By Vasia Rigou
Barry Bursak and Rick Valicenti talking about Chicago’s design scene is a history lesson. There are so many concepts and people and spaces floating in their conversation that even if you wrote every single one down, you’d still need to revisit the list to keep up. You simply had to be there. To highlight Bursak’s historic (and long defunct) City, the founder and design director of Thirst pays him a visit and the two get deep in conversation—a walk down memory lane featuring influential names, creative ideas and an international fan base.
Wisconsin-born Barry Bursak had a background in religion and philosophy, but kicked off his entrepreneurial adventure with a coffee business on Milwaukee’s eclectic, vibrant Brady Street. “I was looking for a good cup of coffee and I couldn’t find one,” he says, “so I started a coffee company.” Settled by Italians, the neighborhood exudes a certain sense of elegance to this day. Other than the hipster crowd of recent decades replacing the hippies of the 1970s, not much has changed in what was becoming Milwaukee’s ever-hip area: a design vibe was prominent all around, and Bursak’s coffee shop was no different. “It was a boutique kind of store—one of those hip stores on the street but it was built like an old-fashioned general store,” he says. “There were barrels of coffee beans and barrels of bulk candy, and people were coming in. Nobody was doing things like that back then.” Valicenti immediately makes the connection: “Back then, ‘curating’ was not in the vocabulary,” he says. “Nobody used the word curator but in the selection process of coffee, you obviously knew sources and you bought the stuff and thought you could sell it. You must have learned something about your ability to present an innocuous object, like a coffee bean, a certain way—I mean the presentation is part of the retail experience.”
“That certainly was one of my first experiences,” Bursak says, agreeing, “learning to be nice to people who came into my store, and explain to them what this is for and how it works or where it comes from. Now that I think of everything, that’s the beginning of it all.”
In three years time his company grew to become a wholesale business selling products on a national level. But Bursak knew he was ready for a new challenge and sold the store. He moved to Chicago with a concept that had nothing to do with coffee in mind: a design store with an unusual name. “I remember seeing the ads for Granfalloon,” recalls Valicenti. “I want to talk a little bit about both the store Granfalloon and the name Granfalloon, and from my point of view, like how the hell did you get Jeff Barnes—a fabulous graphic designer then working for The Container Corporation of America—to do the work for Granfalloon? A granfalloon is a Kurt Vonnegut coinage from his 1963 novel “Cat’s Cradle” that, according to Wikipedia, refers to “a group of people who affect a shared identity or purpose, but whose mutual association is meaningless.” The store would feature a collection of furniture, homeware and lighting, and would be called “hi-tech.” “Fun stuff,” as Bursak puts it. As for Jeff Barnes? “I think he was just trying to get a cool job,” he says, laughing.
Digging through boxes and folders filled with photographs, printouts and newspaper articles, Bursak’s face lights up. “You’re on a roll, Barry,” says Valicenti. “I can see your smile getting wider and wider.” Bursak goes on to reveal that it was Granfalloon’s evolution that led to a new larger space at 213 Institute Place, and to the birth of City, remembered to this day as Chicago’s premier design destination. It would carry everything designer—from Italian furniture to Japanese fashion, to jewelry and home goods, to artifacts of all shapes and sizes. “I think there were even shoes, at some point,” notes Valicenti. “I didn’t differentiate between this design or that design,” Bursak says. “If things were designed well, that was enough for me.”
With an eye for great design and for identifying those who were the real deal (the Originators; the provocateurs of this new frequency that was in the air, as Valicenti puts it), Bursak turned City into a design destination. “I remember people who would come to Chicago looking for my store,” he says. “Think about how remarkable that is in a pre-Instagram, pre-Facebook. Pre-internet time, that you would build a reputation outside the neighborhood limits, outside the city limits, to attract people from various cities and present and sell work from all over the world,” Valicenti says. He should know. After all, he, too, was right then and there to witness City’s influence.
Bursak would travel during those years, to Japan, to Italy, to Paris. “This, more than anything, broadened my horizons about design,” he says. So did connecting on a personal level to the people who shaped the design of that moment in time. Bursak remembers meeting Ettore Sottsas, the Italian architect, designer and founding member of Memphis, the Postmodern design collective that produced unconventional furniture. This was invaluable.
As Memphis moved from Italy to the United States, bringing bold color-clashing palettes, unconventionally shaped furniture and unexpected decor elements that would challenge the meaning of the simplest object (a table, a chair, a cabinet) and actions (sit, lay), the City store showcased them, their display making a statement in itself. “Did you ever buy or collect the work of Memphis for yourself?” Valicenti asks. “I got that chair, Michele de Lucchi’s ‘First Chair,’ because when I closed my store, it was still kicking around. Nobody wanted it! You can’t sit in it—did you know that?” Bursak says, joking. He later donated it to the Milwaukee Art Museum. “I didn’t want this thing in my house anymore. I was tired of it falling over and breaking so I went up there myself, I signed all the papers and stuff and gave it to them.”
The digging continues. More folders open, more design memorabilia surface and the conversation shifts. Bursak and Valicenti catch up and reminisce about their time with now prominent names of the design scene—”He was such a nice kid,” or ”that jerk.” They tease each other: “Hahaha, look at that hairstyle, oh my God!”
But when Valicenti asks about the City catalogues, things get serious. “I know where to start,” Bursak exclaims. He’s holding an envelope from Kimberly-Clark—it’s a nine-by-twelve-inch brown kraft envelope. He pulls out a slip of paper: “Please find the enclosed copy of our ad insert featuring the City brochure. It will be appearing in the July/August print magazine, the August Graphic Design USA magazine, the November Communication Arts magazine and the November Art Direction magazine. We are pleased with the finished piece and appreciate your assistance through the course of this creation. Please let me know if you’d like more copies.” The note is from Ann Fisher at Kimberly-Clark and she is showing an article printed on the Kimdura paper featuring the City catalogue. “Kimberly-Clark is the company that developed the material known as Kimdura,” says Bursak, explaining that when they first came out with this they didn’t realize how significant this material was going to be for designers.
They go through more catalogues. “I remember this first one,” says Valicenti. “Yes, I remember receiving this white catalog on this sensual beautiful translucent plastic-like paper with Tom’s [Vack] exquisite photography and Robert [Petrick] in his wisdom as a designer got out of the way and he just let these pictures float and bounce on the pages. I mean, look at how he’s treating the margins up and down.” Each catalogue has a story behind it. One is French, one is Dutch, one’s Italian, there’s one with red type, one that’s black and shiny—the City store’s life legacy. “I’m holding a catalogue from 1986,” says Valicenti. “I’m turning the black cover. It’s all very static-y but this one is when you really maximize the translucency of this thin paper and you can actually see through it. Here Robert Petrick as a graphic designer is completely stepping out of his own way letting these photographs to just bleed through, very enigmatic. You can see one through to the next one. It’s so brilliant.” “It’s amazing, just amazing,” Bursak agrees. “This is like a spiritual moment where you capture the essence of the design in the message or the messenger that is graphic design,” says Valicenti. “You capture the essence of these products and how they could relate to one another.”
It was inspiration from around the world, a team of exquisite practitioners—from graphic designers Jeff Barnes and Robert Petrick, poster designer Chris Garland and photographer Tom Vack, to June Blaker (who became Bursak’s partner in work and in life), and of course, Bursak’s personal design passion that catapulted City to the top. The store may now be defunct—after the 1987 stock market crash nothing was the same—but its unique vibe and signature black aesthetic have made a difference in Chicago’s design scene. Valicenti knows it. “I want this to be on the record that I’m thanking you personally for shaping a healthy community around design in the city of Chicago,” he says to Bursak. “These things don’t happen by accident. We are all practicing in a continuum—there were people before us and there are people after us. And there’s the magic moment: I’m going to respect the past, I’m going to be here in the present but I’m making way for the future.” Bursak looks back, at peace. “Everybody got behind what I was trying to do,” he says softly. “I was a very lucky boy—I still am.”
Chicago’s cool center for designed objects was a single shop: City. Photographer Tom Vack was there.
Let’s talk about the historic City store: How would you describe it? In what ways was it influential to the larger Chicago design community?
City was the store of design, and more particularly European design, as it emerged as a voice in the eighties—a period of a new cultural language in music, fashion and design. Barry Bursak brought this to the design aspect of the store and June Blaker complemented it with her fashion sensibilities, particularly Japanese fashion.
It was June who brought up the idea of printing on Tyvek as she had seen a catalog of Comme des Garçons printed on it—a catalog that we agreed should be a design object as well. The first catalog concentrated on the photography, so when there was to be a second one, the graphic designer at the time, Robert Petrick, wanted to play with the translucency of the material. He decided that most of the images should be on white.
How did your experience there help shape your future work?
As City was the Midwest representative of Memphis, during a show organized by Barry, I had the occasion to meet Michele de Lucchi. I offered my photographic services to him and in a few months he contacted me about a catalog for a collection of kitchens he had designed. I had not done any pictures of kitchens but the Italian way was to take someone of one discipline to see what they would do. This is the city of Leonardo da Vinci, the master of cross-disciplines.
I met by chance Philippe Starck in New York that spring and when I mentioned the City catalog, he commented, “My dear, it is a reference book for design,” and immediately had work for me. That began a chain of commissions from designers: Ingo Maurer (who had two pictures in the catalog but did not like them), Ron Arad, Marc Newson, Alessandro Mendini and of course, Starck.
The City catalogs gave me the freedom to do interpretive pictures for the culture of designed objects, not as traditional product shots but interpretive portraits of design.
Where do you look for inspiration when creating extraordinary images of ordinary objects?
The climate in Milano was experimental as well for searching for new forms for daily objects. I wanted to create serial images for catalogs that complemented the object much as an instrumental accompanist does for a vocalist. I tend to rely on improvisation in a musical sense to find my way to accompany the character of the soloist, or in this case, the object. I want to reveal first of all the form and material through light that creates the mood as well. Light is the least-expensive medium for creating a stage and climate for a visual story.
My basic approach was to create an object in a picture rather than a picture of an object.
All this was possible thanks to the City catalog and for that I thank Barry and June.
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