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Views and Interviews

January 2022

In conversation with Rebecca Reubens
Sustainable Design for the Hospitality Industry

Rebecca Reubens began India’s first sustainability design firm, Rhizome, in 2009. Rhizome works towards achieving the fine balance between development, sustainability and commercial viability. Rhizome’s mandate is to provide the complete spectrum of design support that takes products and services to their logical end—the market—while being mindful of sustainability. The firm offers services in design, prototyping, streamlining production protocols, technology development, market studies, and branding.

Rhizome believes in empowerment at the grassroots level and uses design as a tool to re-contextualize cultural capital, including that of artisans and SMEs. It works with craftspeople and communities to develop products that provide sustainable income.

Apart from its consultancy work, Rhizome has two in-house labels for fashion and décor. Baka, which works in the area of sustainable jewelry, and has just won the designer of the year for the category of accessories by Elle Magazine. Rhizome, is an eponymously named range of handcrafted and sustainable bamboo furniture.

For this very interesting fireside chat on "working with bamboo", we reached out to Rebecca Reubens, whose core expertise is in bamboo-based design, livelihood generation and design education. She is a sustainability design consultant and works closely with SMEs - helping them with design & craft inputs and earning a decent wage. The evolving objective here is aligning sustainable products with the creative economy.

Are there reasons why has bamboo been ignored for so long, especially when it comes to making it ecologically sustainable?

Bamboo has always been considered a poor man’s substitute to wood, making it a long haul for innovation and investment around design, and viable market linkages to be developed around this material. Post the 90’s, and with the burgeoning sustainability crisis, bamboo has slowly and steadily come into the spotlight and held its own as one of the most renewable materials known to man. With new technology and research around this material, it is ready to take center-stage – in fact, it already has.

How can we get the hospitality industry warm up to contemporary applications with bamboo? Do we need higher awareness levels in terms of design possibilities, and availability?

Bamboo dovetails beautifully with the hospitality industry because it is sustainable, renewable, and hardy. It conveys the brand image that many in the sector are trying to talk about in terms of responsible hospitality. Its versatility makes it the go-to for a range of hospitality industry avataars–across business hotels, budget hotels, luxury hotels and resorts. Bamboo can be styled very differently, just like wood, which is why we definitely need more awareness in terms of wide-ranging design possibilities for the hospitality industry.

Can your teams work with a hotel’s brand consultants to evolve an exclusive look-and-feel across a range of products and installations?

Yes, we can, and we have already. We worked with "Woods at Sasan" to develop products and installations centered around bamboo. Our work included working with their stylist and team to conceptualize, prototype, trial and finally install these pieces. (Woods at Sasan is the flagship venture of 1000 Island Hotels and Resorts, a hospitality signature that brings people closer to themselves and the environment.)

We’ve also worked with several other eco-resorts, restaurants and cafes in India.

How can the hospitality industry merge sustainability goals with the use of bamboo applications in public & private spaces?

Bamboo inherently ticks the boxes of sustainability goals, whether they be ecological, social, cultural or economic. Handcrafted bamboo offers a great backstory, which is heartening, and tells your clientele you are walking the talk, and that too in style without compromising on comfort or aesthetics.

Can bamboo be a replacement to conventional material, or something that is considered at a very early blueprint stage?

Both work. There have been airports completely built from bamboo, and bamboo has found its way into the décor of already-built spaces. Both have their pros and cons, but as with everything, the earlier decisions are integrated into the overall blueprint - with more space to ensure they are meticulously implemented with attention to details.

How do you manage to achieve (admirably) high design and production standards, when you are working with small community-based project partners?

With great difficulty. It has been a process moving beyond the handicraft box to the entire hand-crafted box. This has meant capacity building our community partners, putting in several mechanisms to check quality and check quality again. But nothing is impossible, and it has been an incredibly fulfilling journey.

You also talk about social, economic, cultural and ecological tenets of sustainability – how does all this fall into place on one common canvas?

People think you can address the ecology without addressing the rest of the tenets of sustainability, but in fact, sustainability science shows that sustainability is an emergent property of the world and its production-to-consumption systems. What we buy (economic), why we buy it (cultural), who we buy it from (social) and what it is made of are all intricately interlinked. This is why we always look at sustainability as a holistic goal.

When you talk about the road ahead, you mention Telling the Story & Selling the Story, could you tell us something about this?

Initially, we thought we would dovetail with a socially-responsive market. In the end, it is the market for good design that embraced us. This happened because not only did we tell our sustainability story, but also used it as an integral part of our branding to add value to our product. Every product we sell helps us tell a story and goes well beyond that - making it possible to keep telling it.

Rebecca Reubens, PhD / Founder, Rhizome | World Bamboo Ambassador, WBO | Design
More about the kind work done by Rhizome and their wide range of SME partners at this link.

All images used are courtesy of Rebecca Reubens

Content Disclaimer: The views expressed in our interviews and stories do not necessarily reflect the official policies, practices and guidelines of the All India Resort Development Association, or its members. These views are based on personal experiences, private opinion, or open source information. (Images used here are either "paid-for" stock photos, images shared by the people we interview, or images under one of the open source licenses such as Creative Commons and others.)

Here’s a link to some recent interviews done by us on the AIRDA website

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