Accidental environmentalist designs furniture from invasive species

Earth Day Special Feature 2011: The founder of PIE Studio barely knew what "sustainable" meant when he first started making furniture with water hyacinth and bamboo. Today, he's a leader in green design.
Written by Melanie D.G. Kaplan, Inactive

Miami-based designer and PIE Studio founder Bannavis Andrew Sribyatta barely knew what “sustainable” meant when he started using natural materials to make high-end furniture. Today, he’s a leader in green design—making chairs from plant “trash” and hurricane debris, and exploring how to replace plywood with boards made from yard trimmings.

Sribyatta’s materials include invasive species such as water hyacinth, liana and bamboo, and recyclable polyethylene. I spoke with Sribyatta recently. Excerpts of our conversation are below.

How did you get started making furniture from sustainable materials?

I have an architectural background. I was living in Los Angeles, and had a chance to design a few furniture piece for my clients and get away from the boredom of architecture. It was more of a hobby. I went to my first show in 2005, and we used all natural materials. The next day we were on the front page of the Home section in the Los Angeles Times.

What kinds of materials were you using then?

When I started making furniture, it was fiberglass, Corian or some other synthetic materials. I love curves, and it was really difficult to use this synthetic material to make curves. It become very expensive. So I was doing all this research into new materials.

I’m from Thailand and lived there till I was 13. I grew up with all these natural materials. I took a trip to visit my family and saw these materials and realized, “Oh my God, this is the magical material--bamboo, rattan, water hyacinth--I’ve been looking for, but it’s been used for thousands of years.” I realized it’s not about new technology at all, it’s about what’s been used before. That taught me a lesson: Don’t just look at the future; look at the past.

When you started using some of these sustainable materials, how did people respond?

When we put them out at the show, people used to ask, “Are these sustainable, green materials?” And I turned to my wife and said, “What does that mean?” So without knowing it, we were actually doing something good for the environment. At this point, I became even more in love with these materials.

Where do you get them?

All from Thailand. Most of our products are produced in Thailand. Twenty to 30 percent of our product is produced here in Miami. We prototype and test everything here.

What changed with wicker furniture that made it less tacky and allowed you to use it as a high-end product?

I’m not sure. When I started using these materials, they weren’t being used in a modern way; now they are. Back in the day, labor costs were cheaper; now, labor costs being high, so the product became kind of a high-end. It falls now right below a high -market.

How high-end is your highest-end product?

It’s a art piece, a one-off, $10,000 chair called Wabi Sabi, which means perfection of the imperfection, or that the imperfection you find in nature is perfect. This chair is made entirely out of Hurricane Katrina debris. In 2005 we were hired by Metropolis magazine to make an instillation. So we collected a lot of debris, and we used a lot of chipped wood and edible glue to make this chair. There were potential collectors that wanted it and wanted to bargain it down, but I wasn’t that interested in selling it. I would be more interested in donating it to a museum.

Of the regular chairs, the Pearl is most expensive--$5,000. It’s made from recycled polyethylene, so it’s like recycled plastic, with a stainless steel frame.

Are most of your customers seeking you out because of your sustainable products?

It’s harder to market your product only because it’s green and sustainable. Most people look at my products first because of the design, then when they find out it’s green, they’re sold. So they stop because it’s cool, and then they buy because it’s green.

What other materials are you working with?

We use rattan, water hyacinth, bamboo and vine. We use recycled polyethylene and recycled aluminum. Last year we came out with this product that was in the works for a couple years--I worked with a plywood manufacturer to create these fiber ply boards. Basically it’s a board that’s made entirely out of grass or leaves and different types of debris. Say you cut your yard. I could collect the grass and make a board out of it.

My goal is to eliminate the use of plywood entirely; we’ll start with furniture first and then go to construction. So we won’t even need to use wood anymore. And the resin we use is green resin—no formaldehyde. You could actually bite into it and it’s perfectly fine. The beauty of it is that we tried it with lemongrass, made into a chair (called Boing), and the board smelled like lemongrass for a year.

Plywood manufacturers are big factories. If they are going to make a board for me, they say, “OK, we’ll need to make 5,000 boards.” But they were willing to work with me on a prototype and made 50 sheets out of various materials. Any plywood manufacturer could pick up some weeds and do this. I don’t look at this as my innovation. There are other types of boards that are not wood, but I haven’t seen it being used in furniture and construction. I want to push this project to show people we could eliminate the use of plywood by using what’s basically trash.

What are some challenges you have with these materials that you don’t have with synthetics?

The biggest challenge is that they’re all handmade, so quality control is the number one concern for us. It seems like, “Oh, you just weave up a chair, but it’s actually three weaves and a lot of evening it out so it all looks uniform.

Also, there’s limitations on design—the stretchabilty. I can’t stretch anything—it’ll rip or tear. So we have started to play around with other materials that allow us to get away and come back and see the green world again. I kind of fell into these natural materials by chance and that was because I was looking for something to replace the fiberglass curve. So if look at different [synthetic] materials and it freshens my mind and I can find something that stretches and love the property of it, for example, I can go back to find something in a green material. There are so many new materials that are sustainable.

With a plant like water hyacinth, it’s invasive, so you will never have a supply shortage?

Correct. When we started using rattan, it was easy to find. These past two years, it’s not anymore. It’s there, but the price went up so we’re trying to use less of it. But water hyacinth is easy to find. The beauty of it is that it grows in rivers, and we have it in south Florida. But it will grow in abundance and will completely cover the river in a few weeks’ time. It takes away the nutrients from the fish and blocks the whole ecosystem in the river. In Thailand and some other countries, the government hires people to cut the water hyacinth and throw it out or burn it. In the last 10 years, people have realized it’s basically trash, so they started to collect it to make purses and other things. I think it’s illegal to just get it from the water, so we do still have to pay for it. Some people buy it from the government, cut it into strips and then sell it to you.

In making your furniture, are you trying to get people to think differently about “trash”?

There’s so much trash out there that’s only trash because people don’t think it’s useful. We started this blog called, Are you Done With That, like when a waiter asks you if you’re done with your meal. There are so many things we think we’re done with that we can reuse. We’ve used plastic bags from the grocery store, dry cleaner hangers. You have to be a little crafty.

More from SmartPlanet's Earth Day Special Feature 2011:

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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