American designer Stephen Burks unveils a collection created with Berea College’s Student Craft initiative, a series of home accessories that explore the possibilities of craft and design through collaboration. A Kentucky-based liberal arts institution since 1855, Berea College is the first integrated, coeducational college in the South, based on a mission of preserving traditional craft techniques while celebrating student diversity.

Stephen Burks and Berea College

Stephen Burks handling wood samples with a student from Berea College
Stephen Burks with Berea student Joseph Tayo Opaleye

Burks has partnered with the college since 2018, working closely with students on objects created using a variety of materials and techniques. Burks has teamed up with students on projects in all of the college’s departments, including woodworking, broom craft, and weaving, with a ceramics project still in development. 

The first steps for Burks involved thinking about what impact his practice could have on Berea and its students, with the decision of approaching the partnership collaboratively. ‘I made a very open plea to get them involved in the design process,’ said Burks, who was introduced to the students in October 2019 through a talk with design historian Glenn  Adamson. ‘I wanted to make it very clear to them that I wasn’t there as a dictator. I was there as a collaborator.’ Burks introduced foundational design thinking, asking students to consider form, proportion, and colour theory as first steps of a design process. 

Making of wooden basket with steam bent parts
Work in progress of the ‘Community Basket’, using steam-bent wood

‘We had to find a way to excite the students about the possibility of also becoming designers after decades (almost a century, actually) of only working as labourers,’ explains Burks. The process involved hosting a series of workshops to expose sudents to design and creative tools that could then be used to influence the objects’ making.

‘During these workshops I took into consideration much of the students’ input, from wanting to design things that would fit into their own homes, to wanting to express traditional Appalachian culture or their own immigrant culture (for students who were new to Kentucky).’

A collection of craft and design

Three wooden baskets made of steam bent wooden rings
‘Community Baskets’

The capsule collection so far includes pillows and throws with a pixel-inspired motif, modular wooden trays, and baskets, with future pieces including ceramic vases.

For every technique, Burks encouraged students to explore how to push it to new territories, and the results include a specially created steam-bending box for the baskets, and new weaving techniques for the students to have their input on textiles

Hanging object featuring multicoloured broom fibers
‘Broom Thing’ by Stephen Burks and Berea College

Among Berea College’s departments, Burks was most fascinated by traditional broom craft. ‘The broom craft department is still dyeing their own broom corn and still making brooms in a way that they’ve been making for the past hundred years – one of the last places in America to produce brooms traditionally,’ he says. His collaborative piece with the department is ‘Broom Thing’, an abstract ‘ambient object’ combining 26 brooms into a 4ft diameter sphere, a design that took the craft outside of its traditional function. 

‘I felt like I had to go in search of a new form, a new way to use this technique that hadn’t been done before. It is quite surprising in its suggestion of what could be possible in each of the craft sectors if we pursued a more conceptual object rather than a functional one.’ §

Square pillow with checkered motif in multiple colours
‘Pixel’ cushion
Textile table runners with colourful striped motif
‘Pixel’ table runner
Broom making machine with colourful fibres

Work in progress of ‘Broom Thing’

Stephen Burks and students working on ceramic pieces

Stephen Burks and students in the ceramics workshop

Orange basket clamps

Basket clamps