It's no longer just the stuff of tiki lounges. Bamboo, long a hallmark of ecofriendly design, has finally gone mainstream. Crate & Barrel recently introduced its Bento line, four Asian-inspired pieces for the living room and bedroom, by designer Maria Yee. Several independent companies are now featuring new bamboo collections. And one of the country's top art schools is even hoping to make new bamboo items available commercially.
"There's a lot more bamboo ... product on the shelves today and much more awareness of bamboo's utility and beauty in general," writes Gerard Minakawa, founder of Ukao Grass Furniture, in an e-mail from Bolivia, where he scouts bamboo and textiles for his company.
A material often thought of as decorative and rustic at best - just plain kitschy at worst - is now seen as "elegant." And it is. With a distinct silky sheen, its palette ranges from the lightest blond to burnished amber.
Bamboo became popular as an alternative to hardwood floors in the mid-1990s. It's only been in the past few years, though, that bamboo laminate has become readily available to furniture designers. Flattened bamboo culms, or stalks, are cut into strips then reassembled in sheets, resulting in flat plywood-like pieces.
Actually a grass, some species of bamboo grow as high as a hundred feet in three years, making it highly renewable. It can be harvested without impacting the root system, so there's no need for replanting. "The greenest of the green," says Elsie Pon, who works for Yee.
With working qualities similar to white ash, a popular domestic hardwood, bamboo's compression strength surpasses concrete and its tensile strength exceeds that of steel. In fact, for centuries bamboo has been used for construction in Asian countries. In China, bamboo scaffolding can stretch 50 stories skyward.
Here are a few places you can find bamboo pieces for the home:
• With a rich honey hue and featuring a joinery technique that eliminates the need for screws and nails, the collection carried by Crate and Barrel (crateandbarrel.com) ranges from $429 for a nightstand to a wardrobe that costs $1,599.
• The Bolivar bench ($1,190) and stool ($445, pictured left) by San Francisco-based Ukao Grass Furniture (ukao.com) are upholstered in traditional Andean textiles.
• Bart Bettencourt's collection (bettencourtwood.com) includes a media center with a hemp screen ($2,400). An ottoman upholstered in gray hemp with a bamboo base costs $1,200. The Brooklyn designer is also cofounder of a company that distributes green building supplies.
• "Georgie" by 54Dean (54dean.com) is a slatted coffee table constructed of bamboo and stainless steel, costing $3,650 (pictured above).
• Sage, the first line of furniture designed by Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) faculty, was originally intended to compliment student dorms in a renovated 1917 bank building in downtown Providence. But the designers soon hope to make a commercial line available. The collection, which includes a double bed and a nightstand, comes in shades of blond and is designed to accentuate the bamboo's natural structure.
Mr. Minakawa, a graduate of RISD, predicts that consumers will come to see bamboo not just as "cool or trendy, but extremely practical, elegant, and of lasting worth."