A big boom in bamboo

Real or imitation, material is a hit for furniture and accessories

January 19, 2003|By Pamela Sherrod | By Pamela Sherrod,Special to the Sun

It takes the average human about 5 1/2 years to grow to 4 feet. It takes some forms of bamboo just a day.

Compared with woody plants, the growth rate of this reedy grass is unmatched, and, these days, you could say the same for its popularity among home-furnishing designers. Bamboo is in the house -- just about everywhere, real and faux.

Sometimes it's bamboo, the material; sometimes bamboo, the shape. It is turning up in wall coverings, flooring, furniture and decorative accessories, such as baskets and bedding.

Why bamboo? Why now?

Largely, the bamboo boom is due to an affinity to the Asian aesthetic, particularly its simplicity, which has been growing continuously for the last 10 years. It also can be attributed to a yearning for the things bamboo has symbolized in Eastern cultures for centuries: strength, resiliency, flexibility, longevity, good luck. The durability and renewability of the plant (it's actually a grass that grows faster and requires less land than trees) also makes it an attractive and eco-friendly alternative to more traditional wood choices.

People like the idea of having renewable natural resources around them, says Terri Erdos, vice president of Jamson Whyte's U.S. operations, which offers bamboo designs for bedroom, living room and dining room. "More people are focusing on the home and focusing on those things that are natural."

The 10-year-old Singapore-based Jamson Whyte, which has a store in New York and a Web site (www.jamsonwhyte.com), is known for designs featuring Indonesian and Balinese bamboos.

One of its most attractive designs is a sleigh bed that combines teak and bamboo ($1,600 to $2,000). The warm golden brown in the teak and the pecan shading in the bamboo provide a light but solid feel to the design.

"I think bamboo also gives people the feeling that they can be someplace else within their home by creating another world there for themselves," Erdos says.

But it's the concern for the environment -- hers and her customers' -- that drives Bonnie Trust Dahan to include bamboo designs in her Pure Seasons mail-order catalog and Web site (www.pureseasons. com).

Dahan's Sausalito, Calif.-based company, which features natural products for the home, found interest in bamboo was greater than expected when the catalog was introduced in the spring. Because of the demand, Pure Seasons added more bamboo designs for the kitchen, bedroom, child's room and flooring.

Bamboo is "less formal and more adaptable" than other woods, says Dahan. And, she adds, "When bamboo is cut correctly, it has a satin sheen to it that you don't get in other woods."

The reedy grass with tensile strength is found throughout Asia.

"It's been used for centuries in Asian cultures, and it has been used for everything" -- furniture, construction, basketry, musical instruments, paper, kitchen tools, dinnerware, even food -- according to Stanley Murashige, who teaches art history and criticism at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.

It also has its place in the arts -- in paintings and poetry. "It has long been appreciated for the beauty of its shape and for the extraordinary varieties that it comes in," says Murashige.

"Bamboo as a metaphor began in China," Murashige says. "It is also a metaphor in Korea and Japan." In the Philippines, it recently was chosen as a symbol of peace and unity by two warring groups in Mindanao because it reflected, as one religious figure put it, the Filipino character: "resistant, resilient, enduring, loving, gentle, peaceful."

"It does have some cliche symbols and meanings that have personal association, such as being resilient because it bends under the force of winds," Mura-shige says. "This becomes a metaphor for someone's virtue, which remains steady under an onslaught."

Because bamboo is evergreen, it also suggests longevity.

Because bamboo is hollow inside, Murashige points out, "that emptiness becomes a metaphor for a being that is empty, unbiased and unprejudiced, seeing all possibilities in all situations."

But despite all the symbolic references, Murashige is drawn to bamboo because of its beauty. "It's something nice to have," says Murashige, who grew up with bamboo plants in his home and who grows a pot of bamboo in his home today.

"Even if it is not actually bamboo, people like the look and the patterns," says Ingrid Koepcke, decor specialist at EXPO Design Center in Chicago. EXPO has a collection of bamboo designs that include furniture ($30 to $100) and wall coverings made by Imperial, Thibaut and Seabrook.

Designers have responded not only by featuring this relatively new "wood" source but also by borrowing bamboo's silhouette for textiles, detailing in furniture and accessories, such as door handles and vases.

The lookalike bamboo styles in desks, tables and chairs have reed-shaped legs that are sometimes the same natural shade as real bamboo and sometimes in a black or red lacquered finish.

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