Baskets Abstracted: A Review of Stephen Burks’ Man-Made Exhibition

The tradition of  basket weaving and its usage is common throughout the continent of Africa for items typically used in the rituals of daily life. American-born and New York-based  renown industrial designer Stephen Burks chose this traditional technique and object to adapt, transforming it into a new cultural and commercial context as shown in his recent exhibition ‘Stephen Burks: Man-Made.

The designer in recent years, has focused on exploring the global economy of artisanal crafts. He  has showcased the talents of craftsman from developing nations around the globe, countering the commonly held notion that traditional craftsmen are unable to produce contemporary designed items. It has not been an exercise in vain, the talented designer has been commissioned by industry heavy-weights such as Patrizia Moroso, for Italian manufacturer Moroso’s M’Afrique collection and exhibition.

The show which closed this past June 26, 2010, curated by Naomi Beckwith, at the Studio Museum in Harlem, New York was the museum’s first foray into exhibiting industrial design as well as the  designer’s first solo showing there.

In an interview with Sight Unseen, Burks recounts what seeded this project: a chance meeting with a Senegalese basket salesman, Serigne Diouck,  several years back at a New York street fair. From there the two began a dialogue on materials and techniques which eventually lead to a documentary shoot in 2009 and experiments with these traditional baskets. One example of these experiments is the starburst lamp, a readymade third-world Taraxacum Castiglioni lamp of sorts. This item, as do many others in the show express the spirit of modernity that motivated Burks in developing this series of designed products. Something we recognise from a traditional context has visibly transcending its common function and even form, eloquently reconfigured into something new, beautiful yet somehow still familiar. Baskets truly abstracted.

Burks states that in Africa, it is quite prevalent for creativity and creation to be catalysed from materials and objects found on the roadside. He and his studio, Readymade Projects apply a somewhat similar workflow where a given material is the starting point for creation, from there it is about manipulating that material to serve the design purpose. This philosophy is apparent throughout the show.  Take for example the TaTu stools, where climbing rope is used together with Senegalese spiralling techniques to create a seat pad or say with a little tongue and cheek, and nod to Italian design legend Achille Castiglioni the starburst lamp. Though there were many, our favourites to name a few were the grass-green baskets transformed into a shelf and mirror [pictured above], the Alvar Alto vintage chair with light installation, TaTu the wire frame with cord stool, the totem objet d’art, the starburst lamp and low tables.

For design enthusiasts, the exhibition was presented comprehensively with many layers taking viewers through a journey that included a sound installation with voices of Dakar market life wafting through the space,  visual documentation of the project as well as inspiration photography, film, mood boards as well as material studies and form experiments and last but not least the prototypes themselves. The exhibition was not static, Burks also conceived an activity program where New York-based weavers and artisans would create a series of functional and experimental objects and installations.

Overall a well curated show that once again resonated a comment previously made by Burks,

‘Looking at africa through the eyes of contemporary art, photography, architecture and design is perhaps the most appropriate way of approaching this vast, powerful continent, so creatively rich and diverse that today it is still one of western modernity’s greatest sources of inspiration.’ – Stephen Burks


Stephen Burks is one of the most recognized American industrial designers of his generation. Based in New York, his studio Readymade Projects, has been responsible for creative direction and industrial design on projects ranging from retail interiors and events to packaging, consumer products, lighting, furniture and home accessories. He has developed innovative concepts for renowned international brands as well as continuing his commitment to sustainable design in the developing world.

Studio Museum Harlem : Stephen Burks – Man-made

Images © Kevin Kunstadt and Andrew Kenney, Daniel Håkansson for Readymade Projects (Via Designboom)

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