Making a design statement with eco-friendly bamboo

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 17 August, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 17 August, 2011, 12:00am


Julia Washbourne recalls a life-changing moment in Ivory Coast five years ago, when she was on her way to visit a coffee plantation. Her vehicle was bumping down a dirt road towards a huge 'tunnel' made of thick, tree-tall bamboo trunks.

'That was where I fell in love with bamboo,' says Washbourne, the founder of Central-based design store Bamboa, which uses the plant in innovative ways to create, among other things, household products. 'It really is a miracle how versatile it is.' The applications of bamboo in design are extensive. It has become popular in recent years as a highly durable, low-impact, low-cost material in flooring and panelling. Growing rapidly and requiring little water, it is environmentally friendly compared to hardwoods such as teak, Brazilian ipe, cherry and mahogany.

A handful of local companies are taking bamboo a step further, introducing home furnishings and appliances such as lighting, lampshades and even plates and bowls.

They acknowledge the hard work in shifting the mindset of the city's consumers, some of whom still regard bamboo as a disposable material used in dim sum steamers, baskets, mats and scaffolding.

'Hong Kong people think bamboo furniture is a very cheap material, and they think of very old-style Chinese-made furniture,' says Billie Wong Chung-shun, who runs Verdee Bamboo Living, which uses bamboo in everything from flooring to plates and light fixtures. 'It is important to educate them and let them know bamboo is better than hardwood.'

It is cheaper, more durable and more ecologically sound, she says.

Designers appreciate the feel and texture of bamboo. Antony Chan, creative director of design shop Cream, cites the bamboo veneer that German maker Poggenpohl uses in its high-end kitchen cupboards.

'Bamboo aesthetically is quite Zen and Japanese,' Chan says. 'When it's ... compressed into kitchen cabinet doors or flooring, it gives ... a natural pattern. And bamboo can grow quite fast.'

Whereas traditional hardwoods take 20 to 120 years to mature, bamboo needs only five years before it can be harvested. And harvesting does not require the removal of the roots, meaning the plants can regenerate.

Architect Andre Fu, in his much-praised design of Swire Hotels' The Upper House, used bamboo veneer in all the cabinet doors, wardrobes and pantry covers. He also had two desks, handmade from bamboo, placed at the entrance to the hotel's sky lounge. The effect, alongside a floor-to-ceiling bamboo wall panel, is soft, calming and distinctly Asian.

Companies are using bamboo for more than just surfaces. Washbourne honed her interest on the mainland. Alarmed by the high usage of chemicals in making clothes and home products, she began researching bamboo, which often does not need chemical treatment, she says. Even flooring can be left untreated, and bamboo has natural anti-bacterial qualities, making it well suited to chopping boards and bowls.

Having launched Bamboa in 2008, Washbourne now makes a wide range of household products, including pet bowls and flower pots, that she sells through her shop on Wellington Street, and through stores including Lane Crawford. Her painted Vietnamese stools appear to be plastic, but close inspection reveals swirls of bamboo, which is spun in rural Vietnam.

Her latest product is a material called Bamboa Biotech, which uses compressed bamboo powder that is hard enough to make cups, bowls and plates. Bamboa's cups (HK$70 each at Lane Crawford) and big plates and small soup bowls (HK$80) are entirely biodegradable, but durable.

'They last for as long as you want them to last,' she says. 'Within three to four months, they will completely degrade [if buried]. But you can smash them on a concrete floor and they won't break.'

Washbourne, who advises companies on how to set up production operations that use bamboo instead of timber, has also turned her hand to making larger pieces of furniture. A custom-made metre-long table sells for about HK$8,000. She also sells decking at about HK$47 per square foot, though most of this is exported because of the relatively few outdoor spaces in Hong Kong.

Not all entrants into Hong Kong's market have succeeded. French company Castor & Chouca, which makes baby furniture from bamboo harvested near Hangzhou, saw its distributor close after less than a year.

Verdee, set up in 2003, started out specialising in decking. Wong says the flooring has won over local converts, thanks to its durability (there is a 25-year warranty on its products) and reasonable cost (HK$20 a square foot). 'They've learned it is a sustainable and useful material. It's much cheaper than hardwood, and ... they can save forests and trees.'

She calls bamboo the 'grass of steel', with a celery-like structure. Unlike wood, she adds, it is not very absorbent and does not require treatment with formaldehyde or staining - carbonisation from heating bamboo at high temperatures will create a natural brown striation as the sugars in the plant change colour.

Verdee distributes furniture made by Modern Bamboo, a US company that makes streamlined bamboo chairs and tables. Its Spring Chair rivals Verner Panton's Stacking Chair in looks - but is made from bamboo.

The Spring Chair is formed by many layers of bamboo veneer that are compressed together. Under very high pressure, it becomes incredibly durable, able to hold 363kg in weight - and without a single screw in place.

Ironically, the company produces its bamboo on the mainland, ships it to the US and then sells it back to Hong Kong through Verdee, which may explain the high retail prices: the Spring Chair sells for HK$6,800.

Verdee also sells bamboo furniture from French maker Sengtai. The products have a strong 1960s feel and are often very colourful - the Wasabi television cabinet (HK$5,800) comes in deep blue or fire-house red, as well as white or brown.

Verdee produces its own furniture in a Zhejiang factory, and creates light fixtures inspired by Chinese design and culture. But it concedes that, for now, it needs overseas imports with stronger design sensibilities.

'We distribute bamboo brands from the US and France because their modern and simple designs help to change customers' mindsets,' Wong says.

Bamboa: 4/F, 15C Wellington Street, Central, tel 2291 0285

Verdee Bamboo Living - Concept Store: Shop 340, 3/F Homesquare, 138 Sha Tin Rural Committee Road, Sha Tin, New Territories, tel 2699 9689