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Good People

Home As Project

Words by Stephen Burks, Anwar Burks & Malika Leiper
Photography by Oumayma B. Tanfous

Stephen and Malika in their Brooklyn Apartment

Last fall I found myself back in school in the midst of a year-long fellowship at Harvard, where I met Malika. She was finishing up her studies in urban planning and excited to discuss all things craft inspired with me in the cozy coffee shops of Cambridge. Our mutual interest in design, food & travel now fuel our life together in Brooklyn with my studious fourteen-year-old son Anwar.

Since the summer’s warm glow filtered through our vine-covered windows, the three of us have been building a home here. During afternoons, nights, and weekends, we find space in our busy schedules to get our hands dirty in this fulfilling process of transformation that has shaped our understanding of home as a project. As we build walls, rearrange furniture, and fill the voluminous space with life, we realize that our home is a project that is ongoing and stretches out beyond our doors into the city streets, the neighborhood, and the larger world we find ourselves in.

Our wellbeing is rooted in multigenerational dialogue. This usually happens around the dinner table, where Malika shares meals that fuse together flavours and memories of her childhood in Cambodia, and Anwar keeps me up to date on the latest high school memes.

"Dude Bro! Tu madre es tu padre!! When entering the gates of heaven, can you play the woman's part???" - Anwar Lao Tsu

We gather with a tapestry of books as our backdrop to discuss, delight, debate and give thanks. We have a lot to learn from one another given where we are in our lives—as a mid-career designer meets a young professional and both are critiqued by a precocious teenager. How we see the world based on our relative positions in it makes for an ever-inspiring conversation that keeps us grounded.

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The dining area backdrop

Before arriving at this place of stability, I spent more than a year living abroad. Given the frequency of my travels, for a while, no one knew where I lived. A small studio near the park in Brooklyn’s Fort Greene neighborhood? A friend’s place with the new international creatives of Lisbon? Or an empty cavernous flat in Barcelona's Barri Gòtic above an architecture foundation? Home was where I unpacked my bag, charged my phone, and put my feet up.

Today, most of us are at home everywhere and nowhere at the same time. We’re neither nomadic nor nesters, but a bit of both. Sometimes we entertain and sometimes we retreat. Sometimes we work. Sometimes we play. Our digital lives create our sense of community and offer connectivity in unfamiliar surroundings.

The effect this disintegration of real life into backpacks and tote bags has had on my generation and our domesticity cannot be underestimated.

Being a designer in this context can be a burden. For the first time in history, our sense of time and space could be described as non-linear and hyper decontextualized. Most of us today are trying to live with less. What does this mean for a maker of objects whose way of life is tied to the material world? I once had seven storage lockers. Now I have less.

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Artek Stool 60 Mike Meire limited edition with a birdie brought back from the Philippines.

Kwame Anthony Appiah has something to say about this in his book“Cosmopolitanism”. The essential question he’s asking—one that we are asking ourselves—is how do we share the world with six billion strangers? What is our duty to one another and ourselves when the ability to do harm, or for that matter, good, is instantaneous and invisible in today’s hyper-connected age?

My travels have taught me the importance of creating a sense of place wherever I go. They have also taught me that there are other ways to live. Every culture and every way of life has immeasurable value with meaningful lessons to learn of how we live and what we live with.

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Book from Get Up Stand Up Now Exhibition at Somerset House, London

But what does it actually mean to be a citizen of the world? What values are we rooted in if we have the ability to detach from our surroundings at any given moment?

In Brooklyn, Malika, Anwar, and I work towards being creatively connected, conversational, and playful. Malika’s on lead vocals, Anwar plays the physicist, and I’m on rhythm and critique. Although our band doesn’t practice regularly, when we’re all at home, improvisation is a must. Friday night, the large white walls become a cinema and the scent of olive oil popcorn fills the air. Saturday mornings we walk to Ft. Greene Park to explore the farmer’s market and stoop sales. Sundays our yoga mats are out and couples yoga is on the agenda.

For us, “home as project” is about the scale of the body, the things we collect, and the experiences we share. It’s an ongoing project that teaches us to learn by doing, to imagine the possibilities of being together, and to seek out the ways that family life can energize and support our creative lifestyles.

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Malika Leiper and Stephen Burks

About Stephen Burks, Anwar Burks & Malika Leiper

Anwar Burks is a freshman in high school, loves the universe and video games.

Stephen Burks is a designer and educator. He believes in a pluralistic vision of design that is inclusive of all cultural perspectives between authentic hand production, industrial manufacturing, and contemporary design. Independently and through association with various nonprofits, he has worked as a product development consultant in over 10 countries collaborating with communities of artisans around the world. Stephen is a 2019 Harvard Loeb Fellow, Design Critic in Design Engineering at the Harvard Graduate School of Design, an Expert-In-Residence at the Harvard Innovation Lab, and is the first African-American to receive the National Design Award in product design.

Malika Leiper is a storyteller, researcher and chef. Her work as an independent consultant for urban entities bridges multiple sectors from sustainable food systems, to community development and historic preservation. She was born and raised in Phnom Penh.

Their latest project, Context Is Everything, explores the importance of a cosmopolitan consciousness in understanding the role of social innovation in the future.