Stephen Burks Man Made is a New York-based design studio. All its stories begin with the hand: the hand that weaves, the hand that shakes, the hand that makes, the hand that protests, the hand that communicates. The studio’s workshop-based practice engages craftspeople throughout the globe, bringing us closer to an immediacy of making that is deeply meaningful, expressive, and innovative. Building bridges between artisanal production and world distribution through contemporary design has been its mission for the last fifteen years, which is shown in an impressive portfolio including collaborations with brands such as Dedon, Missoni, Roche Bobois, and Living Divani. In the latest issue of Ness we talked to Stephen Burks, industrial designer and educator, and his partner Malika Leiper, cook, storyteller and urban strategist. You can shop for a printed copy of Ness 3 Magazine here.
Ph. Justin Skeens
NESS – Stephen, how did it all begin? What was your path to design?
Stephen Burks – As a child growing up in Chicago, confronted with the architectural force of the city’s modernism, my entry into the world of design came through buildings. The first time I set eyes upon Mies van der Rohe’s, Crown Hall, I knew I wanted to study at the Illinois Institute of Technology. Studying there was a very spiritual experience. Those classical proportions, the way the light travels through the building, and the possibilities of its open plan really led me to want to study architecture and design. It was there in the basement of Crown Hall, at the Institute of Design originally known as the New Bauhaus, taking classes in visual training, color theory, graphic design, and architectural photography that my understanding of what it means to be a designer took shape. Years later, at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Architecture Planning, & Preservation, I realized I was more inspired by how we engage with the things inside the building rather than the buildings themselves.
Armchair Ahnda for Dedon, 2015
NESS – The Stephen Burks Man Made studio tagline is ‘we bring the hand to industry,’ tell us a little bit about what that means and how you arrived at this way of working?
SB – At around the turn of the millennium, after a successful exhibition with a French gallery, I began designing furniture with the small factories of the Italian companies B&B Italia, Boffi, Cappellini, Missoni, Moroso, and others. These early years were educational at an intimate scale for both hand and industrial production, working in harmony for the global success of brands barely half-a-century old. It wasn’t until 2005, after my first trips to Africa as a product development consultant with Aid to Artisans, that I began to ask myself: if the economic transformation of postwar Italy was possible through investment in craft-based family businesses, why couldn’t the same be done in other parts of the world.
The realization of what was possible by using craft in combination with industry through collaborations with artisans around the world led me to a fundamental belief in the creative and transformative power of communities of hands or “hand factories,” as we call them. It was obvious that these hands have power and after working in Colombia, Ghana, Haiti, Kenya, India, Indonesia, the Philippines, Rwanda, Senegal, and South Africa, as well as all over Europe and the United States, our studio’s practice is deeply rooted in the conviction that through our hands, we are all capable of design.
Weaving workshop in Senegal, 2015
NESS – What about you, Malika? What was your journey as an urban strategist like and how did you and Stephen join forces?
Malika Leiper – I spent my childhood in the rapidly urbanizing context of Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Growing up in a place like this, I developed an underlying awareness of the uneven processes shaping urban spatial production and the limits of modernist ideals. As I witnessed the primacy of speculative real estate and the changing East-Asian face of development transform my hometown, I questioned the role of the 20th-century architect or designer as auteur. Instead, I began searching for the possibilities of design as a community development project engaged in a process of exchange rather than transaction. My graduate school thesis, for example, involved partnering with a non-profit in Lowell, Massachusetts, to design and build a bicycle parking facility for their community center. Through several workshops that led to a community-informed design, I sought to demonstrate how culturally sensitive infrastructural interventions could create a more inclusive and sustainable public realm. Ever since Stephen and I met at the Harvard Graduate School of Design, where he became the first industrial designer to join the Loeb Fellowship and I was completing a Master’s in Urban Planning, we’ve been digging deeper into what it means to be citizens of the world contributing to a broader view of the built environment.
THE OTHERS – Dedon, 2017
The Others is a family of solar powered portable lanterns disguised as colorful companions for spending time indoors and out; they seek to remind us that we were all new in the neighborhood once.
NESS – Stephen, you have often said that design is a Western concept. Can you please elaborate on that and how it applies to the studio’s practice?
SB – The idea of Design with a capital D was in fact invented at the Bauhaus in Europe in the early 20th century. There it is a profession that you are educated in that teaches you to be in service of industry; to give form to and solve problems of industrial production. It is a very Western concept. While in the rest of the world people have been manipulating material, making the things they need in service of their communities for centuries, but even today we struggle to consider it to be design. The idea that one culture has the right to consider itself more ‘advanced’ than another or dictate taste or style and consider itself superior is wrong. Rather, the realization of dreams in physical form for the expression of culture exists within different time frames across the globe and everyone has the right to progress at their own pace regardless of the tools of design they choose to use.
When we look outside of our comfortable surroundings, we’re often reluctantly forced to consider the other. Whether it be our next-door neighbor or an artisan on the other side of the world. Instead of seeing them as an obstacle to avoid or overcome, our practice is engaged in actively embracing the differences which encountering the other offers us in an open attempt to collaborate with or learn from cultures other than our own.Stephen Burks
ML – Our home studio is a great physical manifestation of what Stephen is talking about. For us, there is no distinction between art, design, fashion, urbanism, or photography. We are more interested in how things are related rather than how they exist apart. The blackboard wall, for example, is replete with material samples, postcards, concepts, and hand sketches that blend together to create a cacophony of visual references. Our bookshelves are full of titles on art, design, architecture, urban history, and critical theory, to name a few. And all around our home, collectible design objects are intermingled with inspirational souvenirs from our international travels. Instead of trying to compartmentalize, categorize, and decontextualize, we prefer to explore the unknown in order to find possibilities that may not be so black & white.
SB – It’s all in how you see it. Like the term “majority world” in opposition to phrases like “global south” or “the developing world,” which are inherently value-driven, the majority world is a simple reference to the fact that the greater share of the world’s population is living outside of a Western context. At the end of the day, we cannot achieve sustainability unless we embrace the ways other people are thinking, living, and making.
TRYPTA – Luceplan, 2019
Trypta is an acoustic lighting solution that utilizes a custom designed 3D-knitted textile over three acoustic panels suspended from an aluminum extrusion that delivers both ceiling and surface illumination.
NESS -How have you been coping since the global pandemic turned the world upside down and what are some projects you have on the horizon?
ML – Our time spent sheltering-in-place has opened up a window for a new way of working together. In addition to aiding in the launch of several new collections for BD Barcelona, Dedon, Living Divani, and Luceplan, we’ve reinvented our home as a laboratory to explore new ideas shaping domesticity, namely, how do we want to live in the future.
SB – This time spent working from home has forced many of us to consider—some of us for the first time—how we live, what we live with, and why. From this conceptual starting point, we are in the process of responding to requests for radically reimagining not just our own home as fertile ground for new ways of inhabiting our domestic environments, but also the ways in which new building developments inhabit neighborhoods and communities. It goes without saying that craft will be at the center of all of these explorations.
ML – These home experiments have already attracted the attention of galleries and museums, and we are in early-stage conversations about realizing them on a larger scale. A woven television kit assembled at home, a hooded screen intended to create privacy for Zoom calls in an open space, and even a lamp that responds to your position in the room are a few ways that we are exploring a new frontier where craft and technology intersect.
SB – The closer the hand gets to the act of making, the more potential there is for innovation, especially if, ultimately, the product or interior is made by its owners. For us, the future of craft lies in everyone’s imagination and maybe, if we can help it, their participation.