written by:
June 20, 2014
On opening night of Dwell on Design 2014 in Los Angeles, American industrial designer Stephen Burks joined Dwell Editor-in-Chief Amanda Dameron for an onstage talk. Click through the slideshow for highlights from the talk and to see products from Burks's show floor installation.
Modern wood-framed chair with green cushion by Stephen Burks
Onstage, Burks unveiled the American version of The Traveler, a chair he designed in collaboration with Roche Bobois. The chair has a wooden frame—as opposed to the steel-framed European version—and upholstery meant "to mimic the posture of the body," Burks says. "We're all workaholics, so this American chair is about really relaxing—working hard and relaxing hard." The collaboration, which Burks embarked on with the French furniture brand about one year ago, is "a dialogue between two different cultures, and every culture in between," he says.
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Black woven lamp and furniture
Burks, whose work on "Man Made" has taken him to developing countries and design capitals, discussed his devotion to artisan craftsmanship. With The Traveler chairs, he says, "There's a legibility, a sense that these have been made by someone." And right now, that process—the work and effort that go into the making of his designs—excites Burks more than anything else. Stephen Burks Man Made collection
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Design happens quickly in Burks's studio, Readymade Projects, comprising only 15 percent of what he does, Burks says. "The rest of it is all about these negotiations and dialogue, and the travel, and working in the field by hand. That's design—but I don't think of it as design in a traditional sense. Or maybe it's uber-traditional," he muses, a way of going back to hand-crafted basics. Calligaris Variations chairs
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white t-shirts with neon striped pattern hanging in a row

Burks has long been enamored by hand-craftsmanship, even early on in his career. After studying architecture at the Illinois Institute of Technology and product at the university’s Institute of Design, he moved to New York and quickly began collaborating with noted brands such as Boffi and Cappellini. "Without knowing what I wanted to do, I knew that I wanted to make things." And from the start, despite his early interest in architecture, Burks wanted his work to have a human sensibility. "I was always more interested in the the scale of the body, of the living environment as opposed to the built environment—the things that we touch, sit on, and engage with as bodies are more fascinating to me."

Clothing from the White Briefs, A Free Man printed underwear collection

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woven green and beige planters with grasses

Burks's Man Made collection and his Dala line of outdoor furniture for Dedon—featuring stools, chairs, and ottomans crafted by weavers in a Philippines factory—have brought him to a pivotal point in his career. "My relationship with Dwell has been about taking my Man Made project on the road," he says. Dedon produces 300 of Burks's pieces daily, by hand. "It's the ultimate expression of where I can see my own brand and my own studio going someday," he says.

Stephen Burks for Dedon, Dala planters in recycled polyethylene, 2012

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metal, modern pendants

Already established in Europe, Burks has his eyes on the U.S. market. "I'm really making a push in America this year," he says. "It's about being generous—offering the product and making it accessible." He hopes to collaborate with more American manufacturers and retailers, but in a selective way—Burks says he's turned down opportunities to start collections with major retailers because the terms did not feel right with the goals of Man Made. "The artisans are a kind of hand factory—they are the producers. What I bring is some type of creative direction. It's not about keeping this world of basket weavers on a dirt floor. Everyone is entitled to progress and design is a transformative force that can make that happen."

Stephen Burks for Parachilna, Anwar LED lighting collection in copper, brass, and black-plated steel, 2013

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gray rug and woven chairs

Burks recalls working with South African artisans on a line of silicon bowls for Cappellini, and the six-time markup on the product by the time it reaches consumers. While there's a benefit to price increase—a heightened perception of craft—Burks says he aims to lower costs and make products accessible. "Not everything we're working on can be that affordable," he says. "But with Man Made I really want to reach a broader audience."

Stephen Burks Man Made installation at Dwell on Design, Los Angeles, 2014

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modern, white stools made of wire

While showing Man Made, including at Dwell on Design in New York in October 2014, Burks is also out to expand his industry. "The design world is really an exclusive world," he says. "There's very little diversity, so in many ways, my work is about saying that, far beyond Europe and far beyond the capitals, other people have something to say."

Stephen Burks Man Made Collection, Shona wire stool in powder-coated galvanized steel, 2014.

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Modern wood-framed chair with green cushion by Stephen Burks
Onstage, Burks unveiled the American version of The Traveler, a chair he designed in collaboration with Roche Bobois. The chair has a wooden frame—as opposed to the steel-framed European version—and upholstery meant "to mimic the posture of the body," Burks says. "We're all workaholics, so this American chair is about really relaxing—working hard and relaxing hard." The collaboration, which Burks embarked on with the French furniture brand about one year ago, is "a dialogue between two different cultures, and every culture in between," he says.

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