In 2018, we at Student Craft began discussion with an informal working group including Glenn Adamson: Curator, writer and historian working at the intersection of craft and contemporary art; Jon Prown: Executive Director and Chief Curator of the Chipstone Foundation, an organization devoted to advancing the field of Decorative Arts and Material Culture Studies; Meghan Doherty: then Director of Berea College’s Doris Ulmann Galleries, Curator of the College Art Collections, and Associate Professor of Art History.
Early in those discussions, the group identified the need to link the work of the Craft program more closely with Berea College’s Great Commitments. The team suggested designing new products with students that manifest those Commitments.
By early 2019 the group had identified industrial designer Stephen Burks, Principal of Stephen Burks Man Made, as a potential partner. Stephen’s workshop-based practice extends craft traditions through a pluralistic vision of design that is inclusive of many cultural perspectives. His hands-on experience partnering with non-profits as a product development consultant was well-aligned with the goals of Student Craft to introduce a collection of products that were representative of Berea’s diverse student body.
Early in the partnership, however, it became clear that a longer–term vision was needed. In addition to his design contributions Stephen made key and fundamental contributions to an overall strategy for the program that engaged the creative potential of Berea’s diverse student body by positioning their participation as “design collaborators” instead of “producers.”
Beginning during the 2019-2020 academic year, students at all stages of the design development process participated in workshops led by Burks within each of Student Craft’s departments: broomcraft, ceramics, weaving, and woodcraft. This participatory process of discovery (typical of Stephen Burks Man Made’s practice) informed the objects that were designed: the Community Basket, the Pixel Blanket, the Pixel Placemat & Runners, and Broom Thing, which in turn showed the way forward for students to leave their impressions as designers on the products they continue to make.
“Berea Student Craft is an essential part of the labor work/study program at Berea College where the students learn by making objects that teach lessons in the manipulation of raw material into finished goods. I’m excited to be working with them to help guide the program through the design process of producing contemporary collections that represent the character of the student body and their ideas.”
Recognizing the larger need for broader distribution of these ideas, as well as the students’ work, Stephen Burks Man Made leveraged his relationship with MillerKnoll to highlight this transformative project through a Design Within Reach exclusive distribution deal (the full proceeds of which go back to Student Craft) titled Crafting Diversity. This ongoing relationship encompasses both the products developed under Stephen’s leadership in addition to four student-designed products being added to the collection in 2023, naming 14 Berea College students as designers of record for their contributions.
Crafting Diversity at the High Museum of Art
In 2022, Berea Student Craft was recognized at the High Museum of Art in the solo exhibition, Stephen Burks: Shelter in Place (September 16, 2022—March 5, 2023). The show surveys the last decade of Stephen Burks Man Made’s industrial design practice synthesizing industry, craft, and community, of which Stephen’s design work with Berea College students was a key component. Positioning the work of Berea College’s students in the museum amplifies the results of Stephen’s inclusive and participatory process, while also spotlighting Berea as an institution that has fostered a democratic, inclusive, and anti-racist culture.
Lastly, in February 2023, the Student Craft team was invited to the High Museum to host a weekend-long workshop offering craft demonstrations in weaving, broomcraft, and woodcraft. With over 3,000 guests in attendance, the program introduced members of Atlanta’s public to material processes further emphasizing the project’s mission and Stephen’s core belief that “everyone is capable of design.”
“During the nearly quarter century that I have been involved with craft, I have been blessed by two significant teachers. Stephen is one of those. The education that he provided me has been transformative, and the effects of having a designer and strategic thinker of Stephen’s brilliance working with students here at Berea has allowed us to grow as a program in ways I wasn’t sure were possible before our partnership began.”
-Aaron Beale, Associate Vice President for Student Craft