In 2011, Brooklyn-based designer Stephen Burks had a solo exhibition at the Studio Museum in Harlem, which was given the title 'Man Made' by museum director Thelma Golden. ‘Since its founding in 1968, the museum had never shown design before,’ says Burks, who has worked with Aid to Artisans, the Clinton Global Initiative and the Nature Conservancy since 2005, and received the Cooper Hewitt National Design Award last year. ‘But they wanted to show this project because of its social context.’
That context was rooted in the designer’s long-running investigations in the global economy of artisanal craft, which began with Burks’s collaborations with Senegalese basket weavers based in New York and Dakar, and continued with other artisans in South Africa, Peru and India.
‘It was really rooted in a single craft technique by these Senegalese people, which Harlem has a decent population of, and so the question was, if these same people could make your bread basket and hamper, why couldn’t they also make your chandelier or your coffee table?’ asks Burks.
In the years since, he’s employed this model in projects with Dedon, Parachilna, Harry Winston and Roche Bobois (for the 'Traveler' chair, the company's first collaboration with an American designer in its 40 year history). ‘The studio is now called Stephen Burks Man Made because we believe in combining the hand with industry, so the closer we get to the act of making the more potential we have for innovation,’ he adds.
That innovation came full circle this week at The Armory Show, where Burks designed the central lounge with his chairs, ottomans, side tables and lamps from his 'Dala' collection for Dedon, made by artisans in the Philippines. ‘I’ve designed an installation that joins it all together with two arcing walls of painted wooden posts at varying heights that look like a contemporary forest,’ explained Burks before the show. ‘There will be a passageway and a video. I’m trying to optimize this opportunity.’
Meanwhile, he’s also debuting his 'Noir' pendant lamps at a titular exhibition presented by Seattle’s Mariane Ibrahim Gallery (he’ll have a solo show there later this year) that was curated by Maria Cristina Didero for this year’s Armory Focus initiative, highlighting the practices of contemporary African artists and those in the diaspora.
Produced in an edition of 18, the three 'Noir' lamps on display – shown in small, medium, and large sizes – were rendered from a composite fibre woven into flat planes to form a series of architectural stacking discs of different dimensions.
‘We’re actually blackening the surface with powdered graphite, creating this very deep but very rich metallic surface and then the edges are hand-painted in several different enameled colors. They’re very simple, immediate, and practical,’ says Burks, noting the central light tube features an LED element with an amber diffuser that radiates at the edges of the black planes, which have been painted in bright pops of coloured enamel. ‘What’s interesting for me at this point in my junction is how we begin to build upon the potential of technology and craft and how do I bring a broader audience to this work. In a sense that’s what "Noir" is all about.’