Stephen Burks: Spirit Houses

Opening: Friday, Sep 8, 2023 5 – 8 pm
Friday, Sep 8 – Oct 28, 2023

1709 W. Chicago Ave.
Chicago, IL 60622

Volume Gallery is delighted to announce Spirit Houses, Stephen Burks’ first solo exhibition with the gallery opening September 8, 2023, from 5-8 pm at 1709 W. Chicago Ave., Chicago, IL 60622. 

Originally hailing from Chicago, Stephen Burks’ practice has grown internationally. He consistently  challenges and redefines the spaces in which design should participate in an attempt to create a more inclusive discipline. This exhibition extends concepts from his acclaimed mid-career survey, Stephen Burks: Shelter in Place, launched in 2022 at the High Museum of Art in Atlanta, and opening at the Philadelphia Museum of Art on November 18, 2023. As his first solo exhibition with the gallery and first in Chicago, Spirit Houses represents a homecoming as well as an intimate reflection on self and practice. 

A series of modern altars, Spirit Houses builds upon Burks’ radical design speculation in the form of six unique typologies contemplating spirituality in our contemporary lives. The accompanying essay “On Cosmologies: Stephen Burks Approaches the Sacred” by Najha Zigbi Johnson, offers deeper reflection into the religio-spiritual origins of Burks’ newest body of work.

“As more people turn to a range of veneration practices across the globe, the necessity of creating furniture and products to meet the particular needs of modern day spiritual practitioners has emerged as a new design imperative.”

These multifaceted spirit houses allow us to engage the sacred in personal ways that are both reflective of traditional altar use and expansive in their exploration of new typologies imbued with spiritual sentience at the will of the user.

In Burks’ first spirit house, the open structure offers space for photographs, incense, and other sacred objects that honor the memory of loved ones who have since transitioned. This first altar was exhibited in memory of the late visionary, bell hooks whose friendship and teachings were very important to Burks’ practice. 

Pulling from a myriad of West African and Asian religio-spiritual practices, Burks’ interpretation of the traditional spirit house exists within cosmological worldviews that affirm the dead as active, everyday participants in our world-making process. His work reflects a necessary expansion and intervention into the largely secular world of industrial design that responds to and serves our everyday needs through the creation of products, furniture, and devices. The varied forms —from a woven floor lantern, to a wall-mounted display shelf, partitioned coffee table, and ambiguous wooden container— of these works have become both physical and metaphysical portals, allowing us to place our present lives within a temporal continuum, beginning with our ancestors and ending with future generations to come, whose lives will be informed by the choices we make today.  

The creation of these contemporary altars is both a meditation on the importance of the ancestral realm and a design imperative for the modern world as we increasingly look to earth-honoring and communal-based practices in response to the failures of rapid globalization, environmental degradation, structural racism, and inequity. In Spirit Houses, Burks has turned toward and honored spirit-based cosmologies while creating a new design lexicon and physicality through which we may engage the wisdom of our ancestors and honor the lives of our loved ones.

Spirit Houses will be on view at Volume Gallery through October 28, 2023. Excerpts above from Najha Zigbi-Johnson’s essay On New Cosmologies: Stephen Burks Approaches the Sacred.


Chicago native, Stephen Burks is one of the most recognized American industrial designers of his generation. Independently and through association with various non-profits, he has worked as a product development consultant in close collaboration with artisans and craftspeople in over ten countries on six continents.

He and his Brooklyn-based studio have been commissioned by many of the world’s leading design-driven brands to develop collections that engage hand production as a strategy for innovation including Cappellini, Dedon, MASS Design Group, Missoni, & Roche Bobois. His work has been exhibited internationally, including solo exhibitions at the Studio Museum in Harlem, the Museum of Art & Design, and the High Museum of Art. His works are in the permanent collections of the High Museum of Art, the National Museum of African American History & Culture, The Philadelphia Art Museum, and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.

Burks is the only African-American to win the Smithsonian Cooper Hewitt National Design Award in Product Design and the only industrial designer to be awarded the prestigious Loeb Fellowship at the Harvard Graduate School of Design.

His acclaimed traveling mid-career survey, Stephen Burks: Shelter in Place, will open at the Philadelphia Museum of Art November 18, 2023.