Bamboo Boom

It took six years and several drawings/prototypes for Truss-Me—a collection of bamboo furniture—to achieve the finesse it has today. In 2008, Bangalore-based designer Sandeep Sangaru created a set of light but strong chairs, tables and bookshelves using split bamboo poles laminated together. He borrowed the idea from a technique called truss—a load-bearing frame used in construction. Truss-Me won the Red Dot Design Award (Best of the Best) in 2009 and the Design for Asia Award (Gold) at the Hong Kong Design Centre 2011. And this month, Sangaru was awarded the Young Creative Entrepreneurs Awards—Design for Social Impact Award by the British Council in Kolkata for his work on this collection.

The Truss-Me bench system that starts from Rs 1.6 lakh at Sangaru.com.

The Truss-Me bench system that starts from Rs.1.6 lakh at Sangaru.com.

On World Bamboo Day this 18 September, there will be much to celebrate. Bamboo has been discussed and explored as a green material for several years now. But as New Age designers adopt it to create stylized, contemporary designs, it has moved from being the poor man’s timber into a space of high design. Goa-based designer Andrea Noronha’s Bo Lamp—resembling a delicately bent leaf—portrays this shift well. It retains the characteristic, organic texture of bamboo in a clean, modern design.

The Bambike, which costs upwards of Rs 25,000, is available at 6mm Designs and Furniture, Bangalore. Photo: Yolk Studio, Bangalore

The Bambike, which costs upwards of Rs. 25,000, is available at 6mm Designs and Furniture, Bangalore. Photo: Yolk Studio, Bangalore

Entrepreneur and designer Joshua Hishey, who runs Studio Alaya in Dehradun, Uttarakhand, works with over 150 artisans. Hishey helps them build business enterprises of their own so that they can supply not only to Alaya but anyone who places an order.

He explains why bamboo is his first choice. “I’ve worked with plastics, metals, done injection moulding, die-casting, but working with bamboo needs so few tools. With rudimentary equipment you can do a lot. Bamboo is a labour-intensive material,” he says. London’s Victoria and Albert Museum is in the process of putting together an exhibition of modern Indian design, expected to open next year. And curator Divia Patel has shown interest in Hishey’s recycled bamboo table.

The Bo Lamp by Andrea Noronha is still in production.

The Bo Lamp by Andrea Noronha is still in production.

Everyone has their moment of truth. Rebecca Reubens, who runs Rhizome—a design firm that advocates the use of sustainable products like bamboo—in Ahmedabad, Gujarat, first came across the versatility of bamboo on a trip to Tripura in 2001. “I realized that bamboo is not just being used to make baskets as I had imagined. They make houses, boats, furniture, accessories, everything possible with bamboo,” says Reubens. She is currently pursuing a PhD programme on bamboo at the Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands. In her book, Bamboo: From Green Design to Sustainable Design, published in April in Antwerp, she talks about how design can actualize sustainability. Rhizome’s retail outlet, Bamboo Canopy, sells bamboo furniture, accessories and toys.

Recycled bamboo table set by Joshua Hishey at Studio Alaya, Dehradun, and www.designemporia.in, Rs 6,000.

Recycled bamboo table set by Joshua Hishey at Studio Alaya, Dehradun, and www.designemporia.in, Rs. 6,000.

Moving bamboo out of the home was Vijay Sharma’s idea. The Bangalore-based designer created Bambike, a bicycle made of bamboo. The Bambike frame is 3kg lighter than a cycle done in metal, and builds on bamboo’s inherent shock-absorbing quality. “People make houses, furniture and toys out of bamboo. Why not a bicycle, which is an eco-friendly product to start with. When it’s handcrafted with a natural material, the carbon footprint falls further,” says Sharma. Bambike’s final prototype underwent the Japan Industrial Standards test at TI Cycles in Chennai. The prototype has to undergo vibrations on the testing machine 100,000 times. Bambike successfully finished a count of 200,000 on the machine with the frame still intact.

Knock-down furniture prototype designed by the National Institute of Design for the North-East.

Knock-down furniture prototype designed by the National Institute of Design for the North-East.

It’s not the case of a few individual designers taking up bamboo as their preferred material. The National Institute of Design (NID), Ahmedabad, has been leading bamboo initiatives for over a decade now. Apart from classroom training to designers of the future, it has been working with grass-roots communities across the country. Susanth C.S., head of NID’s Centre for Bamboo Initiatives at the Bangalore campus, recalls the success of one of their projects. “In 2010, we had conducted a workshop in Nagaland on how to create furniture that can be easily knocked down, because then transportation—otherwise a huge cost—comes down. We created prototypes, trained artisans and this year they have started full-scale production,” he says.

Bamboo, however, is limited by the perception that it is used only to make decorative handicrafts. When Sangaru visited Shankela in Tripura, he realized that even though the bamboo products local people used in their day-to-day lives were quite evolved, they sold the same humdrum bamboo products in rundown craft bazaars. “There’s some education that the artisan needs to change this. With a little more design sensibility and better finishing, they can make better products and fetch a lot more money,” he says. Reubens believes in making products that urban people would like to have in their homes, “something functional and not too ethnic”.

The Wishboo chair by Rebecca Reubens, made from bamboo and recycled chindi rope, available at Bamboo Canopy, Ahmedabad, Rs 7,050.The Wishboo chair by Rebecca Reubens, made from bamboo and recycled chindi rope, available at Bamboo Canopy, Ahmedabad, Rs.7,050.

The bamboo boom clearly needs an industry push. There are challenges in working with bamboo. It’s not a material that comes off the shelf. You can’t go to a store and say I want a 6-inch-diameter bamboo pipe. It does not weld or mould easily. It needs to be treated to increase life. But the biggest challenge it faces is that of perception as a cheap material.

Sharma has sold only six bikes since production started in 2009, all to foreign customers. Sangaru struggles to sell his award-winning Truss-Me in the domestic market. “People expect it to be inexpensive because it’s made of bamboo. I can’t be justifying its price all the time. There has to be a maturity level to judge the design, craftsmanship, quality and finish of a product,” Sangaru says. But while the market and artisans themselves undervalue bamboo, design is slowly beginning to etch the best out of it.

Story by Komal Sharma at LiveMint.com

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