When a group of influential forward thinkers find that they share a common philosophy that is at odds with contemporary thinking, a productive outcome can be the start of a new direction in art, design, politics or communication, something that can be considered a new movement. Historically ‘movements’ have started from a growing dissatisfaction with the contemporary situation. Whether that is a feeling, as in painting, that the established method is too limiting for expressing modern feelings and emotions; or the much more dangerous and violent objection to a stifling and oppressive and unjust culture such as that which fueled the Russian Revolution.
A new design movement can very loosely be seen as a new design culture. Within a culture you can get ‘sub-cultures’, 20th and 21st Century observers and critics are very interested in making ever more finely and carefully defined separations of people or things into ‘tribes’ or ‘sub-groups’. One of the results of the fragmentation of music cultures in the late 20th century was the arrival of ‘Punk’ music, which rebelled against the sweet commercialism of Pop Music. Webster’s dictionary defined ‘Punk’ as being nonsense or foolishness, or as ‘a young inexperienced person, beginner, novice; especially a young man or a petty gangster, hoodlum, or ruffian’. Later Webster’s defined a punk as one who affects punk styles in relation to music. The word is now frequently used as an attachment to denote a new trend, movement or style, often of a supposed underground culture; for example ‘Steam Punk’ or ‘Diesel Punk’.
Steam Punk supposes that technological advancement stopped, in the way that we now see it, at some point in the 19th Century. As a rejection of the impersonal ways of communicating in our current electronic and social media obsessed age steam punk can be seen as an attractive and nostalgic look back at when things, and life, were simpler. Travel would be by balloon, airship or crude motorcycle; steam or clockwork formed the basis of motive power. There is no obvious link with automotive design in Steam Punk as there is in fashion and product design. But that is not to say that it should be rejected as an area for cultural and aesthetic study. The emphasis on showing the attractive nature of different materials and finishes, the richness of colors and the very close attention to detail are all elements that designers like to consider.
This brings us to ‘Diesel Punk’, the next step after Steam Punk. In this sub-culture the proposition is that technological development stagnated at the end of the Second World War and an uneasy truce existed between the various warring nations, developments in technology were limited to ‘more of the same but bigger or stronger’. The movement relies a little too much on weaponry and aggression but there is also a strong desire to show the honest nature of the fairly simple materials and finishes available. And like Steam Punk wrist watches feature strongly in the field of product design; the watch is such a simple way of demonstrating allegiance to a particular ‘tribe’ or culture, just as for a Rolex wearer the message is clear and on your wrist. For the designer, what is interesting is to study the various drawing styles that have come out of Diesel Punk and to consider how these might be adapted to produce a new design language that looks forward not back. It is worth remembering that sketching techniques can inform design directions now just as they have done in the past.
Next week, a couple more design sub-cultures.
About Peter Stevens Peter Stevens is a world-renowned vehicle designer and former Visiting Professor of Vehicle Design at the Royal College of Art in London. Over the course of his career, he’s been chief designer at Lotus Cars, McLaren and Lamborghini and design director for MG, Mahindra and Mahindra and Rivian Automotive. He’s also worked as a design consultant for Prodrive, BMW, Williams and Toyota. You can catch up with his antics on his Facebook page and his new website.