A stu­dio visit with Amer­ica’s hottest fur­ni­ture maker

In­dus­trial de­signer STEPHEN BURKS can’t fully de­sign an ob­ject un­til he meets the peo­ple who will make it

Bloomberg Businessweek (Asia) - - NEWS - Pho­to­graph by Ryan Pfluger BY JAMES TARMY

“This doesn’t nec­es­sar­ily have a soul,” Stephen Burks says. He’s in his de­sign stu­dio in the Wil­liams­burg sec­tion of Brook­lyn, and the soul­less ob­ject he’s hold­ing is one with which hun­dreds of mil­lions of peo­ple have a near spir­i­tual con­nec­tion: the iPhone. Many crit­i­cisms are lev­eled against Ap­ple, but bad de­sign isn’t one. To Burks, the com­pany’s mass mar­ket ap­proach is all wrong. He goes so far as to say Ap­ple “is in trou­ble be­cause it’s so opaque and generic.”

Wear­ing a dark blue Dries Van Noten suit and Con­verse x Mis­soni sneak­ers, Burks presents an al­ter­na­tive vi­sion: He re­moves the seat cush­ion of a gi­ant, $4,765 Ah­nda wing chair, which he de­signed for the Ger­man fur­ni­ture com­pany De­don. He points to its wo­ven sub­struc­ture, a cross-hatched maze that sup­ports the chair’s cir­cu­lar base. “I knew I wanted this her­ring­bone weave,” he says, run­ning his fin­gers along blue, gray, and black cords. “I had a sense of what I wanted to do. But it couldn’t hap­pen un­til I ar­rived at the fac­tory.”

This de­sign phi­los­o­phy can best be de­scribed as wait and see. Burks comes up with a con­cept, then lets crafts­men around the world help shape the ob­ject’s fi­nal form—Fox­conn it isn’t. “It’s about re­turn­ing the hand to in­dus­try,” he says. “That space be­tween mak­ing and in­dus­tri­al­iz­ing cre­ates more po­ten­tial for in­no­va­tion.”

Burks be­came the first African Amer­i­can to win the Na­tional De­sign Award for prod­uct de­sign in 2015. He cu­rated an exhibition at New York’s Mu­seum of Arts and De­sign and was fea­tured in a solo exhibition at the Stu­dio Mu­seum fur­ther up town in Har­lem. In ad­di­tion to De­don, he’s worked with French fur­ni­ture com­pany Roche Bobois on his $14,840 Euro­pean Trav­eler chair, Ligne Roset on the $545 Chan­tal ta­ble light (since dis­con­tin­ued), and Harry Win­ston on an alabaster jew­elry box, a gift for the jeweler’s high­est of high-end clients. His stu­dio turns out $700 stools and $500 bowls. “He paved the way for the model of de­signer as en­tre­pre­neur,” says Con­stantin Boym, chair­man of the in­dus­trial de­sign de­part­ment at Brook­lyn’s Pratt In­sti­tute.

At this point, how­ever, mak­ing a few very ex­pen­sive prod­ucts for a few very wealthy peo­ple isn’t sat­is­fy­ing. “We’re only cater­ing to the rich,” Burks says. “I’m be­gin­ning to un­der­stand that I have to have a par­al­lel project which tries to con­sider how this plays into the mass mar­ket.” The con­tours of that project are un­de­fined: The an­nual rev­enue of Stephen Burks Man Made is less than $1 mil­lion, he says, so he’s look­ing for busi­ness part­ners to help him ex­pand.

He’s pos­i­tive he can ap­ply the same method­ol­ogy he uses in mak­ing ob­jets d’art to mak­ing ev­ery­day ob­jects. This in­cludes “eye­glasses, watches, shoes— we’ve al­ready done an un­der­wear col­lec­tion,” he says. “Just be­cause you have a prod­uct you need to sell to 100,000 peo­ple doesn’t mean that all 100,000 have to be the same.” He picks up a square, black, plas­tic hard drive. “Com­pa­nies are still mak­ing things like this. I mean, come on!” <BW>

● An Ah­nda chair un­der con­struc­tion at De­don’s fac­tory in the Philip­pines, which em­ploys 1,600 weavers who make 300 pieces a day by hand

● A $2,500 Mis­soni patch­work vase made out of fab­ric scraps

● Burks, with a weaver in the Philip­pines, de­vel­ops a pat­tern for De­don’s Dala line

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