The origins and environmental impact of raw materials are becoming as important for consumers as the look, feel and functionality of the products themselves. Building a comprehensive understanding of the value of different materials, considering their strengths and weakness, is an invaluable skill to develop when designing.
Beyond the world of traditional Chinese furniture, bamboo is often overlooked, yet it can be used both for the structural framework of a piece of furniture, and its pulp can be turned into fabric for upholstery.
Bamboo’s uniquely fast growth, moisture wicking fibres and ease of cultivation have made it a popular choice for people looking for a more sustainable option.
It can be harvested after just 3-5 years (compared to 10-20 years for many softwoods). Bamboo can be processed mechanically and chemically – each method providing varying physical attributes and socio-ecological footprints. China, India, Myanmar and Thailand are the world’s largest producers of bamboo, a crop which is often generically ‘greenwashed’ as a sustainable due to its: dense growth patterns (efficient use of space); complex root structure (prevents erosion and maintains soil health); very high respiration rates (significant carbon dioxide absorption and oxygen production); water efficiency (doesn’t require irrigation); and hardiness (doesn’t require pesticides or insecticides).
However, case-specific factors such as land clearing, harvesting practices, labour conditions, and supplementary irrigation or pesticides (which are not necessary for bamboo growth, but are performance enhancing) must be factored in when determining how sustainable a material it is.
While bamboo is often attributed unique properties such as being antibacterial, due to the variety of bamboo species and material production processes these should not be credited without product specific testing. Not all of the different species of bamboo possess the same characteristics or behave in the same way.
Processing (bamboo planks)
Strip : The bamboo is cut into thin strips and pressure steamed in a process called carbonisation. It is then kiln dried before the strips are laminated together. The strips can either be laminated horizontally or vertically. One of the benefits of the laminated strip construction is that there is less swelling and shrinkage than solid wood panels.
Strand : The process is much the same, however, the thin strands are not glued together but are compressed under high pressure to form a new composite material, which is much denser and harder than its strip counterpart.
Processing (bamboo fabrics): The woody grass shoots and leaves are pulverised and then retted (soaked in water) to soften. Next, the fibrous pulp is combed, refined, and spun into yarn. The result is a bamboo ‘linen’, or ‘natural’ bamboo fabric, which is suitable for dyeing and does not require intensive pre-treatment. Mechanical processing yields the most environmentally-friendly bamboo fabric. Due to the time and labour intensity of the mechanical processing, natural chemical-free bamboo fabric is relatively expensive and difficult to source.
Five reasons to consider bamboo
1. Eco-friendly – bamboo can be grown sustainably without the use of pesticides and fertilisers due its fast growth rate and protective coating.
2. Strength and flexibility – this is a rare combination and it opens many doors for product designs and uses. When used in furniture, bamboo fibres are comfortable to sit on and have the flexibility to bend with a person’s weight.
3. Lightweight and easy to move – this makes it a practical material to use for larger furniture pieces such as tables, benches and cabinets, enabling people to lift and move their furniture as they please.
4. Practicality and comfort – bamboo fabric is highly breathable, odour resistant, and thermally regulating. It feels silky and luxurious, providing unparalleled comfort. Furniture made of bamboo can be very comfortable and less rigid than those made from other materials such as wood
5. Easy maintenance – furniture made from bamboo is very smooth due to a natural coating of oil that exists in its fibres, and it can be cleaned easily.
In summary, bamboo is a great choice for furniture, in its raw form, as a processed plank, and as a fabric.
Article first published in Furniture News 17th May 2018: https://www.furniturenews.net/resources/articles/2018/05/977262973-bamboo-right-your-furniture