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08 Jun 2007

Freehand design

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Freehand_designAt Milan American designer Stephen Burks was busy launching a new desk and shelving system for Modus, side tables for B&B and collections for Artecnica and Boffi. He also found time to tell Kerstin Zumstein about his recent experience of liberation through handicraft and the junction between art and design

Stephen Burks is well recognised in the USA as one of the most innovative industrial designers of his generation. His New York-based studio, Readymade Projects, has developed conceptual designs for renowned clients such as Cappellini, Vitra, Zanotta, Moroso, Missoni and this year also B&B. On my way out to Milan the airport billboard at Heathrow was showing Burks’ design for Calvin Klein’s newest perfume range CKIN2U. The plan was to meet Burks at the Modus venue but we bump into each other at B&B’s store on Via Durini and sit down on Patricia Urquiola’s Fat sofa for a chat. Burks is spontaneous, energetic and a treat to interview in the chaos of La Fiera.

“In the furniture world Italy is the Mecca,” Burks says. “America still has a Europe-centric perspective when it comes to what’s going on in design and it’s no coincidence that my success in America is linked to early collaborations with Italian companies.”

In 2000, Burks first started working in Europe with Cappellini. A diverse range of projects followed including an installation for Missoni, where Burks used cut-off fabrics from a fashion collection to decorate vases. “People say it’s not my style because they view it as a decorative product but I always saw it as a recycling project.”

We continue to talk about Burks’ style, but he feels his work is more about ideas. “I don’t have a signature style and in some cases it’s been difficult to work with companies because they say, ‘We like his work but what’s his style?’” Burks doesn’t approach design with a form in mind – the product grows out of an idea, which he describes as being “intellectual at times, conceptual, even whimsical”. He traces this back to the difference in design education between the US and Europe (having himself studied at Illinois Institute of Technology, USA).

Burks feels in America it is more about the in-house designer as a corporate tool, while in Europe the designer is brought into a company to create a signature style. He sees himself riding the line between the two models. “Starck is a prime example for the idea of signature designer. But the theory goes all the way back to Achille Castiglioni adopting the auteur theory for design.”

While we’re talking, Antonio Citterio enters the B&B showroom. Burks jumps up to shake his hand and turns to me with eyes on fire, saying: “Citterio, he’s the man!” I had already decided that Burks was an exceptionally affable person but to see him so awestruck adds to the notion that Milan during La Fiera is a versatile melting pot of creative talents that has it’s wow moments for everybody, even accomplished designers. “I get nervous every time I see the man,” Burks confesses, “because Citterio has accomplished so much. He set a precedent of how design can influence business and this thinking is what I studied at Illinois: design more as a strategy or methodology and less about form.” At the same time Citterio is the contemporary model of the designer as auteur (lending his signature style to a company). So looking at Burks’ new launch products, how do they fit in with this idea?

Burks’ first ever B&B product is called Part – three different-sized, triangular steel coffee tables that nest together and can be used for indoors and outdoors. That was the brief, but when they first met to discuss the commission Burks simultaneously pitched an idea. “I thought of this part, a blank let’s say, like a piece of raw material that’s similar to a clothing pattern and can be cut and formed into a shape. It can be anything, a stool, a tray … B&B asked, ‘Can it be a coffee table, we need a coffee table,’ but for me, in essence, I saw it as a constructive idea, a polyfunctional object.” The tables – in combinations of black, grey and white, or red, orange and yellow – to me resemble folded serviettes.

Burks believes that while form is an expression of its time, it can also come through the materials, the production process, the conceptual reformulation of how we think about the home or the workplace. For him the design profession is more than being a stylist, it’s about communicating the systematic thinking about how things go together and with that educating the end user about design, sparking a deeper interest. But can you communicate the production process to your standard end user through a finished product? Burks points to the hole at the tip of each triangle, saying, “The aluminum cannot be bent into this desired form without leaving the hole. The material is restricting so the reality and function of the production becomes visible and therefore contributes to the aesthetics.”
So there’s a signature. And Burks has developed the idea of creating furniture like folding paper further with his studio Readymade Projects. They are currently working on a project called Handmade showing at ICFF in New York next month. “It’s a response to what I see happening in the art world and its relationship to design at the moment.

Traditional crafts and making things by hand has suddenly become really important again.” In times of mass production where there are already many tables and chairs, unique pieces that convey a sense of personalisation are becoming more and more desirable. So Burks has been spending time in Peru, South Africa and recently Mexico looking at traditional craftsmanship and with that discovering a new way of working. “I used to be a slave to the computer and now find it liberating to be put back in contact with my hands and raw materials,” he says.
At Milan this year it seems a few young designers are turning to handicraft methods for new inspiration in design processes and folding materials like origami seems quite a trend (see Stefan Diez’s Bent table for Moroso or Ligne Roset’s multifunctional stool/foot-matt in News, page 26). According to Burks, most contemporary design works via remote control, with designers sitting in different countries than manufacturers, and design being developed, generated and produced on computers and sent over via email. “Something gets lost. That’s why Italy stands out, because its design tradition is connected to architecture, a tradition based on the hand. The eye perceiving, the mind imaging, the hand creating … that’s how humans work.”

So it’s back to basics for Burks. For him this is the new art-meets-design junction. “It’s not necessary for designers solely to work towards mass production anymore – they can work towards a realm of ideas the way art does.” This notion echoes the auteur concept, expressing individual creativity in a commercial industry. Obviously functional constraints are inherent in product design but the movement and market for personalised products liberates the industrial designer like never before.

On the other hand Burks is actively working towards connecting the developing world to mass production. He is a consultant for Aid to Artisans, a non-profit organisation that is on a mission to enable the developing world to compete with the contemporary world of commerce. “It’s the other side of the coin. We are working to bring craftsmen forward from making souvenir trinkets to applying their craft tradition to products of contemporary value.” One example of this undertaking is on show at Milan: the Tatu tables by Artecnica, which are part of a Design with Conscience collection that consists of wire indoor/outdoor modular tables and accessories. And this collection was also used as part of the styling concept for Boffi’s new bathroom products during the show, where Burks launched a range of satin stainless steel bathroom accessories.

The Tatu tables were made by Willard Mussara, a craftsman from the poorest township in South Africa. “I saw him make souvenir bicycles by hand and said, ‘Do you want to make a table?’ We showed him a sketch and he made it good enough for Artecnica to produce.” There were of course a few hurdles in terms of redesigning for distribution, but Burks is excited about the prospect of “transforming through design” (explored in his documentary Making Things: Tranformation Through Design, filmed in Peru). “Aid for Artisans is funded by various US organisations and aims to get people in developing countries away from the drug and military trade. The Tatu example is what I call a successful design process. Through design we managed to solve the shipping problems and create three new products during that process: each table breaks down into trays, bowls and baskets.”

But Burks’ aspirations of re-engaging crafts in new commercial enterprises doesn’t stop here. The Sofa Pleat for Modus which he also launched at Milan tells another “signature” tale. “With Pleat, I challenged Modus to look at the surface rather than the shape. The sofa may appear traditional, in many ways undesigned, but it’s about the user experiences.” Burks asked, “What does the user experience when touching the surface?” I sit down on the square soft seater covered in a felt-like fabric with distinctive pleats and can’t help but run my fingers down them in a soothing, rhythmical motion. The sofa covers were made by a Scottish kilt maker, again taking a traditional craft and reapplying it to a modern project.

Modus was also showing an extension of Burks’ shelving system, Parallel, with a new simple desk. The second shelf cleverly turns into the desk surface, and despite the product working mainly in a home office – arranged in a line, with each desk mirroring the unique curve of the opposite – the constellation could work well in a small creative practice. The main idea stems from Burks’ first workplace project in 2002 for E&Y, called Workstation. It’s a flexible, small office system in steel that also has repositionable storage accessories suspended below the shelves. “I’ve no idea why it never found a dealer in Europe,” Burks says. “Its aim to effectively use small space would be ideal for London.” Half jokingly, he turns to Jon Powell of Modus to pitch the idea.

Burks is unstoppable. From our coincidental meeting at B&B to the crazy cross-city cab ride over to the Modus launch in Zona Tortona, Burks spurts impulses, ideas and stories. He continues to bump into people he knows from all over the world (Mexico, France, the UK) and he chats to each one of them, whether they are colleagues, journalists or students that have visited his lectures in the past. Despite having flown in from New York that morning Burks takes a dynamic approach to every situation thrown at him – he makes time to call his wife, speak to his baby boy and all the while keeps suggesting new product ideas to solve any problem we come across on the way. The guy is so full of energy, it’s contagious!

At an early stage in our conversation Burks said to me, “When I was at college we used to work on these big theoretical projects so when I first came in contact with the furniture world it seemed so small. I always thought I’d be designing new water solutions to save the world or something.” By the end of our time together I realise that idealistic approach of a young scholar wanting to change the world is still in there, just that Burks has managed to translate that aim into a realistic and successful enterprise. He may not have an instantly recognisable style but maybe exactly that is his signature. In any case, what this space!

At Milan American designer Stephen Burks was busy launching a new desk and shelving system for Modus, side tables for B&B and collections for Artecnica and Boffi. He also found time to tell Kerstin Zumstein about his recent experience of liberation through handicraft and the junction between art and design

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