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The Inspiration Issue: Stephen Burks (Part 3/5)

Friday, September 5th, 2014

Portrait by Rainer Hosch with additional images courtesy of Stephen Burks.  

For industrial designer Stephen Burks, travel isn’t just a catalyst for inspiration but a way of life that has come to shape his worldview and define his career. Since 2005, he has worked in Australia, Colombia, Ghana, Haiti, India, Kenya, Mexico, Peru, the Philippines, Rwanda, Scandinavia, South Africa, Senegal, and throughout almost all of Europe.

“Among my favorite trips are Jyvaskyla, Finland—skinny dipping in Alvar Aalto’s summerhouse lake—gazing at the stars while dodging kangaroos in Western Australia, and island hopping near Dedon Island in the Philippines,” he says. With a passport as heavily stamped as this, who wouldn’t find inspiration in jet setting?

As Burks geared up to release his latest collection, the Traveler chair (out this October), we sat down with the Chicago-bred designer to delve deeper into why travel makes him tick. (For one, it allows him to be perhaps the only person to ever reminisce about a work jaunt through Italy with the joke, “Eight-hundred meters of leather cord alle vongole, anyone?”)

Design Bureau: Why do you find travel to be an essential part of life?

Stephen Burks: Travel activates my imagination! It allows me to escape my everyday context and get back in touch with my senses. My eyes see again, my ears hear again— sometimes in a different language— and, if I’m lucky, my hands touch again through the materials of the project I’m in the field working on at the moment.

DB: Best trip you've taken?

SB: My most recent one is always my favorite. I live on through it for months until the next one comes along. Regardless of how many times I travel to Italy, it always surprises and fascinates me. The culture of making is still so rich; it’s no wonder that so many manufacturers are still there working by hand. Nicolas Roche and I spent about three-and-a- half weeks traveling from Bologna to Manzano literally crafting the Traveler project and eating the most extravagant meals along the way.

DB: How much does travel intertwine with your design work?

SB: It’s such an integral part of my work that I named my collection after it. For the past 10 years, I’ve been moving away from the studio-based practice of working by remote control and just sending drawings to the manufacturer toward a more workshop-in-the-field- based practice of making on the go while traveling from one little hand factory to the next.

DB: Speaking of your collection, what was going through your mind as you developed the design? 

SB: The Traveler is rooted in the idea of escaping from the everyday. If you could get away to paradise or that mythical, tropical, jungle-like place that the modern world dreams of, could it take the form of a Roche Bobois lounge chair? Could it make you dream of far-away lands as far as the most remote place in your imagination and as close as your patio? Could it somehow represent the French l’art de vivre of Roche Bobois—the hand-made, man-made result of the brand’s first American designer—as well as your desire to get away from it all without leaving your living room in a cradle of leather-crafted comfort? Absolutely!

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