“Design Activist” would be the most appropriate way to describe American industrial designer Stephen Burks. This young multi-talented visionary, who has worked with some of the world’s most recognizable names in fashion and furniture industry, is changing the we way think about design – one idea at a time. By simultaneously using a top-down and a bottom-up approach he brings together the industrialized world’s gatekeepers of culture with traditional people in remote locales to create sustainable objects and symbiotic relationships.
This interview with Burks has been submitted by Tiana Evans, self-described “design aficiando” and “enthusiast.” She has been involved in the design industry for her entire career having been the business director of Studio Sofield for many years. She currently works as publicist with EHKPR, a boutique public relations agency that specializes in architecture and design.
TWE: Where did you grow up?
SB: On the South side of Chicago, Illinois.
TWE: How were exposed to art and design?
S.B.: My family was always conscious of art and architecture. My grandmother gave us all an annual membership to the Art Institute of Chicago and I’d spend weekends there.
TWE: When did you know you wanted to be a ‘creative’?
S.B.: I always knew I wanted to make things. My interest began in fine art, in sculpture, then progressed to architecture and finally discovered design, which is kind of a combination of both.
TWE: Where did you attend university? What did you study?
S.B.: I did my undergraduate work at the Illinois Institute of Design’s Institute of Design in Chicago and studied architecture in graduate school at Columbia University here in New York.
TWE: Why did you choose industrial design?
S.B.: I realized after graduate school, that I was more interested in the scale of the hand, the body and the interior than the building as an object in the landscape. How people experience objects in their everyday surroundings is what fascinates me.
TWE: How would you describe your aesthetic? How do your childhood experiences inform your design?
S. B.: I wouldn’t say that I have a “signature style” and am not interested in form for form’s sake, but instead try to translate ideas into products that communicate how and why they work.
TWE: In past interviews I’ve asked other designers how their “Africaness” informs their designs, but in your case it seems that an African way of being is very apparent in your design philosophies (i.e. “conscious design” and “products with soul”). It all seems so spiritual, especially what I would describe as your design “trinity.” Please expand on these concepts for us. Where did they originate?
S.B.: I’ve always believed my culture is inseparable from my being and my creations; however it would be too reductivist to say that because I am of African descent, my work should somehow be African in form or philosophy. I believe in a post-20th century sense of consciousness, which for me this means trying to make products that are as directly tied to the culture of people as possible. Ultimately, products are for people and we should be designing with people and their associative cultures in mind. I’ve used this philosophy to try to get as close to the act of making as I can and use design as a cultural force, not just an economic one. In collaborating with artisans around the world, I’ve not only informed my own design process with a new spirit and immediacy of making, but also managed to make what I believe to be more authentic products often with a true sense of the hand, the place, the material and their culture of origin translated into contemporary form. I hope to continue to do this kind of work, not just in developing world countries like South Africa and India, but also right here in the first world too, or anywhere people have an inherent craft driven skill that can be sustainably complimented with industry.
TWE: You are the first and only African-American designer to work with companies such as Calvin Klein, Este Lauder, Boffi, Cappelini, Missoni and others. Why do you think you are the first? What do you think sets you apart? How did you get your first high-profile project?
S.B.: Believe it or not, it was actually The New York Times that acknowledged this distinction. I hadn’t really stopped to think about it, because I’d become accustomed to the fact that there are far too few African-American working in the arts, especially design and architecture. It really wasn’t until my first collection of furniture was picked up by Cappellini back in 2000 and an Italian magazine described me as a jazz musician/basketballer that I realized there were still some boundaries out there that I was pushing simply by my presence in a market that African-Americans hadn’t existed in before. It’s difficult to say why or how I became the first, but what’s meaningful is that I will not be the last. More importantly, as we all move into a more pluralistic and multi-cultural way of being and all aspects of culture become accessible to all, issues of ethnicity cease to exist.
TWE: As the keynote speaker at IIDEX/Neocon (one of the largest design conferences in the world) you recently spoke about a pluralist approach to design and the humanization of the design process – two very big ideas – one addressing the high level of exclusivity and eurocentricity in design and the other modern capitalism/consumerism. How do you envision your ideas changing the design industry? What should these relationships look like going forward?
S.B.: The message I’ve been trying to communicate these days is that all of the Italian brands we know of that dominate the contemporary design market are fairly young companies. The Cappellini’s, Missoni’s, B&B Italia’s and Boffi’s of the world are all post-World War II companies that grew out of sincere creativity, artisanal handicrafts and economic redevelopment. In the past 50 years or so, they have grown from very small family owned business to the most referenced brands in home furnishings worldwide. I believe the time has come for other references. The world of making is much bigger than Italy or Europe for that matter. Even here in America our “high-end” design consciousness is completely Eurocentric. If we look to the rest of the world, to the other 90% or the majority of people and therefore culture on Earth, there are other ways of believing, thinking and making “design” that can and should begin to inform our way of living. Just as we invested in post-war Europe to sustain and build the artisanship in that part of the world, the time has come for us to begin to invest in other parts of the world to build sustainable bridges from those cultures to our own and extend their craft traditions into the future.
TWE: How do you define luxury?
S.B.: Luxury is no longer about labels. If Chanel is as ubiquitous as McDonald’s how can it be considered luxurious? As we move forward in this century, the conscious consumers and brands of the world will realize that luxury really lies in generosity, specificity and authenticity. Giving more, being from a specific place with a specific culture that is honored and shared, as well as producing products that are authentic to their culture truly define the future of luxury.
TWE: Where do you live? If you didn’t live there where would you live?
S. B.: I live in the West Village. My studio is in Brooklyn. More and more these days, I’m less interested in living in one place and more interested in seeing the rest of the world. Ideally, I’d be continuously traveling and working with people all over the world, which is kind of what I’m doing (on a smaller scale).
TWE: What books are on your nightstand?
S. B.: Outcasts United, a book about refugees coming to the States and fitting in by playing soccer, Italy; The New Domestic Landscape, a catalog from the breakthrough MoMA show on Italian domestic design in the 60’s & 70’s is a constant inspiration; and lastly The Japanese House, a great visual survey of some amazing traditional houses in Japan.
TWE: If you could speak with any famous deceased person who would it be and why?
S.B.: I’d like to ask somebody why this the most clichéd question in journalism? Because it continues to be a connector of the past to the presences and helps people interested in how you think understand where you’re (TWE) coming from. If I had to choose, I suppose I’d love to spend some time understanding the mind of someone like Marcel Duchamp or Charles Eames and what, if anything, we’ve managed to learn from them.