Interview with Corinna Sy (CUCULA) and Stephen Burks (Man Made)

»The products we make should be somehow serving society.«

  • Stephen Burks
Stephen Burls und Corinna Sy
Stephen Burks and Corinna Sy, Photography by Kristine Thiemann

Corinna Sy:

We started thinking about the questions: Why are refugees not allowed to work? Not allowed to earn money? We found that unacceptable and wanted to do something with them together. We talked to Enzo Mari and he gave us the permission to use his designs. In the beginning the furniture was meant to be for the guys, but we realised that they don’t need an interior, instead they want to have a work. So why not sell the furniture? That’s how the idea was born for a refugees company of craft and design, even though it was first only a sketch of a utopia. We built a website, a logo, we printed flyers; we did not even have a room or money to buy wood but we thought if we want to be a company, we have to show how it looks like. We wanted to make it visible."

Stephen Burks:

"That is what makes it so beautiful in the sense that it’s the work of a master like Enzo Mari that ends up creating a support for refugees. It exists this idea that there is this kind of economic transformation, which is possible through Design. That is part of my project as well."

Corinna you also had a project, where you used wood from Lampedusa. How was the feedback you got for this idea?

C.: Malik, one of our trainees had the idea of the »ambassador chair«. The coloured pieces of the chair are out of wood from houses in Lampedusa. It is the most controversial product we have. Malik wanted to build a chair our of pieces of the boat he came with to Lampedusa. It was a huge issue and
we discussed it a lot. In the end we traveled to Lampedusa and collected wood from boats, which had arrived there. Actually this chair is our best sold product. We didn’t want to see it as consumption object, rather as a vehicle that helps the guys to tell their stories. We got an amazing
feedback and with the first donations we could start prototyping our company. CUCULA is not just a manufacturing place, its an education program and association. We don’t like the term of laboratory, but we have the ambition to develop something in the process. We support people with their very complex situation and fragile documents. So the social support and legal advices are one big part. Important for us is also how we support people who want to return or have to return.

Talking about design. Stephen could you tell something about your work?

S.: My studio is called »Stephen Burks Man Made«, first of all because »Man Made« was the title of the exhibition that I had in 2011 at the Studio Museum in Harlem. It was the first time I was saying to the world, if these artisans, from Senegal for example can make your bread basket, they could also make your dining table, they could also make your chandelier or whatever. What I learned from this occasion is that it is possible to build a bridge from what we consider to be craft or developing world production to first world distribution, through association with important brands or important designers. Design is a western concept and as we all know design it was invented in a post-industrial revolution with the Bauhaus: This idea that you can make something through industry that somehow makes life better for everyone is a 20th century idea, but in the rest of the world people make things because they have to. The beauty of this things shines through, because it’s the appropriate relationship.

As I was encountering these different crafts I was saying to myself, wow these people are amazing designers and there is a kind of passion, that comes through the culture, I had never seen before. Because design is such an exclusive, homogenous, unfortunately undiverse discipline there are different things I had to deal with. Most of what we think of as design, in the Italian kind of design consciousness, comes from a country of the size of California. It’s incredible. At what point do we begin to look at the rest of the world and now that we have globalization, the immigrant crises, the
refugees crises etc. the brands are beginning to ask »What else is happening out there«. We begin to see brands coming from these other places, we begin to see a new interpretation of design.

A couple of times you said »bringing the hand to the industry«. Why is the hand so important?

S.: The hand is the original tool, I like to call the communities I work with »hand factories« and I mean that in the most creatious way possible. Through the hand we have power, the hand is an expression
of what we can make. (About the work with Dedon) All the products that we do are sort of workshop based, meaning we are going into the field and we are working directly with the artisans and developing these projects together.

There was a collaboration going on between you guys during the last 3/4 days. Maybe you can tell us a bit what you have been doing

S.: First of all thanks for bringing us together. I think this salon format (of M.Bassy) is incredible. It was great coming to Hamburg and work with CUCULA. We started talking and we were looking at the issues of having to produce these big pieces of furniture.

C.: It was a process. We started to collaborate over the Internet and discussed what we are going to make. Stephen sent us the design and first we thought we wouldn’t make it, because it was quite complicated to build. We shared some pictures of the tools we had and some informations about our capabilities and our skills and then Stephen came up with the second design, which worked well. It was a great energy. We worked really fast and we were really happy that after one and a half days we are able to present something.

S.: Corinna said we could use something smaller, something easier to ship, that can go into more locations. So we thought about making an accessories collection. This are really the first prototypes. There is a logic to it, my studio was about creating an easy system. We weren’t really sure if its
gonna work, but this is surprisingly strong and stable. After 10 years working in the field, what I learned from »design bootcamp« is that you can’t be so dogmatic; you have to go with the flow, be able to fail quickly and move on to the next concept. Design should be in service of industry and the products we make should be somehow serving society. That’s the utopian dream of what Design is.

Stephen, you criticize that we get more and more designers but less authenticthings. Do you think your approach is making things more authentic and this is what people actually want today?

S.: I would argue that we are all becoming more conscious as consumers. The idea of the designers designing products, remotely from his studio, I think this is a 20th century way of looking at design. And the 21th designers have to be or should be collaborators; designers should be the ones to
translate culture into meaningful objects. That’s kind of what we are trying to do. I am not feeding villages, at all, I believe in trade not aid. What I try to do is better align myself with companies that have a similar agenda like CUCULA or Dedon for example and to find ways to integrate this work and
these cultures and people into the product. This is been the approach which is working best for me.

The event series »More Aphrike« is funded by the TURN Fund of the German Federal Cultural Foundation, designed to encourage artistic cooperation between Germany and the African continent.