Copy/Images: Nomad

I may not set trends, when it comes to the design world, but it’s very easy for me to enjoy courses that explore traditional design techniques. I’m not sure how it is in other countries, but living in Taiwan, the course offerings are many, and easy to find!

Many of our ancestors’ skills, continue to be passed down through the generations. Let’s look at one of these vintage techniques still used in Taiwan. It is working with one of our most widely-used resources—bamboo. Bamboo can be used for a variety of purposes, such as basket weaving, fishing, curtains, chairs, farm tools, and so much more. Different types of bamboo are used for different types of items, too. For example, the bamboo from the Jinan Plains are known for their sturdiness, so it gets used for architectural support and creating barriers, whereas the bamboo from northern regions is harder, and more suitable for furniture and cabinets.

The teacher, for this design course, made it clear that working with bamboo isn’t about accumulating years of experience using it, but more about understanding the type of bamboo, and its origin. Most fascinating are the types of bamboo, and its use throughout Asia’s history, as well as in the stories handed down from generation to generation. This course was more than just a lesson on material, but it was also a full-rounded cultural lesson, too!

The teacher began the course by cutting into recycled pieces of bamboo, with a machete, to explain the anatomy of different types of bamboo. Opening up bamboo is actually a difficult task, and requires a great deal of practice. For example, if you want a clean horizontal cut through the bamboo, then the blade you use needs to be slightly curved, otherwise it won’t be a straight cut. In earlier times, there were no blades that were designed for this purpose, until artisans, who worked with bamboo, designed the blades necessary.

Bamboo can be heated with a heat gun in order to bend or twist it. This technique involves slowly adding heat and wiping the bamboo with a moist rag to avoid cracking or breaking.

When the bamboo is set in place, more heat is added, and eventually the bamboo begins to absorb all the water and oils. During this stage, its color will start to fade and become more and more yellow—or golden. The last stage is carbonization, when bamboo becomes very hard, and begins to emanate a unique fragrance. Just to note, only bamboo from the Guixi region are famous for having strong fragrances. They are used in display decorations popular in homes and public spaces.

During the class, we learned these weaving techniques, too: 1) hexagon weave, which is often used for baskets and bags; 2) cross weave, used for intricate designs; and 3) wheel weave, used for casting on and casting off. After a short time, I realized the amount of skill and concentration required for weaving bamboo, which increased my respect for what hand-weavers accomplish.

This class was fascinating, and the knowledgeable teachers were incredibly willing to share their expertise to help us with our designs. They helped us bring our ideas to reality by sharing the skills we needed to apply to our individual projects. The process sounds straightforward, but was incredibly difficult. Thankfully, our teachers were masters of the traditional skills, as well as innovative design, and could relay those ideas to us. They were able show us how to apply their techniques to new designs and projects.

We all learned that there’s more to design than initially meets the eye. We also discovered that, today, modern artisans are working in our traditional markets in Asia, to create designs, and products, using the skills and tools of earlier times. Taking this understanding, as background, and applying it to our own modern day design work adds a new dimension to what we already know. Design is a continuum.