Designer Stephen Burks is a man on a mission. The first African-American to rise to the top of the international contemporary design world, Burks would like to fuse local craftsmanship techniques from around the globe with well-known luxury brands.
As an industrial designer, Burks has worked with top global furniture firms like France’s Roche Bobois and Italy’s Calligaris, even designing a line of men’s loungewear called “A Free Man” for Swedish firm The White Briefs. His design studio, Readymade Projects, is based in New York.
Through an ongoing project he has dubbed Man Made, Burks also explores local craftsmanship techniques from around the world.
Burks studied at Chicago’s New Bauhaus [now the Illinois Institute of Technology Institute of Design]. He absorbed and then emulated that school’s Modernist sensibility. Now Burks would like to see “a return to the hand” – or handmade products – in the world of high-end design, a hybrid of “high” and “low” design that more deeply considers the social and cultural implications of making things.
I caught up with Burks this summer after his keynote speech at the Dwell on Design conference in Los Angeles.
What is influencing your changing approach to design?
I have a very Modernist background. I never thought there would be this substantial return to the hand for me. It’s interesting that my Modernist background allows me to mix high and low ways of making for mass and luxury, while still remaining culturally connected.
I think that’s what the world is waiting for: a hybrid pluralistic approach. Ideas and information now move so fast that there are no more decades or sub-cultures per se. In response, design has to become more accessible and approachable. It’s possible for everything to co-exist simultaneously.
For better or worse, I think America is the future. We have different histories, different identities, and we bring all of that forward with us.
What does your idea of sustainability have to do with luxury furniture or clothing? The two concepts seem contradictory.
Luxury brands that have a global product and a global reach are realizing that they also need to have a more global perspective in terms of what they make, why they make it and who they make it for. This is the next stage of sustainability: recognizing that the rest of the world has to be part of the conversation of design.
Sustainability is not about charity; it’s not about saving the planet. It’s about giving people all over the world an opportunity to engage in the conversation of design at a contemporary level.
As luxury brands consider new markets or expand into new markets – or even over-expand, as many luxury brands have done in Asia – they need to consider the culture that they’re moving into. You can’t just export the exact same thing all over the world in the 21st century and have a viable business.
We’ve seen [that] developing world countries want to have what we have in terms of luxury. But then they reach a saturation point when everyone is covered in logos and branding. This has nothing to do with authenticity, generosity or specificity. Brands need to find a way to have a conversation with these markets that’s specific to place and allow their product to have a dialogue with the people and their culture.
How will you approach incorporating local aesthetics and hand-crafting practices into mass-produced goods?
I want to take craft traditions and extend them into the future through a combination of the hand, contemporary design and industry. My “Man Made” project is about building bridges between industrial production and authentic hand production.
In many ways, my strategy is about working with mass market and luxury brands in the same way. I work with Calligaris – Italy’s largest plastic chair manufacturer, which produces 500,000 plastic chairs per year. Calligaris is reconsidering how a plastics company could reengage in craft traditions to transform or change the perception of plastic chairs.
I also work with German-based Dedon. They represent what I want my brand to be one day. They employ 1,600 weavers and produce 300 pieces of furniture a day by hand in peak season. Their most proprietary products are all hand-woven in the Philippines, which has the highest level of weaving craft in Asia. Working closely with their weavers, we created Dala, an outdoor collection of improvisational furniture, lanterns and planters.
And most recently, as the first American designer to work with Roche Bobois, I spent weeks traveling with Nicolas Roche. We crafted a lounge chair collection called The Traveler, which expresses luxury through its use of 800 meters of leather cord, for the brand’s 40th anniversary in America.
How do you think hand-crafting is viewed in the US?
Unfortunately, in America I think we greatly undervalue craft. It seems to be perceived as a branding or marketing term intended to give consumer products a kind of consciousness, like the words “green” or “artisanal”. You find these words plastered all over everything to the point where they lose their meaning.
Craft isn’t something we buy because it brings any real value to a product. It’s something that people buy because they’re supposed to or because it makes them feel like they’re doing good. There isn’t a relationship to true luxury at all. At this point, even your deli sandwich is “handcrafted”.
What got us to this point?
There isn’t a history of craft traditions being valued in America. We don’t even reflect on our own history as something rooted in craft traditions. Look at how basket weaving came over from places like Senegal in West Africa to the South of the US. Those baskets in the South are in museums and are worth thousands of dollars.
In our minds, a handcrafted object is either perceived as an art object for museums or a charity gift item that’s undervalued and disposable. At no point does craft enter into our everyday lives at the level of something useful and timeless.
In America, we have this idea that design comes from Europe, at least we used to, and what they do is somehow better. As an American designer I had to work in Europe in order to be validated in America. Even today after working for nearly 15 years in design, I’m just now being introduced into the American market.
Given this history, do you think US consumers will care about having a handcrafted element in the products they buy – particularly when so many are still trying to recover from the Great Recession?
The recession was really good for us in a way, coinciding with all these trends: the DIY movement, slow food, desktop manufacturing and craft. All these factors [have] come together to make the American consumer question mass production.
As individuals we have an immense amount of power with the Internet and social networking. We have the power to create a new population of empowered consumers, who want more of a say in what we make and what we buy. And we want those things to be healthy – not just in an organic, natural or physical way, but in a cultural and humanistic way.
Rachael Post is a writer, digital strategist and professor of emerging media in Los Angeles.
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