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Q&A with Stephen Burks

I ventured to Stephen Burks' "Man Made" exhibit a few days after returning home to New York City from a trip to India. The colors and textures of Indian culture, though not directly referenced, were present in Burks' show, a mix of modern shapes and materials with age-old tradition and craftsmanship. He calls this work—which couples diverse cultural influences with design—"hybrid." After a studio visit in Williamsburg, I sat down with Burks to discuss his concept of a hybrid, his world travels, and the one brand he wants to work with more than any other.
 

"Stephen Burks: Man Made" will be on view at the Studio Museum in Harlem until June 26th, 2011. Photo by Kevin Kunstandt & Andrew Kenney.
"Stephen Burks: Man Made" will be on view at the Studio Museum in Harlem until June 26th, 2011. Photo by Kevin Kunstandt & Andrew Kenney.

How did your show "Man Made," now at The Studio Museum in Harlem, come about?
Design in my mind is not separate from art or fashion or architecture. There is no line anywhere. My world view shapes everything around me. It always has. I met Thelma Golden nine years ago. Thelma is the Director and Chief Curator of The Studio Museum in Harlem, which is an amazing institution. The museum has been in existence since 1968 and showcases artists of African descent and the time just felt right to showcase design in the space.

Stephen Burks,<i>Double Basket Lamp</i>, 2011. Photo by Kevin Kunstandt & Andrew Kenney.
Stephen Burks,Double Basket Lamp, 2011. Photo by Kevin Kunstandt & Andrew Kenney.
What has been the local reaction to your exhibit?
It's been phenomenal. A friend told me that my designs are "easy work." Someone might say that is a back handed compliment, but functional objects—baskets, tables, lights—should be easy. They should communicate function and form, and how they were made. "Man Made" does have larger ideas at work though, too, like the use of recycled materials and the perception of repositioning craft.
You've traveled the globe and these journeys are referenced in "Man Made." What countries did you visit?
Senegal, South Africa, Rwanda, Haiti, and Kenya. In 2009 I went to Dakar with Moroso and now I work with basket makers there. 
Stephen Burks, <i>Untitled (HDPE lamp)</i>, 2011. Photo by Kevin Kunstandt & Andrew Kenny.
Stephen Burks, Untitled (HDPE lamp), 2011. Photo by Kevin Kunstandt & Andrew Kenny.
And there will be weaving in the exhibit space in Harlem too?

Yes. We're transporting our studio into The Studio Museum and will be demonstrating and hosting a master class, inviting the community into the space.
You use the word hybrid to describe your work. What do you mean by that?
Hybrid for me means pluralistic, culturally diverse and made up of different influences. I truly believe that the most important ideas, people, places and things have to be hybrid in nature. It's definitely where the world is headed. We are finally looking outside of Europe for other influences in design!
Stephen Burks, <i>We Are All One (three)</i>, 2010. Photo by Daniel Hakansson. Photo by Stephen Burks.
Stephen Burks, We Are All One (three), 2010. Photo by Daniel Hakansson. Photo by Stephen Burks.
The Museum of Arts and Design has asked you to curate a new show, "Stephen Burks: Are You A Hybrid." What will you be pulling together for that show in May?

The show illustrates the influence of the developing world on design. Included will be works by Girard, Noguchi, and Charles and Ray Eames. Current designers like Patricia Urquiola and Jasper Morrison will also be included. It will showcase the hybrid culture and features photography, art, design, and even animation.
What else are you working on now?
We're about to launch a new collection for Swarovski called "Inside/Out." We only used crystals in a functional way. Unlike many chandeliers, we did not use the crystal for decorative purposes. The lights are metal and the crystals are inside. You can only see them when looking into the lamp. The light filtered through the crystals create an optical effect, a prismatic effect. I also recently did a light called "Chantal," named for my friend. That was for Ligne Roset.

I'll also be showing in a group collection honoring Tobias Wong in May. The work is called Convex Concave and it illustrates my design process. Much of Toby's work had a duality, like his Perfect Lovers clocks and his Killer Diamond ring, and mine too often have that duality.

Stephen Burks, <i>Single Basket Lamps & Basket Tables with Daniel</i>, 2010. Photo by Daniel Hakansson.
Stephen Burks, Single Basket Lamps & Basket Tables with Daniel, 2010. Photo by Daniel Hakansson.
I love the graphic treatment of The Studio Museum show, your website, and pretty much everything you do. It is clean and colorful. Do you have a hand in that part of your business/identity?
Yes. I've worked for five years now with Alex Lin of Studio Lin. He's really taken off, but he started with me! My website gives my work and press and everything I do equal weight. There is no distinction. It's a timeline of my work. Almost like a design blog.
You've collaborated with a myriad of manufacturers and brands: Moroso, Swarovski, and Cappellini, among others. Who is your dream company to work with?
It's actually Hermes! I'd love to work with those leather cords. Hermes is one of the last true luxury brands. They're all about authenticity and how being authentic connects to tradition, culture, and people.

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