In the Mix

Shelter in Place

Anna Carnick

Stephen Burks’ new exhibition at the High Museum posits more inclusive paths forward through design and craft

After years of social unrest and global crises, Shelter in Place …is intended to give us a starting point from which to dream of a radically new way forward through craft, design, and community. —Stephen Burks

 

This month, Atlanta’s High Museum of Art debuts Shelter in Place, a mid-career survey of American designer Stephen Burks’ singular practice. Over the past two decades, the globetrotting, Brooklyn-based creative has made a name for himself through consistently collaborative and craft-driven design work, often created in partnership with nonprofits, educational institutions, and world-class brands—and frequently produced hand in hand with crafts communities around the world.

From left: Broom Thing Ambient Object and Pixel Throw (both 2020), designed by Stephen Burks, manufactured by Berea College Student Craft at Berea College, Kentucky. Founded in 1855 by abolitionists, Berea was the first interracial and coeducational college in the South. Burks collaborated with students on a series of handmade objects in a work-study program that carried on Appalachian craft traditions. Photos by Justin Skeens / Courtesy of Berea College Student Craft

By placing collaboration at its center, his studio, Stephen Burks Man Made, creates furniture and accessories that succeed not just functionally or aesthetically—they also work on a human level by embracing a hands-on production approach that supports inclusivity and innovation. As exhibition curator Monica Obniski notes in the exhibition’s stellar, accompanying catalog, “Part of Burks’ strategy is to be in dialogue with makers, to learn from them, and then to empower them.”

From left: The Others (2017), a collection of anthropomorphic lanterns by Stephen Burks for DEDON that are handwoven in the Philippines; and Triadic Totems (2016), designed by Burks and Mongollan Studio with One for Hundred, an Austrian, sustainable furniture label committed to planting 100 new trees for every piece sold. Photos by Joe Coscia

Burks was, notably, the first African American designer to work with many of his European clients, including Moroso and Roche Bobois, among others. As Obniski observes: “As an African American designer, Stephen Burks has forged a unique path by embracing the challenge to advocate for hand production within the structures of industrial production—and I believe that this is one of the ways in which he is interrogating the modernist trope of better living through design.”

Friends and Neighbors mirrors, 2021, recycled marble and glass, designed by Stephen Burks, manufactured by Salvatori. Photo by Joe Coscia;  courtesy of Salvatori

Further, she tells us, “I hope that visitors understand that as a designer, Stephen Burks is wrestling with negotiating between several spheres—between his industrial practice and a political or social voice, between craft and design, etc. I also think that the big takeaway is that Stephen’s work doesn’t have a particular ‘look,’  but rather, he has a signature approach—one that is collaborative and hands-on, and this, for me, suggests a new paradigm for contemporary design.”

 Shelter in Place, installation views; Photos by Mike Jensen, courtesy of High Museum of Art

The new exhibition features over 50 industrial design and craft-driven works created over the past ten years, as well as a highly anticipated new speculative design series, commissioned by the High Museum, from which the exhibition takes its name. The Shelter in Place series was born of conversations that began around the onset of COVID-19 in early 2020 between Burks and Obniski, who joined the High around the same time as Curator of Decorative Arts and Design.

Shelter in Place, installation view; Photo by Mike Jensen, courtesy of High Museum of Art

As Obniski recalls: “We started Zooming weekly during the lockdown—I was working from home in Chicago and hadn’t yet moved to Atlanta,  and Stephen was also at home in Brooklyn. The nature of our talks ran the gamut—from what we were reading or watching during this new time spent totally indoors to philosophical conversations around the role of design in the future. I felt energized talking with him about all sorts of topics, and our conversations eventually moved toward this radical idea: what if we could do a show with prototypes at the center—as a way to talk about ideas, and not just products—and so the Shelter in Place concept was born.”

Malika Leiper and designer Stephen Burks work on Woven TV (2022), in his studio; Photos by Caroline Tompkins

Conceived and executed during the pandemic and parallel global social upheaval, the timely title series explores ideas concerning domesticity and identity, positing answers to the question: “How can we design our interiors to enable joyful living while empowering creativity?”

From left: Woven TV  and The Ancestors (both 2022), designed by Stephen Burks; both pieces from the collection of the designer. Photos by Caroline Tompkins

The lockdown-inspired work points to new ways of living with objects in the future. At home during the pandemic, while some designers responded to the crisis by creating innovative objects to protect our bodies—PPE, safety bubbles, and the like—many, like Burks, found themselves reexamining our relationship to home. For Burks, the focus was on creating pieces that satisfy our need for spiritual and communal connection and also offer opportunities for personal expression—objects that could, for example, help us process grief when we could not mourn publicly (Spirit House), objects to hold our keepsakes and symbolic totems, and objects to connect us to something larger than ourselves (The Ancestors). In the new series, even entertainment is reframed; Burks’ Woven TV is a lattice shell designed to surround and elevate the television. It was conceived as an object that will continue to evolve over time as the user weaves small trimmings and mementos into the casing, a creative act that allows one to further personalize and own their place in the world.

Left: Designer Stephen Burks with Spirit House (2022); Right: Burks with Woven TV (2022); Photos by Caroline Tompkins

As Burks notes in his essay in the exhibition catalog (an exceptional publication featuring contributions by the likes of curator and critic Beatrice Galilee, author Glenn Adamson, designer Patricia Urquiola, and others, including a magnetic conversation between Burks and late, renowned author and activist bell hooks): “These life-size memorial companions offer a sense of belonging. They remind us of the need for communion: to be amongst like-minded others, share values, and be accepted as cosmopolitans seeking our place in the world. And yet, the questions remain. How do we incorporate the spiritual side of our lives into contemporary design? Can we transcend time and space and nod to ancient traditions while staying in touch with our own?”  Collectively, these new works offer suggestions, rather than directives, for ways we might reframe, own, and engage our personal surroundings.

The Ancestors (2022), designed by Stephen Burks; collection of the designer. Photos by Caroline Tompkins

The new work also reinforces Burks’ position that anyone can be a designer. As he writes: “Stephen Burks Man Made was founded on the notion that everyone is capable of design. We believe that design is cultural production, and like art, literature, and music, it has the opportunity to represent everyone’s culture. With this in mind, we try to use design as a language capable of speaking about more than color, form, materiality, and process. This broad approach to object making allowed us to navigate the difficult issues we faced as a family and use design as a physical manifestation of strategies that helped us cope.”

Stephen Burks and his newly designed Private Seat (2022), collection of the designer. Photos by Caroline Tompkins

He adds: “The unfinished experimental studies exhibited in the High Museum of Art’s galleries are intended to give us a starting point from which to reconsider, to wonder, and to dream of a new way forward through craft, design, and participation that hasn’t been imagined before. For a practice predicated on travel like our own, prototyping in place was a kind of radical reawakening—one desperately needed, although it took us by surprise. The public trauma of the global pandemic has transformed the way we live, work, and socialize forever. It has created unprecedented challenges and opportunities alike, as we all struggle to find our way back to normalcy.”

Asked what he most hopes people take away from his new experimental work, Burks tells us: After years of social unrest and global crises, the Shelter in Place project is intended to give us a starting point from which to dream of a radically new way forward through craft, design, and community.” ◆

 

Stephen Burks: Shelter in Place is on view now through March 5, 2023 at the High Museum of Art in Atlanta. It is curated by Monica Obniski.  

 

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