THE STORYTELLER: THE HYBRID DESIGNS OF STEPHEN BURKS
For New York-based designer Stephen Burks, “Every object ever made tells a story — and some objects have more to say than others. Mostly they’re stories about materials or production, but sometimes when a product has been used successfully, there are also stories about activity and use.” Since 1997, Burks has been weaving his own narratives into a process-focused take on industrial design, first with his line Readymade Projects, and more recently with a new imprint, Stephen Burks Man Made. A globe-trotting wayfarer always on the move, Burks owes his success to his willingness to literally go the distance: many of his most recognizable projects begin on, say, the plains of Africa, or in the mountains of Peru, where Burks works with local artisans and craftspeople to produce domestic objects, sometimes as one-offs, sometimes for European design houses including Boffi, Cappellini, Parachilna, and Roche Bobois.
“Working all over the world with various artisans and brands has not only informed my aesthetic, but my way of looking at the world as a whole. And I try to be involved in all stages of the design-development process,” says the 45-year-old Chicago native, who studied product design at IIT in Chicago and architecture at Columbia University. “Whether it’s weaving new patterns in the Philippines with Dedon, or choosing rope colors with Calligaris in Italy, there’s design every step of the way.” The result is a body of work that consists of refreshingly crossbred, slightly off-kilter solutions that marry the sleek efficiency of mass production with the inimitable, personal feel of handicraft goods. “My ongoing narrative is about demonstrating the creative impact the hand can have on industrial products,” he explains. The result of this blending is an altogether new design vocabulary, by turns humorous, surprising, and seductive.
Fun, bright colors may perhaps be the most immediately noticeable hallmark of a Burks product, but there’s more to the story. His designs are also notable for the intricacy of their finish surfaces, the sophistication of their textures, and the way they conduct light and shadow, ushering unique, transformative morphologies into being. “I like to design products with a high degree of manufacturing legibility where the means of production and often the logic of the hand is visible. And although weaving is a recurring theme, I also like the idea of mixing processes for unpredictable effects, like carving opaque quartz into a seemingly woven jewelry box for Harry Winston.”
Burks’s hybrid approach stands out in today’s design industry and it has won him, among others, and the 2015 Cooper Hewitt National Design Award for Product Design. Consequently his dance card is filled up for some time to come developing new furniture, lighting, and accessories “for a brand or two you might know,” he winks. But all is not said and done once his products have been sold. “I love seeing how people live with them and how they use things. That kind of life-of-the-object story is very interesting to me.”