Boston Globe 11-05-06 Bamboo's twofold appeal: It's ecofriendly and stylish

Boston Globe
Bamboo's twofold appeal: It's ecofriendly and stylish
While new-and-improved products are a constant feature of the consumer
landscape, it's unusual to encounter novelty in the form of raw material. This may
help explain the vogue for bamboo. Obviously this fast-growing plant (it's actually
a grass) is not new, either as a living thing or as the basic stuff of fabricated
goods. Think of 1950s-era tiki decor or centuries of Asian culture. Even so,
bamboo has in the past five years or so gradually acquired a whole new level of
popularity in the United States and maybe even a mystique.
One reason for this is its peculiar flexibility as a material. That it can serve as the
key ingredient of a hard floor or a soft bedsheet makes it sound like some
industrial wonder stuff concocted in a conglomerate's skunk works ; that it simply
grows out of the ground seems even more wondrous -- and wondrous in a way
that's a little more resonant with the present consumer zeitgeist.
Bamboo has long been popular with the ecoconscious set (because, unlike a
clear-cut forest, a well-managed bamboo crop replaces itself in a few years).
Recently it has also acquired a chic factor that something like, say, hemp, never
quite attained. As Susanne Lucas, chairwoman of the board of the World
Bamboo Organization (a nonprofit group that promotes bamboo as a material
and as an economic development tool), puts it, the grass has become
That being the case, the other key to bamboo's popularity might seem surprising:
Instead of highlighting the stalks or other visual bambooness cues, recent
manufacturing technologies make it possible to minimize them. David Bergman,
a New York architect and the founder of Fire and Water Lighting, which
specializes in projects that are both ecofriendly and stylish, figures that bamboo's
popularity has been partly helped by this disguising effect.
Bergman has a particular interest in what he calls transparent green, meaning
design that's ecologically sound but doesn't show off that fact -- avoiding the
"granola look," as he has put it. So while you can tell that bamboo floors aren't
teak, you might not know at a glance that there's anything "green" about them. "It
doesn't have to scream that it's an ecomaterial," he says.
This same curious mix of chicness and invisibility applies to the more recent
bamboo fabrics. Dan Keesey, a partner in Bamboo Textiles, one of several
companies selling such items, says the breakthrough in textiles was the
development of a process that turned bamboo into a rayonlike fiber. Big chains
like Target and Bed, Bath and Beyond now sell bamboo sheets and pillows -and emphasize their softness.
All of this has happened at a time when eco-awareness has evolved into the sort
of trend reducible to a Vanity Fair-friendly formulation like "green is the new
black." And of course, becoming an "it" material is a double-edged business. For
starters, there isn't just one kind of bamboo; there are about 1,400 species,
according to Lynn Clark, a professor at Iowa State University who has studied
bamboo for decades (and is still discovering new species).
Bamboo flooring and other woodlike uses can have a range of qualities
depending on whether the stalks were harvested at the appropriate age: Too
young or too old and the results can be too soft or too brittle and easily damaged.
Moreover, much of the bamboo that makes its way to the American consumer
comes from China, which means that it's being shipped around the world -generally a greenie no-no.
Finally, overseas bamboo harvesting is often opaque, with little information
available about working conditions or how crops are being. TreeHugger, an
environmental-lifestyle website, has even argued that sometimes a maple floor
made from locally harvested wood under a forest-management certification
program can be a more environmentally sound choice.
But that's the flip side of an ecomaterial transcending its eco-ness: Bamboo has
the vague aura of being green-friendly but not too crunchy -- trendy, in other
words. Bamboo has become so well known, in fact, that Bergman, the architect,
sometimes steers clients away from it. "I've had one or two instances," he says,
"where we've said, 'It's too done now.' You don't want to do something so of-themoment that it dates the design."