The pandemic was a time of reckoning for Brooklyn-based industrial designer and educator Stephen Burks, as it was for many. “We were forced to reexamine who we were as people, as a family, as a community,” he says. “We were confronting our domestic laws again.”
This tension, while traumatic, begat new ideas. Burks calls them “creative survival tactics for being forced to live at home with your teen and partner,” only half joking. To wit: A conversation about reinventing the TV as the center of family life led to his mixed media work Woven TV, which is a discarded flat-screen television encased in a lattice-like sculpture that viewers can adorn with mementos. It is one of 50 works presented in Stephen Burks: Shelter in Place, on display at the High Museum through March 2023. Burks is an internationally recognized designer with many honors, including being the first African American artist to win the Smithsonian Cooper Hewitt National Design Award in Product Design.
The exhibit includes several rooms of Burks’s furniture and crafts, with his previous, iconic pieces for Dedon, Missoni, and Roche Bobois—such as his Traveler chair for the latter—mixed in with new exploratory work commissioned by the High. (Roche Bobois is a show sponsor.)
Spirit House, one of the pandemic works, was inspired by his thoughts about grief. Burks’s son lost both maternal grandparents to Covid-19 early in 2020, when the family could not gather to mourn. His partner, Malika Leiper, is Cambodian. “There’s a tradition in her culture called the spirit house, about memorializing loved ones by creating a very intentional state for their spirituality within the home,” he says. Burks created a modern version of that concept and, for this exhibit, included a photo of his friend, the late author and cultural critic bell hooks.
“Design should not be dictated by a singular point of view, such as European,” he says. “Design needs to find other ways to be inclusive. The mission of the High to be more connected to local communities was interesting to me.”
For Burks, who is a cousin of Ambassador Andrew Young, Shelter in Place is about how design can respond to contemporary crises, creating a sense of belonging and togetherness during times of social upheaval. The exhibit touches on his commercial practice as well as his more experimental ones, he says. “I hope it inspires.”
This article appears in our December 2022 issue.