Meet Stephen Burks, 2014 Dwell on Design Keynote Speaker

We're thrilled to announce this year's keynote speaker for Dwell's annual design conference in June 2014: Meet irrepressible New York City-based industrial designer Stephen Burks.
Stephen Burks Manhattan Readymade Projects studio Dwell on Design
Stephen Burks in his Manhattan studio. Photo by Brian W. Ferry. Image courtesy of Brian W. Ferry.

Through his New York–based industrial design studio, Readymade Projects, Stephen Burks has developed products for brands like B&B Italia, Estée Lauder, and Missoni. Burks will serve as the keynote speaker at Dwell on Design 2014 in Los Angeles, where he will discuss that work as well as his efforts to bridge the worlds of ground-level craft and high-end design.

This work has reached its fullest expression in Burks’s Man Made collaboration and with Senegalese basket weavers and, more recently, his DALA line of outdoor furniture for Dedon. The lounge chairs, ottomans, and stools in this collection are made by weavers in a factory in the Philippines. Burks encourages the artisans to introduce subtle variations in the weaving, making each piece unique.

He sat down with Dwell to tell us more ahead of his appearance at the show. 

How did the “Man Made” series originate?

The name “Man Made” comes from a Studio Musuem exhibition in 2011, which was specifically about Senegalese basket weaving. That was the starting point: one country, one people, one craft. At first I tried to design the patterns, but it really is a collaboration; there is no way of controlling what the artisans are going to make. Until I arrived in that village outside of Dakar, they had never worked from a drawing before. The artisans weave not only the pattern and form but the color, all from memory. It's very improvised, and technically super difficult to do!

What about Dedon, for whom you created the Dala collection?

The collaboration with Dedon began because of Man Made. The creative director saw the Studio Museum show and saw that I grasped texture, craft, and color. Dedon produces 300 pieces of furniture a day by hand in the Philippines. I couldn’t believe the level of expertise. A brand like Dedon epitomizes the level of investment in technique—to make a product that is both unique and fully recognizable in the language of contemporary design. I insist upon going there and working hand in hand with artisans for a week [at a time]. I consider my practice workshop-based, instead of staying in my studio and sending drawings. The closer we get to making, the more influence we have as designers. The entire collection, including the breakthrough of weaving through an aluminum structure, happened in the field in tandem with the weavers and the R&D department.

How do you structure your design practice?

We are four people now; soon to be six. In the studio, we make prototypes and we explore things as much as we can. We're becoming more and more hands on. Everything happens in one room, in three parts: Readymade Projects design consultancy, which I incorporated ten years ago, is mostly for the luxury packaging world and some interior design projects. Then there’s just me, Stephen Burks, a designer working in a traditional way. I've got Man Made, too, whose image is starting to affect everything I do. Not that I want to get pigeonholed, but people see me now and expect a basket! It's a little bit scary, because when did that become my mandate? At the same time, it's cool to have a recognizable vocabulary.

What is your goal for your studio?

Ultimately, I'm trying to merge all of these into one project. Like for Harry Winston: I don't know how I convinced them to do a hand-carved stone jewelry box, but that's what I do! My dream client would be Hermès. That's my ideal, to get closer to how these master artisans in New York are working, and convince them it's not that much different than how a kid in South Africa is working. 

Hear Stephen Burks in conversation with Dwell Editor-in-Chief Amanda Dameron on Friday, June 20, at 6 p.m. at Dwell on Design.

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