Designer Stephen Burks discusses the lack of diversity in the design industry and explains how his early experiences with European brands led him to work with artisans in the developing world in our latest VDF x Friedman Benda talk.
“I’m trying to find a way to express my identity in some regard,” Burks told curator and historian Glenn Adamson in the latest of New York gallery Friedman Benda’s Design in Dialogue interviews that we are publishing as part of Virtual Design Festival.
“Because, as you know, international design isn’t the most diverse place. It’s been my great privilege to be the first and only African American to work with all my clients. And that’s kind of crazy. You realise that design is kind of this final frontier of culture.”
Burks founded his New York studio, then called Readymade Projects, in 1997. His big break came in 2000, when Italian furniture brand Cappellini put his first designs into production.
“I did my first pieces for Cappellini in 2000 and that was huge and mind-blowing,” he said. “It’s hard to explain to the current generation how important that was. There were only two or three American designers working in Europe with the big companies when I started.”
According to Burks, his early experiences in Europe made him much more aware of his African heritage.
“Not only was I American, but Europe very quickly reminded me that I was African American,” he said, recounting stories of how European media compared him to a basketball player, a jazz musician and even Barack Obama.
“I hadn’t really seen myself through that lens,” he continued. “I was just there making the things that I believed in.”
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