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Tuesday, 25 February 2014

Steampunk Hands around the World - Interview with Michelle of Steelhip Design

In this last interview for the Steampunk Hands event, I'm reaching over from the UK to shake hands with Michelle in Australia.

The founder of Steelhip Designs, this talented lady produces the most incredible, wearable, faux machine adornments and sculptures! 

The NewRomancer

1. How did your shop get its name and what was the main inspiration behind opening your shop?

I've had Psoriatic Arthritis since I was 12 years old.  Due to that condition I've had both my hips replaced, both my knees replaced and my right wrist plated and fused.  It's made having any kind of career difficult.  In 2001 I went back to school and studied web design and named my business Steelhip Design.  I loved designing websites but started making jewellery as a way to relax after coding all day.  When making jewellery and art took over from web design, I didn't feel the need to change my business name.

The Clockwork Alchemist - on Etsy
2. What do you create and do you have a signature product? If so how did it come to be?

I mostly create jewellery pieces – that's what I financially survive on but I also make small sculptural/assemblage pieces.  My signature piece is the mechanical flying heart – I've made many, all unique, but I still love making them.  They have evolved over time from simple embellishments to now, very complex little faux machines.  The gear teeth are locked together, the gauges have tiny watch hands and in some cases, printed read outs.  I think it's the increasing degree of complexity that is keeping me engaged artistically.
Control Panel - on Etsy
 I don't fabricate or cast so I'm using existing items in new ways.  In a weird kind of way having a disability taught me to adapt to the world around me.  Adaptation is a huge part of my design process.

Ethereal Essence Extractor
3. Where do you find your inspiration and what makes you different from the other people that make what you make?

Having lots of metal in me.  So it's no wonder biomechanical themes feature heavily in my work.  

It's a cliché but I really do see inspiration everywhere.  That is why steampunk is so dynamic.  We see movement, physics and engineering everywhere.  I love driving around a heavy industrial areas – seeing the pipes, huge machinery and massive electrical terminals. 

I work in what is kindly called “creative chaos” but could also be termed a total mess.  My desk is covered in bits and pieces.  It's amazing how many pieces have just come together in this confusion and randomness of proximity.  

I like to make pieces that look like they actually work.  Gears for gear's sake isn't my thing – they have to look like they are part of a mechanical process.  Recently I've delved into the “mad scientist” realm with brass tubing, miniature control panels and glass vials.  I want these pieces to look like they are “plugged in” to the wearer's body.

I'm often told my pieces are very original - that is the best compliment any artist can get. 
Mini Orrery
4.What do you enjoy most about your craft?

When everything just comes together – the piece is virtually making itself – great feeling.  I can't draw so it's impossible for me to plan out a piece.  I have to pick up the parts to see if they will fit together.

Seeing people's faces seeing my work – just Wow!  That is the downside to online selling – not seeing those immediate reactions but I get a lot of lovely messages from all over the world.

I  do love the hunt too.  Sourcing my supplies has become very difficult with the popularity of steampunk and the fact I live in Perth, Australia – the most isolated capital city in the world.  Down here we have neither the population nor history for vintage surplus/charity shop finds.  Virtually everything I use I have to source online.  Totally jealous of the steampunk artists in the US and Europe and the access they have to amazing raw materials!  So, when I find fantastic supplies at a reasonable price and shipping costs aren't exorbitant it is a very good day. 
Orbit Ring
5. What is your best advice to newbie Etsians just opening their shops?

Mainly talking to jewellery artists here.  Be original and find a niche.  It took me six years to find my niche.  And be prepared for the cruel reality of capitalism.  When I look online, walk through a shopping mall and go to a craft market – jewellery is EVERYWHERE!  I'm astounded I sell anything.  It can be crushing to your ego when you've poured your heart and soul into a piece of art or jewellery and it doesn't sell.  Make things you want to make but if it's the 47,756th red beaded bracelet listed on etsy realise you have some stiff competition. I know it's difficult but try not to take a lack of commercial success personally.  

Remember people are selling on etsy for different reasons: for some it's their primary profession, some are hoping they can quit their day job, others just want to cover the cost of supplies and there are hobbyists who are just having a bit of fun. Each group values their time and skills differently.  This dynamic can make it a challenging platform to sell on.  Think about your own ambitions and what you want out of the experience.

Before Etsy I sold on ebay for over 10 years.  I only listed on Etsy to have some kind of presence there.  I put high prices on the pieces I listed thinking “this is just a portfolio – no one is going to buy them” but to my amazement they sold.  I'm so glad I gave myself that inadvertent pay rise and now I put a realistic price on my experience, skill and creativity.  Women do tend to under value their time and effort.

Great photos are crucial to selling online.  I spend many hours taking and editing photos.  I look back at my first attempts and cringe.   You don't have to spend a lot of money to take great photos it's just finding the technique that works for your products.

Finally, if you need help go to the main forum and ask experienced sellers.
The Parked Heart
6.What are your top 3 favourite shops on Etsy and what do you like about them?

I'm going to be really boring (and diplomatic) here and say I have too many favourite shops on Etsy to list just three.  Most of my them are supply shops.  When I have time I do a steampunk search.  I'm always blown away by the talent and skill of my fellow steampunk artists on Etsy.
Refining Steam
7. Where can you be found online?
Please don't judge my web design skills on my site.  I cheated with a gallery generator to just get something up quick and haven't had the time to get a “real” site up.  Next hospital visit (right shoulder replacement) I'll design a proper website.

8. Do you have any coupon codes / special sales / upcoming or current promotional events going on in your shop?

Nope, sorry – don't really do the coupon thing.  Maybe in the future – probably through my facebook page.  So remember to like me.

9. What is it about Steampunk that you love and how did you become involved in it?

I hear this often from steampunk artists – “I was making steampunk before I knew it had a name!”  I think that's what excites people when they find the community - I thought I was the only one that preferred copper, brass, wood and glass over mass produced plastic!

When I was five or six I saw an antique automata singing bird.  The bird was beautiful but it was the mechanics inside that really captured me – it was magical.   I love the philosophy of making something for the sake of beauty and skill over profit and designed obsolescence. It's reminiscent of the Arts and Crafts movement at the turn of the last century.  

I was making a miniature Orrery and needed some unique parts.  I started seeing “steampunk” in listing titles.  Needless to say, I googled it.  The rest is history.  The community, especially the Tactile forum on Brass Goggles, made me very welcome.

Steampunk has been very good to me.  I've won a few awards in art shows and have contributed pieces for a national touring exhibition – The Antipodean Steampunk Show.  More recently, one of my pieces is on the cover of the new book “Steampunk Jewelry”. 

I'd love to exhibit (or even just attend) some of the big steampunk events in the US and Europe.  Perth has a tiny band of steampunk devotees but I mostly get blank stares when I mention what I do.  At the end of this year I'm aiming on having a solo exhibition and try to raise the profile of steampunk art in my home town.
Thankyou so much, Michelle! You really are an inspiration. 
Personally, what you've said about your mess  design process really resonates with me. Out of the chaotic potential of a random pile of materials, the designer acts like a filter to create unique works. I must say, you seem to have distilled the very essence of Steampunk in these magnificent faux machines!

If you, too, admire Michelle's work, do follow the links and support her fine endeavours.

If you would like to be interviewed or, indeed, interview The Navigatrix, you can email me at

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