Arkitektura Assembly:  Bringing together the world of Design

Design in Mind: Stephen Burks, Part 1

In the design galaxy, many strain to be the brightest star. Stephen Burks, however, has mapped an altogether alternate constellation.

His attention is stretched across the full production and lifecycle of objects including material, worker and user, thinking holistically, globally and consciously. With this in mind, he designs and creates work with his team at Stephen Burks Man Made.

We spoke with Burks in NYC after he had returned from Salone del Mobile where Stephen Burks Man Made launched a groundbreaking series of objects.

Stephen:
In this day and age, you have to be a media personality. You have to be … you know what I mean? You have to be a businessman. You have to be a … The design aspect, it almost comes last.

Arkitektura
You feel that?

Stephen:
I think that I would argue that design is at its popular cultural height. There are more designers than any time in history, more people interested in design than any time in history, more students of design. We know more about design as a subject. In a sense, it’s reached a point where design has become entertainment. That aspect, I’m not so … I don’t find that that’s good for design. The idea of being able to see your products in someone’s home is very interesting for a designer.

Arkitektura
Of course.

Stephen:
We very rarely get that window into the private world of people living with design. For the most part, we see our work through the press or through the catalogs or through the trade shows. Otherwise, you don’t really see it. I think when you consider what a small percentage of the population we’re actually designing for, at least in my field, in the luxury, unfortunately European design world. It’s 1/10 of 1% of the population. I’m often asked the question of, “You have this whole social project, Stephen Burks Man Made, and yet your work is not really accessible to the public.” This has been the biggest struggle over the past 10 years for us. We’re working a lot toward trying to achieve that mass market crossover in some way. Oh, sorry.

Arkitektura
No no no.

Stephen:
I’m sure you have some questions.

Arkitektura
I have a question about what you said.

Stephen:
I can probably just sit here and talk.

Arkitektura
Which is great. I love that.

Stephen:
I’m sure you want to say something.

Arkitektura
I’m curious because when you said design is at its apex in certain ways, and it’s everywhere now, the way in which you said that didn’t make it seem like that was exciting for you.

Stephen:
I think it’s exciting that more people have access to what we perceive of as design. That’s part of my project at Stephen Burks Man Made, is to make more visible the cultural background or techniques of the artisans that I’ve worked with around the world, to allow more people from different places to participate in what we consider to be contemporary design. It has a lot to do with my singular position in the industry. Design, as you know, isn’t very diverse. There aren’t very many women working in design. There aren’t very many people of non-European descent working in design. It happens to be the case that if you … I think statistically someone told me something like 90% of all products are designed by white men in the world. That’s a frightening in one way statistic because there are political implications to that.

Arkitektura
Of course.

Stephen:
Design for me is a lot more than styling or entertainment, let’s say.

Arkitektura
If I were in your shoes as a designer, for instance, there aren’t many Armenian journalists out there let’s say. I’m Armenian. I would feel a very strong sense of responsibility.

Stephen:
Sure.

Arkitektura
Do you have that?

Stephen:
I try to lead by example. My cousin just happens to be Andrew Young, a former mayor of Atlanta, former ambassador to the United Nations, marched with Martin Luther King in the civil rights movement.

Arkitektura
Wow.

Stephen:
So I often reflect upon the struggle of those people in America to allow me to be where I am today. My grandfather used to say that, “All you can do is your best work and allow that work to lead by example if it’s possible.” Of course, this sense of responsibility is something that came later in my career, about 10 years ago, when I was confronted with the fact that I’m the only African American working with all of my clients-

Arkitektura
Amazing.

Stephen:
… internationally in 2017. It’s a little bit crazy to believe. When that came up in, there’s an article written in the New York Times, which defined that role for myself, and up until then …

Arkitektura
Identified you as an African American designer?

Stephen:
Identified me as the first African American designer to have an impact on contemporary design. I hadn’t really considered it. I didn’t think of myself as a black designer. I thought of myself as a designer.

Arkitektura
Interesting.

Stephen:
Even though throughout college and grad school I’d really been the only one in my class at IIT, at Columbia, I didn’t really think about it in those terms. I didn’t think that that meant that my work should be different or my work should have a particular voice. I think there was a choice that I had to make when, after I’d done my first handmade objects and this article came out and I had the opportunity to work in Africa. I was really confronted with the immediacy of making of those people that I met, how they could translate anything that they found on the side of the road into something beautiful. It occurred to me that design is a Western concept.

In the rest of the world, in other cultures around the world, let’s say the other 90% of the world, people are solving problems every day through material, through assembly, through use, through activity, et cetera, et cetera, through form, without considering it as design, with no education in design. It made me reflect upon the Bauhaus ideal that everyone’s capable of design. That is something I’ve always believed, that design should be democratized. Then, I realized that, “Okay, it’s 2005 and here I am working in Europe, and I happen to be the only one.” Then you fast forward 11, 12 years later, and not much has changed.

I had to make a decision as to whether or not I would allow that fact to impact my work. We don’t leave our history behind. Our history comes with us wherever we go, whether we want it or not. I chose to address it. In as many ways as I could, I’ve attempted over the past 10 years, 10, 11 years, in the places I’ve worked, from South Africa to Senegal, Rwanda, Kenya, Ghana, Haiti with the Clinton Global Initiative, Peru, India, Mexico, Indonesia.

Arkitektura
Amazing.

Stephen:
The Philippines.

Arkitektura
Amazing.

Stephen:
All of these. Columbia with Artesanías de Colombia. All of these different places around the world. It occurred to me that these people don’t have a voice in design. It’s a country the size of California is basically dominating the home furnishings industry, even though most of the brands that we know of-

Arkitektura
Italy.

Stephen:
Italy. Right. Even though most of the brands we know of were founded only about 60 years ago. I started thinking to myself, “Isn’t it possible in the new millennium where we are more conscious consumers?” Post slow food movement, ecotourism, sustainability. We’ve arrived at a point where we are conscious of our position in the globalized world. Isn’t it possible that these people could also play a role in what we think of as design? I couldn’t think of a reason why not. If in 60 years with allied investment, family-owned businesses that revolved around a singular craft could be translated into the world’s leading manufacturers in the home furnishings industry, why couldn’t we see similar conditions in Africa, in Asia, in South America? I still believe that that’s possible and inevitable.

Arkitektura
There’s so many things that you raise. I want to address several of them, one of them that I find really interesting. I have dark hair, dark eyes, but I’m still most people would call me white. Yet, when I’m in a crowd of people that look like me, like Armenians at an Armenian party, I feel like, “Wow, look. Everyone looks like me here.” It feels very comforting. When you were in school and then also at the art fairs and just gaining more and more prominence being one of the only African Americans in a crowd of Italians and Europeans, you said you weren’t as aware of it until the New York Times pointed it out. But that surprises me. Did you not think of it? Was it not part of your consciousness?

Stephen:
It’s not a question of whether or not I knew I was one of a few. That’s not the question. It was the fact that I had began to identify myself as the only black designer. No one had done a count, let’s say. I hadn’t considered that I had that singular position. But what you’re touching on is really the diaspora condition. It’s I think, especially when you consider the African American history, it’s inevitable that these disciplines within the arts are only just becoming accessible. If you think about the art world, for example, very few African American artists up until the ’80s and ’90s with the Enlightenment Project, if we go way back to the, let’s say, 18th century, the Enlightenment Project was really about giving access to the arts to a very limited few. That hasn’t really changed or hadn’t really changed, especially I guess worldwide, internationally, that hadn’t really changed until this century or until the 20th century.

Arkitektura
Absolutely.

Stephen:
It’s been very little time. Very little time has passed, that access has been given to, let’s say, diversity in the arts. It’s not surprising to me.

Arkitektura  
Another thing that you raised that I thought was interesting is this whole … There is always this question of what is design? You were saying that we are one of the … There’s 20% of the country, or 10% of the world, excuse me, or 20% of the world that actually uses that …

Stephen:
Thinks about …

Arkitektura
Contextualizes it in that way.

Stephen:
Sure.

Arkitektura
What are the perils of that? What are the challenges of that?

Stephen:
Design as an idea is also very recent. We can trace it back to the Bauhaus, postindustrial revolution. Even the education in design is very recent. There were no designers educated in Italy, for example, until the ’80s. Design didn’t exist as a discipline for them. There was architecture, but there wasn’t design. I don’t know if it’s perilous to not have design, let’s say, to be considered in the rest of the world. I think that there is a rapid education that’s happening through social networks, through the Internet, et cetera, et cetera. I think the kind of access that people in other places in the world have today as opposed to what they had 10 years ago has changed a lot.

Arkitektura
Absolutely.

Stephen:
I think there are inherent ways of looking at media today and looking at culture today that it’s filtered through design inevitably. If you’re holding a smartphone and you’re at all interacting with the digital interface, you’re confronted with 21st century design, even in places where that didn’t exist before.

I’m fascinated by the fact that there are places in the world where people are making indigenous objects that are not based in, let’s say, what we would consider the knowledge of the world and Internet-based history of the world, a Western perspective of what ideas about making are, but are based more in a kind of wisdom which is passed down by generations amongst small groups of people. This to me is … On the one hand, that’s a very perilous situation in today’s world.

Arkitektura
Right.

Stephen:
But on the other hand, it’s also very exciting that those cultures even still exist. There’s a … Sorry. I was going to talk about a particular process that I’m fascinated by.

Arkitektura
I want to hear that process. I just want to clarify that what I was thinking was perilous was that there are these incredible makers and traditions of making that aren’t anointed or bestowed with the term “design” and they are actually very designed pieces. That’s what you I think are bringing to light through a vast amount of your collection.

Stephen:
I’m trying to. I’m trying to. But for the most part we’ve failed at that, I should say.

Arkitektura
We as a culture or we as Stephen Burks Man Made?

Stephen:
We as a studio. We as a culture kind of fail at that too. But I think the more most of the things that we do in life are mediated by technology, the more we will have a passionate desire to return to the hand. I think more neuroscience research points to how collaboration is good for you, how collaboration awakens the mind and allows you to live longer, et cetera, et cetera. There’s all these crazy studies about how using your hands is actually healthy for the body and for the mind and for the spirit. I think it’s inevitable that the more we’re confronted with screens, I don’t know, 70% of our day, the more we’ll want to the body just demands that we return to a more organic way of interacting.

Arkitektura
Very much so. You meet these, there are a lot of people that have their workshops at home because they’re on the computer all day, or surgeons. Surgeons do use their hands, but doctors are certainly people that may work in fields that don’t allow them to make, that they just feel that they have to do something physical.

Stephen:
My favorite is what I call “commuter craft.” I love to see-

Arkitektura
People on the subway make stuff.

Stephen:
I love to see people on the subway making stuff. I looked at them and I thought, “Can I harness that somehow? Does my work have to only be about this place or that place? Couldn’t we use the people on the subway?”

Arkitektura
You could.

Stephen:
You totally could. That’s kind of where we’re headed. That’s where Stephen Burks Man Made is headed, is that we are no longer looking specifically at building these bridges from, let’s say, developing world production to first world distribution. But we’re also looking at how there are particular communities around the world that could benefit from what I like to call a hand factory model. The hand factory has power because people can make things, people can sell things, people can build economies by this wisdom of knowing what they know that very few people actually know. It’s surprising how we rely so much on the Internet and digital technologies to explain the world to us, and there’s so much that has never been, quote unquote, “digitized.” There’s so much that hasn’t been recorded. There’s so much that isn’t accessible via YouTube.

Arkitektura
Absolutely.

Stephen:
I think all of that, that whole big bubble which could be … It could be Detroit. It could be the F train. It could be …

Arkitektura
No, absolutely.

Stephen:
It could be anywhere. It could be Greenpoint. All of those places I think may have, it could be Armenia, may have culture that we can utilize, that can be shared, let’s say, in terms of what we make, how we make, and who we make for. They have value.

Arkitektura
Absolutely. I think that … What I’d like to do is take a way step back and start learning a little bit about … I couldn’t find anything on this, so I’m curious about it. Where you were born. Where were you born?

Stephen:
I was born at the University of Chicago.

Arkitektura
At the University of Chicago. Did you grow up in Chicago?

Stephen:
I did, yeah. It’s my hometown. I grew up partially between the South Side of Chicago and the suburbs of Chicago.

Arkitektura
Brothers and sisters?

Stephen:
I have two older sisters, no brothers.

Arkitektura
They’re not in design?

Stephen:
No. No. Actually no one in my family ever worked in the arts.

Arkitektura
When did you know that-

Stephen:
Apart from my Uncle Leonard, who was director of community relations at Lincoln Center. He founded the Lincoln Center Out of Doors festival.

Arkitektura
Great. My cousin Leonard.

Stephen:
I can tell you more about him. Uncle Leonard. Sorry. Uncle Leonard.

Arkitektura
Oh, Uncle Leonard. At what point did you start realizing that you had this inclination?

Stephen:
I guess I grew up with a fascination for the things that were around me. Believe it or not, I first wanted to become a priest.

Arkitektura
Interesting. A priest.

Stephen:
Only because I went to Catholic school and I thought that, let’s say, the architecture and objects of Catholicism were very attractive. There was a huge contrast between life in my neighborhood on the South Side of Chicago and going inside this church, for example. That was the first embodiment of design that I came in touch with. After that, I always had a membership to the Art Institute of Chicago. Since I was a kid, I’ve been seeing art and seeing artifacts of making, et cetera, et cetera, sculpture. Then I wanted to be a sculptor, and then found my way through architecture to design.

Arkitektura
It’s fascinating. Atheists will often say, “Okay, I’m not into the structure of the church, but the architecture is so stunning and beautiful.”

Stephen:
You can feel the spirit of the people. You can feel the effort. You can feel the collaboration, the whole community going to work for centuries. It’s unbelievable.

Arkitektura
It is. It is.

Stephen:
When you think about it, it’s really unbelievable. I found out recently that Milan used to be full of canals, a lot like Venice.

Arkitektura
Venice.

Stephen:
In fact, the Duomo was built in its position because canals, the rings of Milan were actually canals.

Arkitektura
Amazing.

Stephen:
They brought the white and pink marble up the canals directly to that site for a few hundred years while the church was built.

Arkitektura
You found this out just while you were in Milan just recently?

Stephen:
Yeah. Through a taxi driver when I was in Milan for the Furniture Fair. Anyway. You never know. Taxi driver wisdom.

Arkitektura
I love taxi driver wisdom, actually. They often know much more than a tour guide would.

Stephen:
For sure.

Arkitektura
Stephen Burks Man Made was born when?

Stephen:
I guess I started working professionally in design in about 2000 when Giulio Cappellini put my first pieces into production.

Arkitektura
He’s so good at seeing …

Stephen:
He was the eye, the ear, the finger on the pulse of the design world at the beginning of the millennium and before. He introduced the world to Shiro Kuramata, for example in the ’70s, and then on and on and on.

Arkitektura
It’s incredible.

Stephen:
Jasper Morrison.

Arkitektura
Absolutely.

Stephen:
Marc Newson. It was actually Jasper Morrison that introduced me to Giulio Cappellini in … I don’t know. Things before the Internet or early ages and stages of the Internet, things were different, let’s say, in design.

Arkitektura
In a good way?

Stephen:
Yeah. For me in a really good way, because I felt I had in a sense rare access to people like that. Given that there were so few Americans that had ever even done work for Cappellini, I think I was the third or fourth American to ever work with Cappellini.

Arkitektura
Amazing. What was that piece?

Stephen:
The first pieces were, it was a collection of shelving called Display. It was very industrial. I studied at the New Bauhaus. There was this feeling in me coming from Chicago that was very, in a sense, minimalist inspired but structural. I felt like design should, and I still do, design should in a sense have a legibility. People should be able to … The more, let’s say, one can tell how something’s made, the more it engages their imagination. I don’t know. I was into that.

Arkitektura
And you’re still into that.

Stephen:
I’m still into that, but in a different way. In a different way. That work, from there, I went on to work for Boffi and B&B Italia and Moroso and Zanotta.

Arkitektura
All the big names.

Stephen:
Missoni.

Arkitektura
All the big names.

Stephen:
I kind of ran through them. It was a little bit frustrating at a certain point, because I realized, “Okay, you can make one.” They’d allow me to make one piece here and one piece there, but I wasn’t really having that bigger breakthrough. It wasn’t until I did these Missoni patchwork vases in 2004, the first handmade object that my studio made, that we came to terms with the potential. I saw that using cutoffs from the fashion collection, really let’s say fabric that Missoni wasn’t using, and combining it with a design object associated with this amazing brand, something we made by hand that’s totally recycled, could have incredible value.

Arkitektura
Just like you were saying those objects that people were doing in different parts of Africa.

Stephen:
Absolutely.

Arkitektura
Where they find things on the street and put something together.

Stephen:
Absolutely. It’s because of the Missoni patchwork vases in 2005 I went to South Africa with Aid to Artisans as a consultant for the first time. Stephen Burks Man Made was unofficially born then, when for me it was like design bootcamp in a sense. As a product development consultant working with a not-for-profit, we had something like 12 different artisan groups that we had to work with in one week. Two hours a day, three different groups a day.

Arkitektura
This is in South Africa?

Stephen:
South Africa. South Africa has a really amazing craft culture because it’s supported by the government. Organizations like the Cape Craft Design Institute do a great job of finding and supporting and growing craftspeople and artisans, et cetera. Anyway. I learned so much from that experience, and we went back in 2006 and we made the first products that I think greatly influenced my way of working. Officially, Stephen Burks Man Made came into being in 2010, 2011, when I had the exhibition at the Studio Museum in Harlem.

Arkitektura
Recently-ish.

Stephen:
Yeah.

Arkitektura
That Studio Museum exhibition in Harlem was a game-changer for you.

Stephen:
Yeah. It’s actually Thelma Golden who gave me the name. It was the title of the show, the title of the catalog.

Arkitektura
Great.

Stephen:
I embraced it as a thesis statement, let’s say. That project was about really looking at a specific community, Senegalese, a specific technique, sweetgrass, sweetgrass basket weaving. Sweetgrass grows in only a few places in the world and was brought over by slaves to the South. You know the whole Gullah basket movement.

Arkitektura
I don’t.

Stephen:
Oh, okay. Anyway. There are baskets that are woven in the same traditions using the same materials as in Senegal.

Arkitektura
Here, in America?

Stephen:
Here, yeah. I think it’s South Carolina. They’re incredibly valuable as artifacts of traditions of African Americans and former slaves, et cetera. They’re impeccably made and they’re in museum collections in the South and all over America. But if you trace that back, it goes directly to Senegal. Taking that one technique, I asked myself and I tended to ask visitors to the show, “If these people can make your breadbasket, why couldn’t they also make your chandelier? Why couldn’t they also make your coffee table?”

Arkitektura
Your couch.

Stephen:
Your couch. Et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. Why is it that that type of those techniques and those people are relegated to making a particular-

Arkitektura
Thing.

Stephen:
… range of things, which have a traditional, non-transformative position. I think that for me was an incredible experience, because we got to work across the board from accessories to furniture to sculpture.

Arkitektura
At the …

Stephen:
At the studios.

Arkitektura
At the studio. When you walked into the show, there were … because I’ve seen some of these …

Stephen:
There’s everything.

Arkitektura
There was seating. There was tables. There was everything made from this particular process.

Stephen:
We also wanted to take it into a future context to say, “Okay, what happens if we use the same technique but a different material? What happens if we abstract this form and use a material that we could readily find here? There were the baskets abstracted. There were the baskets reinvented. These were different categories we were working in as well as because it was the Studio Museum trying to approach the art world at the same time, because there are traditions by a number of different artisan artists, El Anatsui being one of them-

Arkitektura
I love him, his work.

Stephen:
… where it’s a community-based project. It’s also a recycling project. It’s also a sustainable project. It’s also in a way a design project.

Arkitektura
Absolutely.

Stephen:
I think he’s probably the-

Arkitektura
Ultimate.

Stephen:
… the greatest example of a community-based project working in the art world.

Arkitektura
Did you see his show at the Brooklyn Museum?

Stephen:
Yeah. Of course. I’ve seen his work all over the world, including Venice.

Arkitektura
It was so beautiful. I took my daughter there, and I was just … I was very excited to show her because she could understand bottle caps and that you could use something-

Stephen:
Back to that legibility.

Arkitektura
… so discardable and then create something so exceptional out of it.

Stephen:
What you’re touching upon is how I think we have a need for craft to transform, to transcend its everydayness and become something more if it wants to occupy that space.