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Combining world-renowned luxury and hand-made craftsmanship, industrial designer Stephen Burks is known for merging authentic craft traditions with contemporary design. Since founding his New York-based studio, Stephen Burks Man Made, Burks has exhibited his designs in numerous institutions including the Studio Museum in Harlem and the Museum of Arts and Design. Now, Burks is focusing on his latest collaboration with French interior design company Roche Bobois. To celebrate the brand’s 40th anniversary, Burks even designed and created an exclusive collection of chairs, exploring a traveler’s perspective through Europe and Asia. Burks spoke with Whitewall about his Traveler collection, inspired by his travels and cultural identity.
WHITEWALL: What were some of your points of inspiration behind the outdoor Traveler collection?
STEPHEN BURKS: The Traveler Collection is an ongoing project with Roche Bobois that Nicholas Roche and I imagine collaborating on in different countries around the world. The concept is about exploring ways for a conscious luxury brand like Roche Bobois to have a dialogue with new markets through expressive artisanal products. This time, Nicholas Roche and I went to Indonesia to extend the Traveler family and produce the Asian Traveler. For the Asian Traveler I built upon the European Traveler’s woven leather cord and skeletal frame to create a full outdoor collection for Roche Bobois, including lounge chairs (with and without canopy), sofa, ottoman, dining chairs, and dining tables in my signature vocabulary of woven vibrancy inspired by rich Indonesian craftsmanship.
WW: For its 40th anniversary, Roche Bobois unveiled your iconic Traveler chair. How did you initiate the idea behind these chairs?
SB: After 40 years in America, Roche Bobois had never worked with an American designer before. So Nicolas Roche and I began to question the notion of a European brand exporting the same product all over the world without acknowledging the differences between the markets its brand “traveled” to. The Traveler project was inspired by this new conversation between Europe and America. Could we make two chairs – one inspired by European craft traditions and materials one American and allow there to be some cross-over between the two? In the end, are we all really that different or more similar than we know? The result is an ongoing project intended to question these invisible boundaries, clichés and local preferences through the design of products that have cultural specificity and simultaneous universal appeal.
WW: How is this season’s version of the current Traveler chair different from previous designs?
SB: The Outdoor Traveler was obviously inspired by the European Traveler in form and technique. It’s an extension of this iconic lounge chairs ability to transport the user spiritually and metaphorically. Ironically, many of the people that sat in the European Traveler didn’t see it’s traditional Scandinavian weaving, but imagined it came from Africa or Asia because they thought of it’s canopy as belonging to a chair outside of Europe, possibly an outdoor chair. The Outdoor Traveler is in fact an Asian Traveler hand woven in Indonesia using high-tech extruded polyethylene instead of leather. The collection includes a sofa, dining chairs and a dining table, as well as the canopied lounge chair and low lounge chair in two color ways.
WW: This collection features a unique and contrasted color palette. What was the inspiration behind your choices?
SB: It has a very light, almost tropical appeal in either color way without sacrificing Roche Bobois’ dedication to comfort. Regardless of where the Traveler travels to, it will always be an oasis of comfort. The two color ways could be described as warm and cool, with pillows that can be mixed and matched to create more hybrid color combinations, which is very much in line with my way of thinking.
WW: What is your favorite piece in this collection?
SB: I suppose the dining set is somehow most unexpected in terms of its universal appeal and successful integration of weaving and structure. I love the woven table frame under glass!
WW: You have many exciting upcoming projects. Is there anything in particular we should keep a lookout for?
SB: Of course, I can’t speak for Nicolas Roche, but I’d love to develop and African Traveler next and upend expectations of what a Roche Bobois collection inspired by African can be. Maybe it’s not outdoors at all? Maybe it’s not even colorful?! After all, Africa is a continent of 54 countries and even more cultures, not a trend.