By Steve Hendershot

There was no college recruitment battle for Stephen Burks (DSGN ’92). He applied to just one school, Illinois Institute of Technology, though it was more like applying to a single building: Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s S. R. Crown Hall.

Burks wasn’t a globally renowned industrial designer back then, just an art-obsessed teen. As a pre-teen, he made his first solo trek on the “L” from his South Side home to the Art Institute of Chicago; by the time he finished high school, he knew both the Art Institute of Chicago and the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago inside and out, along with the city’s architectural history. And Crown Hall pulled at him like a magnet, not only because he considered it to be “a temple of architectural education,” but also because he loved the building itself, and the triumph of design that it represented.

“Something about the proportions and the way the milky white glass abstracted the light was so uplifting and essential that it made an indelible impression on me,” Burks says.

But something peculiar happened once Burks arrived on campus. As he absorbed the lessons of Bauhaus and began to find his own creative voice, he moved away from the aesthetic that drew him to Crown Hall in the first place. He dropped architecture in favor of product design and the multidisciplinary design education of the New Bauhaus—Illinois Tech's Institute of Design—that would later inspire him to gravitate toward a less-heralded aspect of the Bauhaus tradition: its emphasis on craft.

That shift in focus has helped to propel Burks to global acclaim. After moving to New York to attend graduate school at Columbia University, Burks broke through in the early 2000s with projects for major Italian design houses Cappellini and Missoni. His work was distinct because it incorporated textiles and other references rooted in his early work in countries such as Senegal and South Africa. Those early collaborations also helped Burks forge a creative identity that was fresh and well-suited to the cultural moment, even as it was strongly rooted in the century-old Bauhaus tradition.

“Stephen is a true inheritor of the Bauhaus tradition, but instead of the steel-and-glass version of that legacy, it’s the deep, process-led, aspect of it," says design historian Glenn Adamson, former director of the Museum of Arts and Design in New York. “He’s connecting to one of the founding principles of modernism, which was later lost—to be flexible and attentive to locality and cultural specificity.”

“Everyone is capable of dreaming; therefore, everyone is capable of design, and everyone should have access to the possibilities of design,”
—Stephen Burks

Burks has stayed true to that concept, and his career has flourished. In 2015 he became the only African-American to win the National Design Award in Product Design from the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum, and in 2019 he became a Loeb Fellow at Harvard University. Burks has excelled not only while working from his Brooklyn studio, Stephen Burks Man Made, and while teaching at both Harvard and Columbia, but also as a globe-trotting traveler, who has worked with artisans around the world, from India, Ghana, Australia, and the Philippines, to students at Berea College in Kentucky.

Amidst that sustained success, 2020 marked an inflection point for Burks. It was the year of the pandemic as well as of America’s national reckoning over racial justice. As perhaps the world’s foremost African-American industrial designer, Burks was a natural fit to help his peers grapple with racial issues in their industry.

“This past year was traumatic but also galvanizing,” says Burks. Over the last year, he seized on opportunities to speak out against inequality and a lack of inclusion in the design industry. While his message necessarily has racial and cultural implications, Burks has even broader ambitions when it comes to breaking down barriers in the rarified world of design.

“Everyone is capable of dreaming; therefore, everyone is capable of design, and everyone should have access to the possibilities of design,” Burks says. “There is enough space for everyone to have a seat at the table, if we’re open to more pluralistic approaches to what we make and how we make it.”

Burks also has become a sort of journalist during the pandemic, co-hosting with Adamson a Zoom conversation series called Design in Dialogue, through New York gallery Friedman Benda. The series began early in the pandemic, and once racial justice joined COVID-19 as the top issues of 2020, Adamson invited the collaborative and inquisitive Burks to join him.

“He’s played this incredible, pioneering role [as a breakthrough American designer of color],” says Adamson, author of the 2021 book Craft: An American History. “He’s not old enough to be an elder statesman, but a lot of people have that kind of respect for him, simply for having broken through that barrier.”

Next up for Burks is a midcareer retrospective exhibition at the High Museum of Art in Atlanta, where Curator of Decorative Arts and Design Monica Obniski is drawn to the diversity of Burks’s work. She plans to present his craft-oriented projects alongside more commercial products, such as his Grasso seating collection for BD Barcelona, which earned Burks recognition as the first American to win a Furniture of the Year award from Spanish design association ADI-FAD.

“When you see the products of these two disciplines side by side, it becomes clear that they actually have more in common than we think,” says Obniski. She notes that Burks “comes at design from this architectural and industrial design background, but it’s filtered through this creative lens that you don’t see from a lot of designers, which is his devotion to the handcrafted.”

The frayed connection between craft and design seems odd to Burks. After all, his Bauhaus-inspired training taught him that that relationship to craft is not only natural, but imperative. So now, through his words and his work, Burks seeks to demonstrate his “belief that the closer the hand gets to the act of making, the more potential there is for innovation.”