STEPHEN BURKS ON INDUSTRIAL DESIGN: FURNITURE AND CHANGE
1) One thing you’ve said in other interviews is, ‘Design is a Western concept.’ Could you break that down a little?
Industrial design as we think of it was invented at the Bauhaus.
It put design in service of industry—and that grew out of the context of postwar Europe.
All of the other design movements that we learn of in the canon of Western history created what we think of as design today.
In Italy, design was not taught as a profession until the 1980s.
There was no way to study design, you could only study architecture. That’s how recent design is as an idea, and it came from the West.
It took me traveling around the world and working with other kinds of people to acknowledge that there are cultures that have been making things for generations, and the making of things has never been separated from who they are as a person, where they live, who they’re making it for, the culture they’re making it for, or the context they live in.
They’re just making things they need. That is also design, but that’s never been considered “design.”
Even today, if you were to compare “luxury” with “craft”—what is really the difference? Why is it considered “craft” in South Africa or Senegal, but it’s considered “weaving” or “luxury” in France, when it’s really the same thing? The distinction is “design.”
It can be an intellectual or academic pursuit separate from the culture, and it can be something that is done outside of the context of the usefulness or the maker of the thing. That is very much a Western concept.
2) Right. When we say the word design, what are we talking about? In a lot of contexts, it’s an intellectual framework that values the labor of some people over others.
Design is designed to establish hierarchies and to create distinction.
My work has been about trying to build a bridge between the people who are actually making the things and acknowledgement in the “first world” distribution system.
How do we create opportunity or make space for other people in the world to participate in design and to be allowed the progress that’s possible through design?
3) When you say progress, do you mean access to capital?
Look at all the things design does for us—it allows us to communicate, to participate, to be political, to organize, to learn, to share. All of the tools that are at our disposal in contemporary society are based on design.
And the people in the other parts of the world that don’t have that kind of access unfortunately don’t have access to the same kind of progress.
That kind of progress is monetary, but it’s also educational and political. It’s all of those things.
4) Tell me about trying to bridge that gap. How does it work, logistically, to make those opportunities happen for the artisans you work with?
We’ve tried all different kinds of models.
The first version had me as a product development consultant working with not-for-profits. I did a lot of work in that model.
The problem with that model is that not-for-profits aren’t in the business of thinking about sales and distribution. In many cases, they’ll have funding for a month, or three months or six months.
They’ll bring in the designer to work with the artisan, but when the money dries up, they’re gone—and what happens with that business opportunity? That to us was a failing model.
So then we tried to be the middleman.
I worked with companies like Cappellini to develop their first eco-conscious collection made in Africa. I worked directly with Moroso for the Moroso M’Afrique collection.
I was the consultant that named the collection. I drew the logo in my own hand, I designed the exhibition, and they only sold my products for a season—and then they discontinued them.
We realized that the markup was way too expensive.
All of a sudden, craft became this luxury object—either they couldn’t sell enough of it to sustain the artists in the country or the prices were just too high, which led to the same result.
The third model, which we have been most successful at, is to align ourselves with like-minded companies—companies like Dedon that have a factory in the Philippines that employs 1,600 weavers in peak season and is capable of making 300 pieces of furniture by hand.
This is our best way of working, to go there in a workshop-based practice and develop the products while we’re there.
The closer the hand gets to the act of making, the more potential there is for innovation.
*****NBA NOTE: Full interview can be accessed at https://businessofhome.com/articles/industrial-designer-stephen-burks-on-furniture-and-race.