Stephen Burks has just come back from a recce to northern Italy, where he spent two days with high-end furniture specialist Poltrona Frau at its factory – experimenting and working out what their first joint venture might be.
This may not sound like a news flash in itself. But for a modern-day furniture and product designer based in New York – where, Burks admits, “everything is mediated by technology” – this hands-on, on-the-ground approach is somewhat radical. Burks, who studied architecture and product design at Illinois Institute of Technology, and later architecture at Columbia University Graduate School, understands the irony of this.
“Being there made me realise that what I’m trying to do is fairly traditional,” he says. “It may seem radical today that a designer wants to go and spend a few days in the factory, but if you rewind the clock a bit it was always that way. I would argue that it’s really the role of the industrial designer to be a service to industry. Somewhere along the line furniture design has become much more about marketing, image-making and self-promotion, and so the closer we get to production, the greater the potential for innovation. A company like Poltrona Frau, which wants to put the creative mind and creative hands in the same room to make something special, is brilliant.”
The fortysomething American, who hails from urban Chicago and was raised with little awareness of what design was, beyond that he wanted to make things (“I didn’t want to be the priest at my Catholic elementary school, I wanted to have access to creating the beautiful things around me – the architecture, the objects, the clothes, the full immersion that religion creates”), has recently become something of a poster boy for a resurgence of interest in high-end design with traditional values. And specifically for embracing multiculturalism and a reappraisal of international artisanal techniques.
Burks is of African descent and, in recent years, has worked in South Africa, Senegal, India, Mexico and Peru, observing and collaborating with local artisans. He also regularly works with German outdoor-furniture specialist Dedon, whose handcrafted chairs, loungers, tables and planters (from £500) are woven in the Philippines “to such a high standard that no one can tell they are handmade”.
As a result, major Italian companies from Poltrona to Calligaris have been clamouring to work with him and last year he began a new relationship with French brand Roche Bobois, via a pair of innovative, co-ordinating armchairs called Traveller. The two chairs are complementary designs, one American, in turned, tinted ash with soft squishy goose-down-filled upholstery (£10,550), and the other European, in hand‑wrapped leather rope on a steel frame (£9,120). They highlight Burks’ and Roche Bobois’ connections to the two continents and are representative of some of Burks’ very best work to date.
Burks’ appeal for a large furniture producer like Roche Bobois, says its creative head Nicolas Roche, is that apart from him being a force of great fun and energy, his work is “consistently original and intriguing, as well as appealing. His designs demonstrate a passion for traditional crafts, especially weaving, and he’s not scared to experiment with materials, shape or proportion. Yet the results are luxurious and contemporary-looking. The Traveller collection is unlikely to be the last collaborative project that we work on together.”
Burks has a growing number of fans outside the US. According to his friend and fellow designer Jeffrey Bernett, Burks’ name already appears in the annals of non-European designers who have conquered the elusive European market. “There are very few American designers who have been able to open the door in Europe over the past 10 to 20 years, especially when it comes to furniture. Stephen is one of those few,” he says.
“My first products were made by Cappellini,” confirms the eloquent designer, whose very early work for the Italian mega-brand included a series of X-shaped metal-supported shelving units. He has also produced bathroom fittings for Boffi called Line (still in production, from £144), triangular folded-aluminium coffee tables for B&B Italia, pieces for Moroso’s 2009 M’Afrique exhibition, a table lamp for Ligne Roset, served as a consultant to Missoni and Estée Lauder on their packaging and perfume displays and won numerous awards. “I spent the first half of my career working for all the right companies,” he says.
However, it is his recent work that is most engaging. Burks realised in the mid-noughties that something was missing from his luxury-furniture design portfolio. His lightbulb moment came when he designed a series of hand-decorated vases (from $2,500) for Missoni. The vases involved the hand-application of recycled Missoni rainbow textiles to their surface in a patchwork formation. Shortly after, he was chosen for an Aid to Artisans design project in South Africa. It was, he admits, something of an epiphany. “It was not just about making a beautiful thing, it was very much for me a reawakening of the hand. It also forced me to look at myself and to come to terms with my cultural identity. I didn’t feel completely fulfilled by what I was doing with all these well-known design brands. It didn’t feel democratic enough somehow. That’s what we search for in design. If you’re going to go out there and make things, it should be in your own voice.”
What he found in South Africa was “a whole grassroots revolution – of very capable people with no education in design making things from nothing”. The results of those early trips still remain in the form of the Shona stool for Burks’ ongoing Man Made project (from $500; originally part of his Tatu series for Artecnica), which is a cylindrical seat or occasional table made of powder-coated-steel-wire curves created entirely by hand. At a Dwell show in Milan, Burks also recently exhibited a number of Man Made woven African-basket designs (from $5,000) fashioned into lighting and low tables. He is keen to pursue this avenue further. “Of course, now even the coffee I’m holding is ‘handcrafted’,” he says wryly. “But the problem all industrial design companies face today is that we have more designers than ever and more products, but less and less authenticity. In this day and age of over-production and so much noise versus signal with regards to design, the real authentic artisanal brands of the world have to sell their story in a different way. They have to decide how to communicate what and who they really are.”
That Burks is offering a solution or struggling (“and failing. I’m failing a lot, too”) to find one to such dilemmas is backed up by Massimo Cian, head of design at Calligaris, one of Italy’s leading furniture manufacturers. “Stephen’s craft approach allows him to think outside the box,” says Cian. “His vision means that he interprets briefs in a completely different way to other designers, which enables him to take a design and completely rework it to create a unique and striking piece. The trend for craft in furniture design has been around for a number of years, which is why Calligaris was keen to bring an element of it to its latest collection. When working with Stephen at the design stage, it was important to consider how this trend could be used in a way that enables the product to be manufactured for a wider market.”
This first fully formed piece is a geometric black or white, slim steel-framed, glass-topped Frame dining table (from £1,104), that is a clean, modern architectural take on classic 1950s elegance – and a little Giò Ponti-esque. The company had worked with Burks the previous year on an exhibition for the Milan Furniture Fair, for which he had customised a number of mass-produced Calligaris chairs with hand-woven elements. Burks acknowledges that the Frame table production project with Calligaris was not especially craft-based, but he had to prove he was a bankable designer first (the brand expects the Frame tables to be among its bestsellers in 2014/15). The third project they are collaborating on is “getting there”, he says.
Another manufacturer working with the designer is Parachilna, the Barcelona-based company that specialises in modern, elegant, handcrafted lighting. Burks has collaborated on a series of large, modular lamps called Anwar (£2,868, and £2,397). The gold, copper or black spiralling-wire hanging, table or floor lights were a particular challenge for their metalsmiths, who were required to weld 96 curved-steel rods into a frame for each of them, all at a slightly different angle.
The new Roche Bobois designs, meanwhile, despite being produced in two separate Italian factories, are the result of much handworking and experimentation, and feature saddle-leather strap‑suspension seats and sides, and armrests woven from a continuous length of leather cord, giving the works a distinctive handmade feel. Footstools and small tables will follow shortly.
But it is at Dedon, in particular, where Burks’ take on modern international craft has found its perfect, colour-filled home. New designs this year include the Ahnda armchair (price on request) with a high back, open weave and jaunty, happy-hued round cushions, and the Dala love seat, a circular outdoor daybed (price on request). If all his projects, says the designer, were such a perfect combination of international craft expertise and slick business organisation (Dedon employs 700 weavers in the Philippines), he would be a very happy man.
Not least because much of Burks’ work today is collaborative. Dedon CEO Bobby Dekeyser describes Burks’ work as “an exchange of ideas and visions, an ongoing trial and error, and a truly inspiring design process where both sides can learn from one another and galvanise each other to create the most beautiful designs”. And the designer is more than happy to learn, teach and not take all the glory. All his new working relationships are described as “collaborations”, which might involve working with Swedish clothing label The White Briefs on a patterned-cotton range called The Free Man (from €50), or with Harry Winston on a one-off carved-alabaster jewellery box. “I feel that now we are at the beginning of the 21st century, the role of the designer is changing,” says Burks. “If there’s one thing the new generation has brought to design, it’s the possibility to carve out your own path. Today, designers can be less this kind of isolated auteur working from their studio, and more of a travelling conduit through which ideas flow.”
If all this craft and internationalism doesn’t sound particularly American (Burks admits postwar American design focused on tools for work rather than for living), think again. Burks identifies with the likes of the mid-century Eameses, Harry Bertoia et al, whose interests were experimental and internationally influenced – and often craft-inspired. “They were creative hybrids who aren’t so different to how I’m working today. They were very inspired by and worked with the rest of the world.” He also hails from that American Dream school of life, moving away from an unsafe urban area of Chicago and is becoming an entrepreneur.
Burks has very particular views on collaborations with artisans in developing countries. “I believe in trade, not aid,” he says. “I wish I were Bill Gates but I’m not… nor am I a design activist. But I believe these people should be entitled to progress just like everyone else.”
The truth is that, despite commercial success “never being a conscious goal”, he must sell his products to be able to employ the artisans involved in their making, and to support himself and his network of freelance “It’s hard to bring in enough work for them. I spend a lot of time trying to find the right outlet for these products. In many cases I am the connector.”
And so Burks will continue to travel many thousands of miles every year, striving to find the right distributors and marketplace for his Man Made woven baskets or wire stools, while collaborating with luxury brands on products that he hopes will reflect handmade values.
The end result, he believes, will not just be more varied furniture production in future years, but a widening of the entire design marketplace to include successful design from countries far beyond Europe and the US. “What happens in the next 50 years? Even today, I can’t think of a single Russian product-led brand – or Indian or Brazilian – that is global. The European consciousness around design is completely dominant. I think it’s time we heard from other voices.” Burks may be on top of the European design scene already, but he’s after much more. “I don’t want to be the last link in the chain. I want to be part of the whole story.”