Dezeen Magazine

Stephen Burks' Instagram post responding to Campo Base exhibition

"In Milan I found myself face-to-face with direct racial aggression"

Following the controversy over a Milan design week exhibition that displayed offensive figurines, Stephen Burks considers what the incident says about the design industry and its approach to race.

Three weeks ago in Milan, I found myself face-to-face with direct racial aggression. As part of the Campo Base group show curated by Federica Sala, the architect Massimo Adario presented a collection of decorative glass objects made in the 1920s embodying racist stereotypes.

Looking upon these offensive figures, my initial surprise led to confusion. I thought this kind of ignorance and xenophobia had passed with the last century. My confusion led to anger, which I suppressed under threat of arrest in a foreign country – a country that once again has found itself under the leadership of conservative nationalism.

The disparaging stereotypes exhibited in Milan have a long and shameful history

After encountering this casual display of cultural ignorance, I, along with Jenny Nguyen of PR firm Hello Human and Wava Carpenter and Anna Carnick from the design platform Anava Projects, called out its racist content via social media. Our Instagram post titled "Racism is not a design motif" (pictured above) garnered nearly 2,000 interactions and provoked a larger conversation about racial discrimination in our industry.

The disparaging stereotypes exhibited in Milan have a long and shameful history, which continue to result in violence against Black bodies. In a recent conversation, the Ethiopian-American industrial designer Jomo Tariku cited the vulgar early-20th-century postcards produced by Italian cartoonists Enrico De Seta and E Ligrano during Mussolini's expansionist campaigns into Africa.

Their imagery "drew heavily from the racist American minstrel shows that depicted Black people as buffoons," Tariku told me. "This is why context matters." The glass figurines being presented in Milan as curiosities of Italian design heritage were made during the same fascist era.

As a design community, we must call out all symbols of oppression and discriminatory practices, tokenism, and stereotyping

Contemporary design and design exhibitions like Campo Base do not exist in a vacuum. Design is popular culture and as designers, our actions shape attitudes and opinions that reflect where we are as a society. The unfortunate message sent by this exhibition is that people of non-European origin do not have the right to exist outside of a Eurocentric, often racist, frame of reference.

This incident was not the first of its kind. Within the past three years, Prada, Gucci, and Moncler have all been called out for using similar derogatory caricaturizations in their international fashion collections. In response to Gucci selling a $890 knitted top bearing a blackface motif, the house's designer Dapper Dan declared on instagram in protest: "I am a Black man before I am a brand".

As a design community, we must call out all symbols of oppression and discriminatory practices, tokenism, and stereotyping that continue to take place within our field. We must acknowledge that the historical objects on display in this Milan exhibition originated from violence. We must understand how their creation in the 1920s was derived from an unequal system of cultural exploitation borrowing directly from European colonial practices of dehumanizing "othering".

The same could be said of the more personal offenses I've had to face as a Black designer. A 2005 New York Times T Magazine interview with me, for example, was titled "Puff Dada", a reference to the rapper Puff Daddy. I've been characterized as "tall, like a basketballer, and cool like a jazz musician".

I've even been called "the Barack Obama of design". These micro-aggressions have served to remind me that in the design world, it is often my identity that gets noticed first. Why is it surprising to find someone of my background working in design? Why must I be compared to a famous entertainer, or athlete, or even a politician?

The Black designer continues to be treated as a curiosity to be encountered

I call this condition of always being likened to whichever Black person is the most famous the "singular reference theory", which holds that only one of us can be seen at a time. No wonder African American culture is the most influential popular culture in the world but also the most disenfranchised.

When "the blackening" began in the summer of 2020 following the murder of George Floyd, the singular reference theory came into full swing. It seemed as if the world had just woken up from an unconscious but systemic racist slumber.

Overnight, every person of color I knew was in demand. Even in design, where so few people of color had actually made inroads, phones were ringing and emails were pinging as the clarion call for Black designers was finally heard. But the initial projects I received were quickly put on hold or canceled after the momentum of Black Lives Matter began to slow and give way to other criteria of diversity.

Like my contemporaries I wish to be seen for my work, first and foremost. Yet I've received much more attention for speaking out against racism in the past couple of weeks than I have for my recent furniture launch. Despite my hopes that real progress had been made, I struggle to see any change in the lineup of designers working for major brands. Today, it seems the Black designer continues to be treated as a curiosity to be encountered, but not routinely commissioned.

In this age of converging social crises, the design establishment – made up of design-driven brands, fairs and media – must create the conditions for inclusion rather than exclusion. As set out in the Design Can manifesto, design must "represent us all, disrupt the status quo, celebrate new voices, tell untold stories, confront its prejudices, and change".

This will only happen when diverse cultural perspectives are participating in design at the highest levels and sharing its transformative potential, not merely as tokens for diversity, but as a multiplicity of voices capable of contributing real value to our lives.

Stephen Burks is an American product designer. He founded the studio Stephen Burks Man Made, is an adjunct assistant professor of architecture at Columbia GSAPP and a co-host of the Design In Dialogue conversation series from Friedman Benda Gallery. He has also served as an expert-in-residence at Harvard Innovation Labs and taught as a design critic at the Harvard Graduate School of Design.

Dezeen in Depth
If you enjoy reading Dezeen's interviews, opinions and features, subscribe to Dezeen In Depth. Sent on the last Friday of each month, this newsletter provides a single place to read about the design and architecture stories behind the headlines.