Burks’ design ethos is to integrate handcraft into industrial manufacturing.
“In industrial production it’s typically believed that the more times the hand touches something, the more expensive it becomes. So the hand is eliminated from industrial production. The machines should be efficient enough to produce the product as quickly as possible,” he said. “We believe that the more times the hand touches something the more value we can contribute. We like to use the hand where the hand is most useful, and the machine where the machine is most useful.”
Not just more hands: Burks would like to see more diversity of hands contributing to design. He said he has collaborated with hundreds of people across six continents and 20 countries in order to fulfill a mission of pluralistic design.
“All of us, regardless of how we’re educated or where we’re from in the world, have ideas,” he said. “We dream and we manifest those expressions through how we manipulate material around us.”
The Art Museum is presenting “Shelter in Place” on the occasion of awarding Burks its 37th annual Collab Design Excellence Award. The exhibition had previously been at the High Museum of Art in Atlanta, Georgia.
In Atlanta, the exhibition had more space to spread out. The single-gallery show at the Art Museum forced the exhibition to be pared down, but the room’s high-ceiling allowed the curatorial team to fabricate a tiered display, where objects are placed on three platforms of increasing height, like a giant stepladder.
“My inspiration was the Rocky steps,” Burks said. “What if we could tier the work and make greater use of the gallery’s height, and allow people to see things in the foreground and at a distance? Essentially making a kind of stadium: you walk in and see everything at the same time.”
The most recent work in “Shelter in Place ” came out of pandemic thinking. With more people spending more time at home, Burks considered that objects in the home take on greater significance. It could even approach something spiritual, as he suggests in “Spirit House,” a bright yellow talismanic structure on the scale of a dollhouse.
“Spirit House” is a design solution for an emotional problem: Burks said his son, Anwar, lost both of his maternal grandparents in the first month of the pandemic shutdown.
“Not knowing how to cope with that at home was a big problem for us, at a time when we couldn’t gather as communities and we couldn’t grieve as communities,” he said. “We borrowed from the Southeast Asian tradition of the spirit house. Anwar is Filipino. My partner Malika is Cambodian. We looked at those traditions where memorial and remembrance are part of the public sphere and a daily practice.”
In the exhibition, Burks’ “Spirit House” contains a small woven basket, a stick of incense, and a photo of the celebrated writer bell hooks, whom Burks knew toward the end of her life. She died two years ago.
“Shelter In Place” will be on view at the Philadelphia Museum of Art until April 14.