting a New Age: A. R. Orage and the Politics of Craft by Adam Trexler

Primary Text

Politics for Craftsmen by A. R. Orage

Statement of Practice

Technology and Hand Skill in Craft and Industry by Robin Wood (pdf)

Exhibition Reviews

  • Ballets Russes: The Art of Costume Reviewed by Sally Gray
  • Grass Roots: African Origins of an American Art Reviewed by Dana E. Byrd
  • Circuit Céramique aux Arts Décoratifs: La Scène Française Contemporaine Reviewed by Alison Britton

Book Reviews

  • Cone Ten Down: Studio Pottery in New Zealand, 1945–1980 Reviewed by Grace Cochrane
  • Cultural Commodities in Japanese Rural Revitalization: Tsugaru Nuri Lacquerware and Tsugaru Shamisen Reviewed by Sarah Teasley

Introduction to 4.2

One of the consistent preoccupations of this journal, over the course of its first ten issues, has been the politics of production. One of our guiding principles has been that the frictional qualities of craft – the difficulties that arise in acquiring and applying skill in labor – are an explosive and unpredictable issue within modernity. An important corollary to this idea is that the way skill is represented and discussed can itself be a political question. Much is at stake in the discourse surrounding craft, and one index of this fact is the many conflicting claims that have been made on its behalf.

This issue features three articles that address this theme. Together they tell an interesting story of continuity through the twentieth century. At the early end of the chronological spectrum we have Adam Trexler’s in-depth study of A. R. Orage, a figure who ought to be as well-known as Ruskin and Morris, but who has remained somewhat obscure. It is easy to understand why. Not only did he go in for currently unfashionable theories like Theosophy and Nietzsche’s principle of the superhuman, but his writings depart from (and sometimes attack) the hallowed principles of the Arts and Crafts Movement. To make matters worse, as Trexler writes, his ideas are hard to situate along a familiar left-right political spectrum. Orage’s emphasis on guild structures and higher consciousness can seem bewildering: simultaneously radical and reactionary. Yet precisely because of this unfamiliarity, his ideas feel surprisingly relevant today. To help readers come to grips with this important figure in craft’s historiography, in addition to Trexler’s examination of his intellectual trajectory we offer a reprinted text by Orage, entitled ‘Politics for Craftsmen.’

Ezra Shales’ study of the Empire State Building carries us a few decades on, to the interwar period (often thought of as a depopulated valley in craft historical terms, caught between the twin peaks of the Arts and Crafts Movement and the post-1945 Studio Craft movement). It may be surprising to consider a skyscraper as a handmade object, but as Shales demonstrates, that is exactly how it was presented at the time. A rhetorical appeal to artisanal values was crucially important to the triumphal rhetoric of the Empire State Building’s financial backers and key spokesman, including bricklayer-turned-master-politician Alfred E. Smith.

If Orage were alive today, he might very well love steampunk – not only because that subculture refers back to his own Victorian and Edwardian moment, but also because this contemporary DIY-based subculture operates through precisely the combination of collectivity and hyper-individualism that he favored. Up-and-coming craft theorist Ele Carpenter gives us a report from the front lines of steampunk, showing how artists use its apparently eccentric, science fiction-derived imagery to create persuasively critical works at the intersection of the physical and the digital.

Finally, in this issue we are pleased and honored to feature a Statement of Practice by Robin Wood, the chair of the Heritage Crafts Association. Devoted to the preservation of threatened artisanal skills in Britain, the HCA is politically active in a way that, again, cannot be easily located on a left-right spectrum. It is equally ecumenical in its self-imposed mandate. Wood wants to celebrate the full range of skilled labor: not just pastoral crafts like pole lathe turning (his own craft) but also light industrial trades like blade-making. Though his viewpoint is perhaps closest to Morris’s, one suspects that he would have found much to discuss with Orage, and it is certain that he would have been fascinated by the plumbers, hoist operators, and asbestos handlers who helped erect the Empire State Building. It is just such unexpected discursive connections, over space and time, that this journal aims to foster.