In search of inspiration, the Chicago-born designer Stephen Burks has often traveled to places like Peru, South Africa, Haiti, India, Australia, and Kenya. But the idea for his latest project began a bit closer to home: “Three or four years ago, I met this basket salesman at a street fair in New York,” remembers Burks. “His name was Serigne Diouck, and I told him I was interested in his technique.” The two became friends instantly, and Burks soon learned that the baskets were constructed from spiraled sweet grass, stitched together with colorful strands of recycled plastic and made in Diouck’s birthplace of Thies, a tiny village outside of Dakar. Their collaboration, though, was longer in coming. “Since 2006, I’ve been shooting this documentary of my work in the developing world,” says Burks. “Finally in 2009, the Sundance Channel came forward and wanted to produce a pilot. We did a four-day shoot in Senegal with Serigne where I did a bunch of experiments around these traditional baskets.”
One of the products to come out of the shoot was the Starburst lamp, a cluster of Diouck’s baskets turned into readymades and strung together with bulbs until they resembled some sort of third-world Castiglioni lamp. On a studio visit last fall, Thelma Golden and Naomi Beckwith — the curators of New York’s Studio Museum in Harlem — spied the Starburst and commissioned Burks on the spot to create the museum’s first-ever industrial design exhibit around the theme of those hybrid experiments. The resulting show, called Stephen Burks: Man Made, opened this spring at the museum.
The objects on view were created in two parts: The baskets were designed and woven when Burks visited Diouck’s village again in December of last year, and they were then transported back to Brooklyn to be completely reinterpreted by Burks and his studio. “There are what we call the baskets reinvented, which is where I’ve taken a basket and put a mirror or a light into it,” Burks explains. “Then there are the baskets reinterpreted, where we used the same spiraling sewing technique to make something completely new — like a beanbag chair made from a spiral of technical climbing rope. Finally, there are the baskets abstracted: For those, we used the basket as a mold and formed materials inside those shapes. The point of the exhibition is to illustrate the fact that people working artisanally in the developing world are capable of making contemporary design products. They don’t have to be relegated to their traditional crafts. They can move beyond that into a universe of products with a broader contemporary appeal — that’s what the show is really about.”
Burks documented the making of the exhibition, both in Senegal and back in Williamsburg, and he recently shared the photos with Sight Unseen. Click through the slideshow at right for a closer look at Burks’s process and what went into his first-ever solo museum show in New York.
For centuries, Swiss design was synonymous with watches, army knives, sewing machines, and other precision utilitarian objects. Then came the rise of Swiss graphics and typography in the 20th century, when the grids and sans serifs of talents like Josef Müller-Brockmann and Jan Tschichold created a legacy that dominates the tiny country's design reputation even today. But inside the 10,000-square-foot universe of the Museum Für Gestaltung Zurich’s collection archives — behind whose doors normally only curators and students are allowed — every chair, teapot, and cigarette lighter is either a product of or an influence on Switzerland’s industrial design history, which the museum strives to promote through the five to seven temporary exhibitions it produces each year.
To identify yourself as a potter in this day and age sounds strangely old-fashioned. A ceramicist, yes; a ceramic artist, sure. And yet there really is no other way to describe Adam Silverman, the Los Angeles–based studio director for Heath Ceramics, who jokes that he keeps a banker’s hours behind the wheel he runs from the back of Heath's Commune-designed retail facility.
The brief itself was simple: Design and build something to sit on. It was the execution part that was hard. From April 16–21, four sets of young American furniture designers each took a turn in the open studios at New York’s Museum of Arts and Design, each with a single purpose: to build and assemble a chair from start to finish, between the time the museum opened at 9AM to the minute the last straggler was ushered out the door at 6. The designers could use any materials they chose, and they were allowed to make preliminary design studies or prototypes before arriving at the museum, but the bulk of the construction work had to be executed on the museum’s 6th floor — in full view of school tours, visiting tourists, families, and itinerant design geeks who wanted a peek at the action. But the exercise wasn’t some reality show–like competition to pit designers against each other or to see whose design would reign supreme. The event was part of The Home Front, a museum project curated by Surface editor Dan Rubinstein, who spearheaded the whole thing in order explore in-depth the business of being a designer in America today.