Glorious Vintage Leather Briefcase & the Steampunk Movement
I was at a party recently and someone asked me what I do for a living. When I mentioned I worked for a bag company they asked to see. I pulled our site up on my phone and showed them our vintage leather briefcase that is part of our Premium Leather collection. They were quick to notice that the design was not based on some older, set aesthetic that we had just copied. They mentioned that there was a certain modernity to the proportions, execution and details. "The vintage leather really makes it look like steampunk."
I really was at a loss for a reply. In the same way people hear things in a song that they want to hear, product design can be the same way. I would never think of MacCase design as steampunk. We just do what we do and for the most of our history enough people have liked it enough for us to continue doing it. (For which we are very grateful!) We never set out to be part of any design aesthetic or sub-culture. We eschew trendy. Was this person's comment warrantied or was he just projecting?
One of the sub-genres of the overall steampunk movement is "western steampunk". One of the tenets of western steampunk aesthetic is a vision of a re-imagined American West. It's a view of the past as if the future would have happened sooner. In that regard, I can see his point. In this brown hide, our vintage leather briefcase with it's very modern vertical orientation appears retro and futuristic at the same time in the same way that our Flight Jackets do.
There are a number of things that set our vintage leather briefcase apart from many briefcases out there that are just copies of older designs. The vertical orientation being the most obvious. But what about the details? The MacCase design is not dated by the heavy handed details of the past. An example of this would be the lack of leather straps with belt-like buckles to open and close a compartment. Or handles made up of many heavy, distressed metal parts with a faux patina.
Thinking about our vintage leather briefcase and how it did or didn't fit in with the steampunk aesthetic made me think of a similar situation where a creative work was associated with a group or movement that could have been taken out of context.
The time was 1935 and America's most famous or infamous architect, depending on your perspective, was Frank Lloyd Wright. He was once again being told he was washed up and that his career was over. He was being upstaged by a group of architects and designers from Europe, most notably from Germany's Bauhaus school. Their claim to fame was a movement called Modernism. Architecture as the sleek machine. Machines for working in and living in devoid of any of the craft that were the hallmarks of home design up until that point.
During this time, Wright was asked by Pittsburgh department store owner Edgar Kaufman to design a summer home for his family. Was Wright's solution a "modernist"statement to show the Europeans how it's done or just the greatest, most daring piece of residential architecture of the 20th century? For people who knew nothing about architecture and had spent their lives living in Victorian homes with pitched roofs and tiny, compartmentalized rooms, Wright's Fallingwater looked like a spaceship that had landed in a ravine in western Pennsylvania.
For people that knew Wright's work, it was just Wright being Wright. All the hallmarks of his earlier work were there, just taken to a new, higher level. A masterpiece and one of the high water marks of his long and illustrious career. But was it modernist in the way the Modernists would define a modern home according to their aesthetic?
I think the answer, like the answer to whether our vintage briefcase is steampunk or not, is both yes and no. Whenever anyone sits down to create something new they have to work through what an old teacher of mine called "cultural baggage". Cultural baggage is the visual vocabulary we carry around in our heads that define objects. For example, a chair is visually defined as this, or must has these elements, etc. When we set out to create something, there are images and ideas of whatever it is we are trying to create that are usually the first designs that we put to paper. They are very rarely our best work. True creativity comes from pushing past the cultural baggage into the unknown. That's where the fun begins.
Wright designed Fallingwater aware of the Modernists and their machine for living ideas. But he didn't let that stop him from imbuing Fallingwater with his values, his aesthetic and his genius. Our vintage leather briefcase was designed to be a statement against what a briefcase had always been. In essence, a rebellion against the cultural baggage that people carry around with them about what a briefcase is supped to be. There is that rebellious nature of "punk" in the design. And let's face it, our vintage hides are the essence of the romanticized American west aesthetic.
So after thinking about it, I guess I could not disagree with the person at the party's comment about our vintage leather briefcase looking steampunk. I wouldn't call it that and I know our designer wasn't motivated by that aesthetic when drawing it up. The steampunk aesthetic seems much more detailed oriented. There is an overabundance of detail in the most simplest objects. Where as our vintage leather briefcase is very clean with minimal detail.
But that is what makes creating and putting real products into the world so rewarding. Like music, fine art, literature, even dance, you never know how someone will respond to your work. You hope for the best and keep creating.
"Our vintage leather briefcase with it's very modern vertical orientation appears retro and futuristic at the same time."