We’re already a good ways into the “new” century (23 years and 23 days, to be exact), but in some respects the design industry still feels rooted in the last one. Take, for example, the way that furniture designers are paid for their work, with a tiny royalty on every piece sold. The model dates back to a 1931 agreement between designer Gilbert Rohde and Herman Miller, who agreed to give Rohde 3 percent—today, the exact same model, and even the amount, remains common in the industry. It’s precisely that kind of 100-year-old practice that industrial designer Stephen Burks wants to examine, reevaluate and, in some cases, dismantle entirely.
“We have a new generation that’s coming to terms with what design is, and they’re not interested in the 20th century definition of luxury,” Burks tells host Dennis Scully on the latest episode of The Business of Home Podcast. “It isn’t about simply offering style for luxury products. It has to be a much deeper relationship to material, processes and community. … There has to be a shift in the way we do business, alongside the way we reconsider who we’re making it with, who we’re making it for and who actually benefits.”
Burks has followed a unique path into the design industry. A Chicago native, he originally pursued architecture as a grad student at Columbia University but found that most of his peers advanced their careers by working gratis for the starchitects of the day—a route that required support from well-to-do parents. Burks worked after college, ended up in Europe and, inspired by a visit to Salone del Mobile, decided to pursue furniture design. His work was seen by the president of furniture manufacturer Cappellini, and soon Burks was a member of the very small club of American designers who have worked with top-tier European brands like Moroso, Missoni and Roche Bobois.
Those collaborations helped Burks’s star rise in the early aughts, but much of his work has actually been about widening the scope of design beyond Eurocentrism. Burks, half-jokingly, says he loves Italy, but that “there is so much attention given to a country the size of California. … We default to Italian and Scandinavian design as teaching us how to live, and the world is much bigger than that.” To that end, over the past decade he’s worked with more than a hundred artisans across 12 countries on four continents, always seeking ways to bring new voices into design while also pursuing an economic model that doesn’t fizzle out after the grant money dries up.
More open doors in design is one change Burks would like to see, as is a bigger slice of the economic pie for designers themselves, and he argues convincingly that as design has become a more important selling point for products of all kinds, those who actually do the design should be rewarded more handsomely. More sustainability, more innovation and less stifling bureaucracy—above all, Burks wants the industry to take a hard look at itself and make some seriously 21st century changes. And no, he says, an impending potential downturn is not a reason to hit pause on progress.
“During those difficult times, why not invest in change, why not try to build a better future?” he says. “I don’t really accept [a recession] as an excuse. I see it more as an opportunity.”
Homepage image: Stephen Burks | Courtesy of the designer