David Stairs

If you asked people to name the most durable material in the world, many would probably say steel. If you asked what is the most flexible they’d say plastic or rubber. If you asked them to describe the most economical they might say clay. Efficient? Glass. Now, suppose you rephrased your query and asked what is the most economical efficient durable flexible material in the world? The answer has to be bamboo, hands down.

India, like most countries of Asia where bamboo is indigenous, has a history of active development and use for the plant, once considered a weed. In fact, not only does the the National Institute of Design in Ahmenabad have a bamboo initiative led by Professor MP Ranjan, but the Indian Department of Agriculture has a National Bamboo Mission.

Bamboo is used for all sorts of products, including paper, scaffolding and construction, ladders, furniture, architectural ornament, and fencing. An uphill walk in a rainstorm in Bangalore one day resulted in our locating “Bambootown,” an area dominated by lumber sellers and sawmills, where bamboo wholesalers store stacks and stacks of all lengths and widths of bamboo.

On the way back from Auroville recently I stopped at a bamboo furniture manufactory. All sorts of everyday furnishings, from bookshelves to stools, couches to coat racks are fabricated from bamboo. Here the object’s frame is made of structural bamboo with the surface areas made of more flexible bamboo cane. Prices can be extremely reasonable, too, with a handsome side chair priced affordably at 1500 rupees, or about $30.

These days bamboo is being made into an amazing variety of consumer goods, from architectural flooring, paneling, and veneers to Kickstarter sunglasses. I saw many examples of bamboo used for structural purposes, say, the covering of a hotel roof garden, and am even aware of dimensional lumber made from compressed laminated bamboo.

One day I was walking down a street in Yelahanka Satellite Town and encountered three men working on a corner. Two of them were splitting bamboo into five foot lengths, the third was weaving the slats into window blinds. In India there are few limits to where craft can spring up, or business be conducted.

Bamboo, like hemp, got a bad rap for many years. Unlike the latter, bamboo is making a play onto the stage as one of the world’s most-used and useful materials. I say it’s about time.

David Stairs is the founding editor of Design-Altruism-Project