The cuddly panda’s got it right: Bamboo is where it’s at. It’s one of nature’s fastest-growing plants, thrives without pesticides and produces oxygen, making it one of the most eco-friendly materials around. But most of all, its notched form is irresistible to almost everyone—from print-obsessed fashion types to hipster bike builders and daring Dutch design collectives.
Here, a highly subjective timeline of bamboo’s storied past.
c. 260 BCE Although it can grow just about anywhere, bamboo is generally associated with the Far East. It might, however, have played an important supporting role in the construction of the ancient pyramids of Egypt. That’s what John Cunningham, a scholar at Skidmore College, posits. In 1988 he published a paper suggesting flexible bamboo poles were used to hoist the heavy stones from which these immense structures were built.
c.1850s Laced-up Victorians might have been prudes, but they weren’t without taste.Their appetite for Orientalism took many forms: paisley shawls (made in Scotland); bamboo-decorated teapots, courtesy of Wedgwood; and faux bamboo furniture.
1889 These days the name Tiffany evokes images of engagement rings and blue boxes tied with white satin ribbon, but the company’s founding father, Louis Comfort Tiffany, rose to fame via his leaded stained-glass creations, which were often in the sensuous Art Nouveau style. His bamboo-patterned 1889 window frame guarantees Eastern exposure wherever it is situated.
c.1926 One of Buddhism’s rites to present flowers as offerings gave birth to ikebana, an ancient Japanese method of abstract yet precise flower arranging. Ikebana, in turn, encouraged creativity with bamboo, as flowers were often presented in baskets made of the stuff. In the mid 1920s Sofu Teshigahara, a Japanese artist, bravely broke with tradition when he established the Sogetsu School, where he adapted the ancient art of ikebana to modern times. These days fine bamboo sculptures are called Sogetsu in honor of Teshigahara’s iconoclastic approach.
c.1940 Some contend that bamboo was employed as a torture device in World War II. Allegedly, prisoners of war were placed horizontally over freshly planted bamboo; the new shoots (bamboo can lengthen up to three feet in a day) would eventually pierce and impale the poor souls suspended above them. Copies of Sun Tzu’s Art of War were historically written on bamboo strips, including a version dating from the reign of China’s Qianlong Emperor (1735–1796).
1947 Not even armed conflict can dampen Italian ingenuity. Faced with restrictions on traditional luxury materials during and after World War II, Gucci’s craftspeople, left grasping for straws, came up with an innovative solution: bamboo. They heat-molded the plant into U-shaped handles, creating an iconic bag that nearly 65 years later reads Gucci
in any language.
c.1950 Kitschy bamboo furniture became popular in the post war ’50s as soldiers who had been posted in the Far East settled into civilian life. But this minimal bamboo basket chair, co-created (though never produced) by the two sculptors Isamu Noguchi and Isamu Kenosha, has more in common with the Danish modern aesthetic than tacky
1962 Folk trio Peter, Paul & Mary released a song called “Bamboo” on their self-titled album. They wouldn’t be the last musicians to be inspired by the material: In 2007 M.I.A. included the track “Bamboo Banga” on her grimy Kala album.
1982 Japanese fashion designer Issey Miyake showed an architectural, armor-like bamboo bodice in 1982, created by Japanese artist Kosuge Shochikudo. Shochikudo, who took bamboo art beyond traditional flower baskets, is also known for his collaborations with Tina Chow, the celebrated beauty, vintage collector and gifted jeweler, for whom he made bamboo cages to contain the uncut stones she favored.
1987 Leave it to a Scot to unravel the mysteries of the East. That’s what Andy Goldsworthy, known for his site-specific sculptures made of twigs, did with “Woven bamboo, windy..., Before the Mirror 1987,” a piece created of bamboo in Japan.
c.1989 While shopping in Paris, the Japanese architect Shigeru Ban found a Chinese bamboo hat in a shop that inspired his design for the $90 million Centre Pompidou-Metz in France, which opened in May 2010. Talk about an investment piece.
1996 Another reason to love Kate Moss: The New York Times reported her ride of choice was a Quasar Khanh–designed Vietnamese Bambooclette Country bicycle. More than a decade later, the complete spectrum of the design world—from the Bamboo Bike Studio in Red Hook, Brooklyn, to industry heavyweight Ross Lovegrove (who created a bamboo bike for the Danish company Biomega in 2009) — jumped on the trend. Is there any trend that Moss wasn’t an early adopter of?
1999 Jimmy Carter, a onetime peanut farmer turned president and Nobel Prize recipient, is known to have gone fishing with a bamboo fly-fishing rod crafted by Bill Oyster, who in 1999 opened shop in a small town in Georgia selling rods that can take up to 100 hours to produce.
2000 “Gone bamboo” is a way to describe a Westerner who has gone “native” in a tropical location. It’s also the title of chef and writer Anthony Bourdain’s crime novel about a semiretired hit man who ends up hiding out in Saint Martin with the mob capo he botched a hit on.
2005 Miuccia Prada sent big-eyed, Manga-like models down the runway in white shirtdresses, drooping granny stockings, and kick-ass bamboo
2007 Austrian nature photographer Josef Hof lehner went to Japan to shoot a series of works, among them was the graphic and striking “Giant Bamboo 3.”
2007 Dutch designers Tejo Remy and René Veenhuizen worked bamboo like origami to create their “Reef Bench” for a children’s school.
2009 Cambodian artist Sopheap Pich showed “Raft” at Tyler Rollins Fine Art in New York. A showstopping retro-Futuristic bamboo, rattan and wire sculpture, “Raft” looked more like a piece of heavy artillery than something Huck Finn might have taken for a spin down the Mississippi River. It’s a piece that speaks to the violence of contemporary Cambodian history (Pich and his family left their homeland as political refugees) and also to the price of development in the country: “Raft” was created as the artist’s studio and the lake it borders were slated for destruction to make way for a real-estate development.
2010 Alessi reissued the Brazilian Campana brothers’ “Blow-Up” series of baskets and centerpieces, which were originally cast in metal, in one of their favorite materials: bamboo.
2010 More than 20 years after whipping the art world into a frenzy with their “Stretched Christ” photograph at the 1987 Whitney Biennial, identical twins Mike and Doug Starn proved they could still excite reaction with their “Big Bambú: You Can’t, You Don’t, and You Won’t Stop” exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The work, or more accurately, work in progress, named after the Cheech and Chong album Big Bambú and Beastie Boys lyrics, was a nylon-lashed bamboo structure that morphed daily as climbers added elements to it. See our article for more on the piece
2010 With its blond “wooden” casing, the Asus Bamboo Series laptop evokes feelings that are more warm and fuzzy than those elicited by the average plastic gadget. Not to mention that manufacturing this modish machine requires less energy than one made of alternative materials.
2010 Long used as a building material—from flooring to scaffolding—bamboo has been discovered by the beauty industry as well. For spring 2010, Target’s Sonia Kashuk introduced limited- edition Straight from Nature makeup brushes. Other top-notch products include Clinique’s Butter Shine lipstick, which comes in a bamboo-inspired tube.
2011 They might be out for red blood, but some hunters are also green—like those who wear Robinson Outdoors’ ScentBlocker’s S3® Camo Bamboo Base Layer Collection. Bamboo, which is generally woven into rayon, hits several targets: It’s soft, quickly wicks moisture, and helps to regulate temperature