DESIGN IS ABOUT PROBLEM SOLVING and for a decade Stephen Burks has been offering innovative solutions. The New York-based designer collaborates with artisans in South Africa, Peru, Colombia and Haiti, helping them hone their designs and access new markets and partners with high-end European brands to create luxury products with a global sensibility. Along the way he is addressing the design world’s lack of diversity in more ways than one.

Burks graces the cover of the August/September 2014 issue of American Craft magazine, where Shonquis Moreno reports on his far-flung adventures with basket weavers and artisans creating bowls and vases out of recycled materials and the innovative ideas he hatches with the likes of the American jeweler Harry Winston, a Spanish lighting company and a French furniture maker.

IMG_3794A 2003 commission to design Patchwork vases for luxury label Missoni (the first handmade products he created), and a 2005 invitation from Aid to Artisans to travel to South Africa synthesized the direction of his studio, Readymade Projects.

In “Man of the World,” Moreno describes Burks as both an idealist and a realist. “His work in developing countries is equal parts idealistic and pragmatic. Burks collaborates with artisans because he has a product idea that he needs help executing, the artisans have a technique that lacks a product expression, or both,” the article states.

“For the artisans, the work can help drive local economic development; working with Burks shows them the possibilities of a wider market, and helps them develop their design skills and understanding of trends so that they can aim their products toward that wider market. And when Burks leaves developing areas, he generally leaves behind a local organization that will continue to support small-business development.”

Having studied architecture and product design at Illinois Institute of Technology and graduate-level architecture at Columbia University, Chicago-born Burks has proven to be a visionary designer and socially conscious collaborator, as well as a savvy market strategist.

“High-end brands tap [Stephen] Burks because he creates a unique, contemporary hybrid of crafted and commercial products. To do so, he takes traditional materials, forms, and techniques, and transforms or finds new expression for them.” — American Craft

TODAY, READYMADE PROJECTS designs textiles, home accessories and furniture, a growing collection unified by its fusion of artisan craft with commercial production. This harmonious blending of art, design and culture has garnered recognition beyond the retail sector. In 2011, the Studio Museum in Harlem presented “Stephen Burks: Man Made” along with an exhibition catalog. The industrial design exhibition focused on contemporary interpretations of traditional basket weaving from Dakar, Senegal, and also featured objects from South Africa, Peru and India.

Both design-minded and art-minded, Burks mentioned the Studio Museum when New York magazine asked him to name his favorite things for its Winter 2014 Design Hunting issue. He lauds the museum’s residency program and the book selection in its store. He is also a “huge fan” of Jack Shainman Gallery in New York where some of his favorite global artists are represented: Lynette Yiadom-Boakye (British), Zwelethu Mthethwa (South African) and El Anatsui (Ghanaian).

Dwell is also impressed with Burks’s ingenuity. The interior design magazine presented an exhibition of his projects at Milan Design Week in April 2014 and tapped him to be the keynote speaker at the June 2014 Dwell on Design conference in Los Angeles.


Stephen Burks discusses the designs for his Roche Bobois Traveler chair. | Video by Roche Bobois


His latest project is The Traveler armchair with Roche Bobois. The French furniture company is celebrating its 40th anniversary and the collaboration with Burks is its first with an American designer. He has created two distinct versions of the transporting chair—one “American,” the other “European.”

“I think today’s conscious consumers are like myself, travelers,” Burks explains in the Roche Bobois video below. “The traveler concept is really about taking my inspiration from various places in the developing world and applying it to an industrial product.”

“Using [artisanal] techniques to add value and build brand positioning in the market is what it’s all about. These are ways we can use design to extend craft traditions into the future.” — Stephen Burks, American Craft

Traveling the world has influenced his designs and also brought into sharp relief the lack of diversity in the field.

“That first visit to Africa also left Burks struck by the design world’s lack of diversity – ‘not just in the faces of the designers, the companies, and the consumers, but also in the forms, materials, and references in the products,'” he explains in American Craft. “‘I saw the work with the artisans as a collaboration that gave a unique voice to the products I began making, a voice that was less interested in the end result and more interested in the story of getting there.’” CT


American Craft, August/September 2014 | “Man of the World,” by Shonquis Moreno, pages 42-49.


FIND MORE about Stephen Burks on his Man Made website

UPDATE (05/28/21): Added new website URL


Published to coincide with the Studio Museum in Harlem exhibition, “Stephen Burks: Man Made” is a creatively designed publication documenting his dynamic practice. The catalog features five sections: Text, Collage, Sketch, Essay and Image.


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