Meet the 2019 Loeb Fellows: Stephen Burks

Meet the 2019 Loeb Fellows: Stephen Burks

All right. Thank you, John. I’m just going to
jump right in here. So as John said, I’m
an industrial designer. It’s very exciting
to be here as– those are going kind
of fast, but anyway– as an industrial designer here
at the GSD as a Loeb Fellow. This redefinition of
the built environment is kind of what my work
is about, although it may be hard to see here. There are a lot of
pretty pictures going by. So I’m a little more,
I guess I could say, superficial than
my other Fellows. And I’m proud of that. I’m into making things. I’m into how the
making of things in my position in this kind
of exclusive world of design has a kind of transformative
power, how given my identity and given the
state of the world, I happen to be the first
African-American designer to work with all of
my clients worldwide. And it’s 2018. And things shouldn’t
really be that way. So when we look at the potential
for a more pluralistic approach to what is the design world,
what is the built environment, how does design
connect to community, and how do we make things,
there’s a lot of questions that we have to ask. The work for me comes
directly out of my education in industrial design at the
Institute of Design in Chicago. I went on to study architecture
at Columbia University, although I’ve never
practiced architecture. I do have a strong interest
in the other creative arts. I follow contemporary
art very closely. I follow fashion. I follow architecture. And I have clients and
all of those fields. Since 2005, I’ve collaborated
in over 10 countries with dozens of different artisan
groups all over the world– Senegal, Rwanda, Kenya, Ghana,
India, Mexico, Peru, Indonesia, Haiti with the Clinton
Global Initiative. A lot of this work began for
me as a product development consultant with
not-for-profits like Aid to Artisans here in the States
or Ten Thousand Villages, which some of you might
know, which I believe is the oldest nonprofit
connecting design to the developing
world, like I mentioned, the Clinton Global
Initiative, and Design Network Africa and Ghana, et cetera. I went from there to
thinking about how do I connect both sides of the
ways that I’m working? How do I connect what’s
going on in Europe for me with all of my international
clients, manufacturers that some of you might know? I’ll just list a few
for you that I’ve had the privilege of working with– B&B Italia, Boffi,
Cappellini, Dedon, Missoni. I was a consultant to Missoni
for almost nine years. And that was a very
formidable experience because they were
like a family to me. And my relationship to textiles
is very much part of the work. Let me see– on and on and on. So how do I connect that
very small world, but very influential world, of what we
consider design with a capital D to the rest of the world,
to what Mike talked about as the other 90%? I think that we,
as designers, have to kind of reinvent ourselves
in a 21st century model. We don’t have to think of
ourselves as simply signature designers. The way that I’m working
here is fairly traditional, in terms of I’m
designing for a client. The client is
producing the work. The client is
marketing the work. The client is
distributing the work. And my signature or my name
is associated with the work. I think today, we have
to think of designers as a kind of conduit
through which ideas flow as a collaborator in a way
that can connect to community and then connect
to distribution. Very early on, you may
have seen a black triangle. That’s called a
development triangle. And that’s a kind
of economic model that I developed for Aid to
Artisans back in 2005 when I first started working for them. Part of the problem
of collaborating with not-for-profits in
these places in the world is that they have a
very limited budget. And they go in with funding
for only three months or six months. And in a way, they don’t have
a longer-term project in mind. Coming from the kind
of commercial world, let’s say, I went in into what
can be considered design boot camp, my first trips
to South Africa, where I had to work with over 12
different artisan groups in one week. And they were asking
me questions like, who’s going to buy this? When do we get paid? How do we package
and distribute this? And all of a sudden,
I realized my role as the designer had to
kind of be rethought. And thinking about that
development triangle once again, what’s missing
and what is always missing is distribution. So I began building a bridge
from those manufacturers or those producers
in different places around the world with my kind
of international manufacturers in Europe. And we did some
projects like that. And some of them
got a lot of press. And some of them were very
successful in a media way. But in my opinion, they
were complete failures. I think we may have
sold, with Cappellini for example, a silicon vase and
bowl that you may have seen. We may have sold
maybe 15 of these. This bowl costs
something like, I would say $5, to
produce in South Africa. We paid the artisan
something like $50 a day to produce these bowls. In a day, they could
make four of them. We went on to sell that bowl
to Cappelini for about $150. And guess how much
they sold it for– about $900. So how many of you want
a $900 silicon bowl? As beautiful as it is, it’s
a little bit difficult. So we quickly realized that
model wasn’t really working for us. And then I tried
to start my brand. [? mikheel ?] and
I joked yesterday about how today was going
to be all about failures. [laughs] I tried to
start my own brand. And that’s incredibly hard. I don’t know if any of you
have ever considered that. But it’s nearly impossible
without a huge degree of funding and a huge
network for distribution. So we sold a few
products once again. But I’m talking about how– I’m thinking about or
wondering how can I connect to, I don’t know, dozens
of artisan collectives that I’ve collaborated
with over the years? How do I actually
get them working on these kinds of products? And that’s been the problem. My commercial work continues. I continue to work with all
of the big brands, et cetera. We’re doing more and
more and more interesting projects like that. Some of them, I’ve managed
to kind of convince to produce in a certain way. We like to talk about
bringing the hand to industry. So as a kind of tool
for transformation within the factory, this is
kind of our way of working. But for some of be clients,
it’s just not applicable. And I’m here at GSD with
this Loeb Fellowship, wondering what the next move is. How do I take all of this
experience and all of this work and really develop a new
platform for reaching a broader audience? So once again, the problem
goes back to distribution. We have to think about– or
I’m trying to think about– if I could get one person here
making something in ceramics, another person here
making something in glass, another person on the
other side of the world making something in textile. Could we link those different
manufactures together and sell a product to all of you here? So how do we begin to
look at new distribution channels and new means of how
community meets craft, meets technology? So these are some of the
things that I’m thinking about. And I’m interested
in welcoming all of your feedback, et cetera. And I’m looking for assistance. [laughs] I was going to do
the shout-out here. I’m definitely looking for help
in this, a research assistant, a design assistant,
multiple interns. I don’t know who of you here
might be interested in helping. But this is a project
that I’m hoping to pursue at some level
in depth while I’m here as a Loeb Fellow. And I’m hoping you
can help me with that. Thank you very much. [applause]

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