21 Questions With Industrial Designer Stephen Burks

Photo-Illustration: Lined; Photo: Courtesy of the artist

Many of us have done small home improvement projects during the pandemic, but educator and industrial designer Stephen Burk took advantage of the “Shelter in place” order to invent new furniture: a woven “furniture” for a flat screen, a small memorial altar based on Southeast Asian spiritual homes to help his son mourn his deceased family members, and pedestal-shaped supports for small electronics, therefore his partner, the cultural strategist Malika Leipercould transform their living room in a home office. These pieces, and more, are part of “Shelter in place”, a new retrospective exhibition at the High Museum in Atlanta, which runs until March 5, 2023.

Last name: Stephen Burk
Age: 53
Piece: Boerum Hill
Occupation: Draftsman

What’s hanging above your couch?
A large photograph of Paul Mpagi – I am not afraid of his Filter series.

What was the first job you had in New York?
At the risk of going out with myself, I did displays for Barneys in the early 90s. The store had these funny window displays all the time and it was like you were always in Christmas window display mode with ideas wacky. As a young college student from Chicago, it was exciting to see the inner workings of the Madison Avenue flagship’s scale presentation and display.

What color are you always drawn to?
Warm colors draw me in and comfort me, so the orange, red and yellow side of the spectrum. Terracotta is my favorite color of all.

What work of art or artefact are you most surprised to own?
I recently received a large block of wood from the designer Jonathan Muecke. It is a solid oak cube with intricate joinery that must weigh 200 pounds. It’s really silly in the simplicity of the idea, but it’s incredibly sophisticated in its execution. I remember when I brought it home, I thought, This is just a big block of wood. You don’t want to talk about how much it costs or what it does. It has become a side table that someone sometimes bumps their foot on.

Which New Yorker would you like to date?
About 20 years ago, I met Fran Lebowitz at a party. She was the most New Yorker of any New Yorker I had ever met. I know it’s hard to believe, but we’ve spent what feels like hours talking about the most mundane things in the funniest way. I couldn’t believe I was there conversing with her. It was kind of romantic in a comedic, intellectual way. But at some point she apologized and I never saw her again. I’d like to pick up this thread with her.

What’s the last thing you did with your hands?
Our practice is called Stephen Burks Manmade, so everyone thinks we do everything by hand, but we don’t; we incorporate what we consider to be artisanal techniques into industrial production. But we spent the whole month of August making prototypes of the “Shelter in Place” project for the High Museum.

Is there something you have multiple versions of?
I’m a huge Dries van Noten fan. Whenever he features T-shirts, I always buy two. The most flattering question I get when I wear them is, You’re the one who made that ? It’s like, Wow, I wish I had.

Which museum in New York do you always go to?
The Whitney. I’m not the biggest fan of the Renzo Piano building – it’s kind of like a boat, isn’t it? – but I like large galleries without columns and outdoor spaces.

What do you always have next to your computer?
A large Blue Bottle New Orleans iced coffee. It’s like coffee milk chocolate. As my son likes to remind me, I’m addicted.

Where is the best view in town?
The Empire State Building, if I could stand the lines and the crowds of tourists.

What building or object do you want to redraw each time you see it?
I am never really satisfied with the result of my own work, no matter how successful. Every time I come across my old things I’m happy – it’s like a surprise to meet an old friend – but I sit there studying them and rethinking all the details and how I would do things differently today . It’s an obsessive-compulsive internal exercise that I do on my own and that I try not to reveal to others at the risk of sounding crazy.

What is one thing you would change in your field?
The current 3% royalty standard for the furniture industry was established in the late 1920s by Gilbert Rohde and Herman Miller, and it basically hasn’t changed in 100 years. At the time, Herman Miller was broke and couldn’t pay design fees to Rohde, but the designer was so confident in his ability to make something that would sell that he got the idea that the designer wouldn’t would only get 3% of the selling price. It’s a bit arbitrary, and I think a complete reassessment of the standard is needed.

If you could live anywhere in New York, where would it be?
I love the area around Bond and Lafayette which feels a bit like no man’s land. The scale is grand: it feels like you’re downtown in the city, but there’s all that world-class mid-rise residential architecture you see in Europe but not much in the US . 40 Bond is my favorite apartment building downtown. The green glass facade is a killer and the cast aluminum door was created by sampling graffiti from across the city.

What would you hoard if it stopped being produced?
My mom used to say I had “steak taste on a burger budget”. I know that’s not the way the world is going, but I like a good steak and would probably hoard meat. I’m salivating just thinking about it.

What do you do to get out of a creative rut?
Travel is my biggest inspiration, so I would just go somewhere else.

Where was your first apartment in New York and how much was the rent?
I moved to New York from Chicago in 1992, to go to graduate school at Columbia, and lived in the East Village on Eighth Street between B and C. I found the apartment on a laundromat wall and it was $600 a month which is more than any of my friends could imagine paying. It was on the top floor with two windows facing the Empire State Building from my bedroom and three windows facing the World Trade Center from my bathroom.

Where in the city do you go to be alone?
Central park. It’s my favorite place in New York. And you’re not alone, of course, which is the best part. Because sometimes when you want to be alone it can be a bit depressing; maybe you have heavy thoughts or a problem to solve.

Worst career advice you’ve ever received?
When I was in college, I lived and worked in Tokyo for a summer. I didn’t want to go back to New York and finish my Masters in Architecture, but someone told me I had to, so I did. But as I am no longer an architect and have never practiced architecture, I would like to stay in Japan. I worked at Idea with Teruo Kurosaki, who discovered Marc Newson and introduced Philippe Starck to Japan. I would like this good thing to continue.

What have you given someone that you wish you could get back?
I had to sell a drawing by Lynette Yiadom-Boakye during the recession. It was heartbreaking, but it kept my studio going. A friend bought it for me and he refuses to resell it, although I don’t even think I can afford it now.

What is your favorite restaurant in NYC and do you order regularly?
I have a hard time with restaurants in New York. Everything is so overhyped, overpriced and the service sucks. But I love Wo Hop in Chinatown and always order the foo young shrimp eggs. Reminds me of Chicago Chinese food I grew up with.

What descriptive phrase do you want on your obituary?
“He lived.”

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