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
“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