Why we work with designer Stephen Burks

Stephen Burks for ParachilnaIf Stephen Burks could have any super power imaginable, it would be the ability to control time – simply because “there never seems to be enough of it.” For a designer in perpetual demand due to his innovative knack for bridging the worlds of craft traditions, contemporary design and industrial manufacturing, it makes perfect sense.

Step into his New York studio, Burks Man Made, and you’ll see his hands-on approach in motion. You might also catch a glimpse of some of the products he’s made for international clients like Parachilna, B&B Italia, Boffi, Cappellini, Dedar, Harry Winston, Missoni, Roche Bobois and Swarovski. In fact, it was his collaborations with Dedon and Moroso that first caught our attention. While there aren’t many U.S. designers working with European firms, Burks is a shining example of how a new wave of American talent is transcending borders. We were immediately intrigued by his aptitude for blending modernity with ancestral influences.

Self-described as both a traveller and a designer, Burks is often found connecting with artisans in communities around the world. His passion for keeping culture-specific techniques alive has been a centrepiece in his work for over a decade, leading him to consult with non-profits including Aid to Artisans, the Clinton Global Initiative and Design Network Africa.

Take his Babel lighting collection for Parachilna, in which African totems and Brutalist architecture are cited as two key influences. Beyond simply being inspired by ethnic traditions, Burks is also helping to ensure they continue to thrive. It’s not everyday you find a designer who works with Senegalese basket weavers based in New York and Dakar, or collaborates with artisans in South Africa, Peru and India. It’s his forward-thinking approach that has earned him numerous accolades including the Brooklyn Museum Young Modernist Award and the Architektur & Wohnen Audi Mentor Prize. Most recently, he’s taken up an artist-in-residence post at A/D/O’s Design Academy in Brooklyn, where he’s exploring the pillars and challenges of luxury design and mass manufacturing.

Having studied at Chicago’s New Bahaus [also known as the Illinois Institute of Technology Institute of Design] Burks began his career with a distinctly Modernist approach. Over the last decade, he’s carved out his own niche by combining innovation with craft sensibilities gleaned from the days when everything was made by hand. Burks himself likes to touch, feel and immerse himself in all his creations, too. Whether producing products, lighting, furniture or exhibitions, he thoughtfully conceptualizes every aspect, often mixing high art principles and functionality. Cultural sustainability is a cornerstone of his work and in recent years, he’s focused on giving international communities a chance to engage in conversations around design.

“Lighting is a kind of gateway product into the world of design for most people, so in many ways it has to be very functional yet magical somehow,” says Burks. “I approach lighting design from the magical first, while trying to create a form with details that accentuate the function of illumination.”

Perhaps this is what Burks has in mind when he created the whimsical and geometric forms for Parachilna’s Anwar collection. Always one to take interest in materials, Burks was keen to work with wire – and not afraid to challenge Parachilna’s skilled craftsmen in the process.

“The project began thinking about an illuminated object. A volume filled with light that was both physically present, yet light and transparent somehow—like a hollow spool of thread or the curls on my son’s head. In fact, his name Anwar, means luminous in Arabic,” he says.

Since the dawn of time, the idea of harnessing and creating light has been a universal obsession. Burks may not have the power to control time, but in his own way, he’s breathing new life into to the past and shaping the future. Illumination, in every sense of the word, is the eternal muse.