Stephen Burks’s Man Made exhibition at the Studio Museum

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.