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RECYCLING: GRASSES

Please don't mow the sorghum

The stalk, similar to bamboo and touted as a green product, can be found in furnishings and flooring.

July 06, 2006|Leslee Komaiko | Special to The Times

MOLASSES tables. Couscous cabinets. Beer chairs. Well, not exactly. But sorghum, a tall grass grown around the globe for these and other foodstuffs, is now being crafted into tables, cabinets, chairs -- even countertops and flooring.

A sorghum-based board is sold in the U.S. under the brand name Kirei, pronounced KEE-ray, which means "beautiful" in Japanese. It was developed in Japan in the mid-'90s and is produced exclusively in northern China. Kirei's biggest selling point is the distinctive look: long skinny strips of striated and speckled gold, wheat and warm gray. It's reminiscent of bamboo but, its fans say, has more personality.

Like bamboo, Kirei is touted as a green product. The woody lower stalk of the sorghum plant used in the board's fabrication is typically thrown away or burned because it doesn't biodegrade fast.

"Farmers would have big piles of this stalk they would have to pay to get rid of," says John Stein, U.S. distributor for the product (www.kireiusa.com). "Or they would burn it in the field, which creates air pollution. This provides farmers with revenue. They bring it in cleaned and bundled, and it's pressed with zero VOC [volatile organic compounds] adhesive. So it doesn't have that new paint-carpet smell."

A Japanese friend introduced Stein to the sorghum board about five years ago. At the time, he was marketing solar power and other green industries. The manufacturer granted Stein exclusive rights to distribute the product in the United States, and he since has added Canada, Mexico, Europe and Hong Kong to his portfolio. Sales, he says, have doubled every year. Stein also runs the company Organo Natural (www.organonatural.com), which produces sorghum-based tables, trays, mirrors and frames.

Kirei board is available in 3-by-6-foot sheets in three thicknesses: 10 millimeters, 20 millimeters and 30 millimeters, a range of about one-third to 1 1/4 inches. Among the retailers who carry it is Livingreen (www.livingreen.com) in Culver City and Santa Barbara

"A lot of homeowners are coming in and saying, 'That's cool. Let me experiment with it,' " says Culver City store manager Brenden McEneaney. "Some people make things out of it. They do their own furniture, tissue boxes, et cetera. Others will use it to make a cabinet or will face a cabinet with the thinnest material of the Kirei."

Michael Iannone and James Sanderson of Philadelphia-based iannone:sanderson (i-sdesign.com) have a Kirei cabinet and two graphic Kirei tables in their line of contemporary furniture. The pieces are the duo's best sellers.

"It has a very organic look to it," Iannone says of the Kirei. "It looks like plant cells that have been sandwiched and bonded together."

Kirei is used in tables at several local eateries, including Gingergrass in Silver Lake, Solar Harvest in Beverly Hills and Ocean and Vine in the Loews Santa Monica Beach Hotel.

The material does have its drawbacks, starting with a sheet size smaller than bamboo or plywood. The result can be odd-sized leftover pieces. "We try to design our pieces to get as much out of the sheet as we can," Iannone says. "But that size can be a little limiting."

For nearly every use, sorghum board needs to be treated with polyurethane or varnish to prevent scratching and chipping. The tables at Ocean and Vine are coated in a thick resin. Stein says eco-friendly finishes are available.

The biggest issue, though, is price. Kirei is almost twice as expensive as bamboo. At Livingreen, a 4-by-8-foot sheet of three-quarter-inch bamboo goes for $200 to $230, or $7.19 a square foot at the priciest end. A 3-by-6 sheet of 3/4-inch Kirei is $170, or $9.44 a square foot.

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