When the Light Hits Just Right, Our Custom Bookshelves Appear to Be a Series of Buildings

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Stephen Burks and Milka Leiper playing guitar in living room

Our golden lucky cat is waving his paw at us. Sunlight tiptoes through our windows, inviting a soft luminance into the living room. Our jungle of plants, gorillas, birds, and elephants are awake. Overhead we hear the hurried thumping sprint of our upstairs neighbor’s dog as he chases a ball around the apartment, crashing into furniture along the way. Stephen puts on our The Sea and Cake playlist and the day begins. Good morning!

If you were to ask most people what their definition of home is, they would describe it as a place where they feel safe, a place to seek refuge from the outside world. However, since the coronavirus outbreak, our interior lives have taken on new meaning.

modern dining room with mismatched colorful chairs
Moroccan Rug; Glo-Ball Pendant Lamp by Flos, .04 Task Chair (at desk), Belleville Chair, and HAL Stacking Chair by Vitra, Lumens; .03 Stackable Four-Leg Chair by Vitra, 2Modern; MP0210 and ES18 Salt and Pepper Grinders by Alessi, Amazon; Moroccan Tuareg Ceramic Candlesticks; 606 Universal Shelving System, Vitsoe; Sunrise Sunset Print by Sterling Ruby; Grasso Vase, Stephen Burks; Victoria & Albert Armchair by Ron Arad for Moroso, Hive Modern.

From the comfort of our living room, we watched as time slowed down and the once boundless limits of our mobility narrowed and concretized. This led us to appreciate a slower means of travel—long evening walks to Fort Greene Park, challenging bike rides through the empty streets of midtown Manhattan, and even a misty ferry ride to the Far Rockaways. These new forms of movement allowed us to rediscover New York’s potential for endless experiences. Through this slowness, we reflected a great deal on what home means for us.

Stephen and Malika sitting at kitchen counter
Malika used to cook professionally, and we have dreams of opening our own restaurant. Right now we’re drawing culinary inspiration from a recent trip to Mexico City. Grasso Stools by Stephen Burks, BD Barcelona; La Lutte #2 Artwork by Viviane Sassen; Impressions Bowl from the Crafting Diversity Collection by Stephen Burks. On Malika Leiper: Dress, Uniqlo x Marimekko; Culture Weave Chuck 70 Sneakers, Converse. On Stephen Burks: Shirt and Pants, Dries Van Noten.

It is no longer a one-way mirror where the chaos of our exteriors can be kept at bay. It is no longer a crash pad from which to recharge in between extended periods of being absent. The home is our office, the home is our streets, the home is political, and the home is global. Through our domestic life we are committed to being a part of this world.

We are artists, we are thinkers, we are bibliophiles. On our multiple bookshelves is an exhaustive collection of texts on art, design, urbanism, fashion, and architecture, with a smattering of fiction, philosophy, cultural criticism, political theory, and cooking thrown in for good measure. Although we resist making a distinction between these disciplines.

modern red recliner chair in front of bookshelves
We collect artwork by our contemporaries and friends, such as Brad Kahlhamer, Mickalene Thomas, and Theaster Gates. MVS Chaise by Maarten Van Severen for Vitra; TaTu Stool and Horizon Bookshelf, Stephen Burks; Portrait of Marie Sitting in Black and White Photograph by Mickalene Thomas; Stony Island Arts Bank Polaroid by Theaster Gates.

The sooner we realize that everything and everyone is connected, the sooner we can learn to live in community. At the click of a button, we can move between segments of information without understanding how they are related. Things are categorized and decontextualized, and we lose sight of how, together, they form an intelligent whole.

Flipping through a magazine, for example, we’ll come across something familiar, at which point Stephen pulls out a book on Ettore Sottsass. A deep dive into the Italian Radical Design movement ensues, and before we know it, 10 books are taken off the shelves and scoured for a discrete piece of information only obtainable offline. In this way the library functions for us as an extension of our consciousness, and we depend on it to deepen our understanding of each other and our surroundings.

art leaning on top of modern bookshelf
Self-Portrait and Burger Sculpture by Anwar Burks; Stephen Burks: Man Made Toronto Poster, Untitled Artwork, and Glass Sculpture by Stephen Burks.

For citizens of the world who are never quite at home in one particular place, the act of creating a home is an everyday practice. Individually, we have been fortunate to call many places home—Phnom Penh, Chicago, Tokyo, Milan, Barcelona, and London. We are fascinated with the different ways people choose to live and the larger sociopolitical structures that define domesticity. More than ever before, we have been forced to confront our lives at home. We seek to give form to unexpected ways of living, and we believe critical reinvention is required of us to overcome this new global paradigm.

close-up of modern bookshelves with narrow slots
Viewed at certain angles and different times of day, the Horizon bookshelf transforms into a series of buildings reminiscent of a little city of books. Teddy Bear Sculpture by Jeffrey Bernett.

It’s afternoon now. A pungent smell of garlic from the Korean restaurant next door wafts through the window and Lee “Scratch” Perry is blasting from our speakers. “What do you think about a woven TV?” Stephen’s voice asks from the other side of the apartment. He’s in his office, sketching a fuzzy, Technicolor thing as part of our Shelter in Place project. Over the next few days, we’re cutting strips of foam core, weaving and hot-gluing them together into a three-dimensional shape intended to support the typically wall-mounted LED screen that was hiding underneath our bed. A relic from the previous tenants, it is unearthed, dusted, and affixed into the frame. We position this freestanding creature in front of our sofa and turn on Bob’s Burgers.

Through our limitless field of imagination, we are exploring radical ways of inhabiting our new domestic landscape. How do we add flexibility to our interiors? How do we give value to localized forms of production? How can we design for more hands-on participation through objects that require direct assembly? Design is how people express their dreams and desires, and we believe everyone is capable of it.

black office wall with pinned-up inspiration
The blackboard wall in Stephen’s office helps us visualize projects, archive material samples, and display personal keepsakes—like a signed note from Anwar at age 7. Trypta Suspension Lamp by Stephen Burks, Luceplan; Engulfed Corolla Print by Sterling Ruby; I Will Not Come Out Unless You Ask by Anwar Burks; Weaving Material Sample, Stephen Burks.

When the sun goes down, we turn the plant lights off and say good night to the jungle. The soundtrack is set to Anouar Brahem, who transports us to Morocco—the last place we traveled to outside the U.S. In the living room Stephen is discussing Private Seat, a new concept much like a phone booth except open on one side. Meanwhile his son, Anwar Burks—our resident astronomer and the smartest 15-year-old we know—is giving us a lesson on black holes. He explains without a moment’s hesitation that “black holes are the remnants of very massive stars, which, after running out of fuel for nuclear fusion, die in a violent supernova in which gravity exerts so much force that even the subatomic particles are crushed into a one-dimensional point in space where gravity is infinitely strong.”

While we are rooted in our immediate surroundings through design, Anwar is more concerned with what lies beyond. He spends his time identifying constellations in the night sky and learning how to program video games, as well as writing a collection of short stories called Battle of the Toys, based on an imaginary world he created with his cousins.

woman reading book in burgundy women chair
Traveler Armchair and Planete Sofa by Stephen Burks, Roche Bobois; Pixel Bamboo Blanket and Impressions Vase from the Crafting Diversity Collection by Stephen Burks; Grasso Armchair by Stephen Burks, BD Barcelona; Islands Storage Unit by Stephen Burks, Living Divani; Stephen Burks Man Made Hybrid Edition of Screen 100 by Alvar Aalto; Anwar Lamp by Stephen Burks and Cestita Table Lamp by Miguel Mila for Santa & Cole, Lumens; Special Edition Stool 60 by Mike Meire for Artek; Moon Studies & Star Scratches Photograph by Sharon Harper; Stool from the Dala Collection, Dedon.

Individually, we are all searching for a utopia that works, but as a family sharing the same space, this searching becomes a collective act. And it requires a heightened sense of empathy and respect for the different rhythms that we move to. It’s amazing when we manage to find harmony, but during the inevitable moments of dissonance we must be patient and take our egos out of it. Selflessness and a commitment to being in community with one another is how we aspire to live. This is a practice that begins at home.

On Our Shelves

  1. All About Love: New Visions by bell hooks Love is a verb, not a noun—hooks’s piercing prose is liberating and teaches us how to live our lives by a love ethic.
  2. If I Can Cook/You Know God Can by Ntozake Shange Part memoir, part cookbook, part poetry, this book sheds light on the deeper spiritual value of the foods we eat and the rituals that shape our palates.
  3. When Things Fall Apart by Pema Chödrön Be more Buddhist. That is our advice to the world. Embrace the chaos; live in the constantly unfolding present.
  4. Building and Dwelling by Richard Sennett A manifesto for open, tolerant 21st-century cities.
  5. Mother Pious Lady: Making Sense of Everyday India by Santosh Desai Travel to South Asia through this anthology of bite-size stories about life in contemporary India.
  6. A Dictionary of Color Combinations by Sanzo Wada Originally published between 1933 and 1934 as the first modernist exploration of color theory in Japan.

This story was originally published in our Fall 2020 issue with the headline “We Live in Brooklyn, Baby.”