Lockdown reinspired Stephen Burks to create handcrafted, joyful interiors

It took a pandemic to sensitize many people to the dispiriting reality of having to dwell in spaces where thoughtful design took a backseat to indifference, cost cutting and mass production. But for Stephen Burks, being in lockdown with his family in Brooklyn reaffirmed his philosophy that hand production should be a strategy for innovation within industrial production.

Burks’ holistic approach spans art, architecture and design and is now on view through March 5 at the High Museum of Art in an exhibition titled Stephen Burks: Shelter in Place.

High Museum
Burks’ students at Berea College collaborated with the designer to create the “Broom Thing.”

“Walking the exhibition is a really nice way of getting a snapshot of [the second half of] Stephen’s 20-years-plus career,” says Monica Obniski, the High’s curator of decorative arts and design.

“I had been following him for years and always wanted to do a show with him. After I joined the High in March 2020, we would discuss his industrial design practice and what he was doing with craft materials during our weekly Zoom sessions. . . and that’s when we crafted the idea for this show.”

Burks’ Broom thing, acquired by the High in 2022, opens the show and invigorates the gallery with a sense of whimsy, play and unbridled imagination. The sculpture was made in collaboration with students at Berea College—the first interracial and coeducational college in the South—where Burks is an instructor.

Five distinct projects comprise the show. They demonstrate that by synthesizing craft, community and industry, we can design our interiors to create joyful living.

ArtsATL caught up with the designer via email to gather his thoughts on the fundamentals of democratic design; finding mentors; and the gift of cross-cultural collaborations.

ArtsATL: Do you think of yourself as a visual artist, educator, industrial designer? Or do you reject titles altogether?

Burks: I consider myself an industrial designer. I’m not interested in a multi-hyphenated definition of what I do.

Our goal is to be in collaboration with the industry. The inspiration for, and the result of which, may find many different forms and interpretations, but first and foremost we’re designers.

ArtsATL: Based on your observations, what did sheltering in place during the pandemic teach us about our relationships to home, design and the way Do we respond to objects that are mass-produced versus crafted by hand?

BurksBecause of technology we all had individual personas linked to our digital lives and personal preferences. These ways of being lack a tangible, physical dimension that we long for.

As a family we were looking for activities that would bring us together, that felt more collaborative and had nothing to do with commercialism. So we turned to physical ways of making, tangible ways of making to transform our environment and, at the very least, also to change our mood.

Many of us sought out craft as a way of being in better touch with ourselves creatively, and with the slower rhythm of life during the early stages of the pandemic.

Burks have traveled extensively, learning the value of handcrafted design from many talented artisans. (Photo courtesy of Burks)

ArtsATL: You are keenly aware of built environments and design and their power to influence one’s sense of well-being. Did any aspect of sheltering in place challenge or upend your previous understanding of what made your house a home?

Burks: We were very challenged with the limitations of our own home. While the phrase “shelter in place” has many interpretations, “lockdown,” which many people experienced around the world (some longer than others), conjures up feelings of imprisonment.

No one could have foreseen these limitations prior to the pandemic, which made using our imaginations even more important — not just in the reinvention of the things that we live with, but also in trying to relate to the world around us and the people that we couldn’t see or be with.

ArtsATL: You visited South Africa in 2005. How did your perspective shift after working with craftpeople there?

BurksPrior to my first trip to Africa I was trying to find my way as a designer without considering how my identity affected what I made.

Working as a product development consultant with multiple artisan groups for the first time opened my eyes to a completely new way of pursuing design that could both speak to who I am, and where I came from, as well as incorporate the age-old wisdom I encountered through hand production.

ArtsATL: What do you hope to impart as an instructor at Berea College? What have you learned in the process?

Burks: At Stephen Burks Man Made, we’ve always believed that everyone is capable of design. At Berea College, I encountered a 100-year old craft tradition of student makers who had never participated in the design process and so it seemed obvious to me that it would be my goal to transform that system in favor of student design instead of student labor . “Crafting Diversity” literally became both the strategy for achieving this and the result.

ArtsATL: Global cultural references are evident throughout Shelter in place. How has your art practice changed as a result of cross-cultural collaborations?

Burks: Travel became my greatest inspiration during the studio’s early years of criss-crossing the globe and working in over 12 countries on four continents. I consider those experiences to be another form of design education and those collaborators to be my greatest mentors.

Although in many ways I still haven’t succeeded in achieving the truly inclusive project I dream of, I have begun to chart the roadmap for where the studio can be in the future.

::

Students from Berea College will be running workshops and conducting a series of demonstrations for the public on Saturday, February 11, and Sunday, February 12, at the High School.

On sale in the High gift shop is the exhibition catalog, Stephen Burks: Shelter in Place, which contextualizes Burks. It’s a wide-ranging work incorporating essays, photo essays and a conversation between Burks and the late cultural critic bell hooks.

::

Gail O’Neill is an ArtsATL editor-at-large. She hosts and co-produces Collective Knowledge a conversational series that’s broadcast on THEA Networkand frequently moderated author talks for the Atlanta History Center.

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