On the 3rd of January 2017, bamboo crusader Linda Garland passed away in Australia surrounded by her children, grandchildren and loved ones. It was the passing of an era that changed Ubud, the passing of a legend. Rio Helmi, a friend of nearly four decades, recalls:
It is difficult to put Linda Garland into simple perspective. Many terms tumble out of the dictionary in all directions: larger than life, unique, phenomenon, innovator, pioneer, intuitive genius, natural glamour, charisma, aesthete, creative, and more. And when you met her in real life, her charm was almost irresistible, you were pulled head over heels into her passion for beauty, her audacious defiance of convention, her fascination with nature, and not least ner inimitable sense of humor. A big heart.
Linda Marie Wall Garland’s life was extraordinary from the start, some 68 years ago in Newry, County Down, Northern Ireland. She grew up on a large estate, often roaming free from parental control and school, spending time with various people on the land including itinerant Roma. Her father, an RAF pilot who survived the Battle of Britain, was a remote figure. Her mother, a front line Nurse in WWII, was the central personage in her early years. If ever the fighting spirit could be passed on through parents’ DNA, Linda’s would be a case in point.
Linda often joked that she could barely read or write by the time she was a teenager, dropping out of school before she was 15. Being dyslexic in an era when it was barely recognized as a condition and running wild through the Irish countryside hardly lent itself to academic excellence, but it didn’t stand in her way to success.
photo: Rabik family archives
Growing up in the border country between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland during the troubles, she was no stranger to adversarial circumstance. Perhaps it was this tempering that helped forge her indomitable spirit. The world beckoned, and this wild child, this Irish beauty, responded by plunging into the heady social scene of London in th SIxties. At 18 she was moving into a career of design. As a friend from that era, Vitek Czernuszyn, put it: “by the late 60s she was an It Girl on London’s King’s Road before the term had even been coined”.
It was the same spirit that would help her survive a near fatal car accident at age 20 on an auto-strada in Italy. “I came to as the priest was performing the last rites on me” she told me. She was flown back to England where she was cobbled back together with metal plates and screws, and a long string of the glamour crowd as well as rock and roll stars came to visit her in hospital. Immobilized in traction for months, the deep and powerful creative streak in her gained even more momentum. Though the injuries she sustained dogged her throughout the rest of her life, they didn’t come anywhere near to stopping her from doing what she set her mind to. As airport metal detectors later became a fact of life, she would joke about setting off the alarms every time she traveled.
A post recovery gift of a couple of thousand pounds from an uncle quickly became the capital for shoe string budget adventures across the globe to find fabrics and pieces that she would then work on and sell in England. It was also when she discovered a knack for her own style of marketing, years before the word became commonplace. Her capital doubled many times over.
It wasn’t long before the collecting and selling of fabrics and artifacts turned into interior design. Linda had found her career. She continued her adventures seeking new inspiration. Traveling hard through the world the way we used to in those days – on cargo ships, hitching rides on trucks, flying on dilapidated prop planes held together with baling wire, at sea on leaky old tubs – she finally stumbled on to the Indonesian archipelago in the early 70s.
By the mid 70s, having trekked through large parts of Indonesia, she had established Bali as her base. When I met her in Bali in 1978 she had set up an international interior design business in the most basic village conditions. Giant cushions and bedcovers covered in bespoke batik, completely eclectic home ware, cutlery made from all manner of materials emerged from funky workshops scattered across the island, her various homes in those early days always doubled as showrooms.
Linda, Amir, baby Arief, and toddler Karim back in the day. Family X-mas card kindly reproduced by Lyn Shwaiko.
Her marriage in the 80s to Indonesian entrepreneur Amir Rabik gave her two sons and a new nationality. Naturalized, she became even more committed to Indonesia. She was equally at home with village artisans as she was with the jet set who couldn’t keep away. Her enterprise grew organically, and she fused her London glamour days with her village life unselfconsciously. You never knew who would be at a dinner party at her home, she loved putting people together from different walks of life. It was part of her natural generosity, connecting people. One day you’d find yourself next to David Bowie, the next it would be Graham Nash. Estates in the Caribbean such as those of Richard Branson, Bowie, and Mick Jagger all acquired a flamboyant Balinese touch a la Garland.
She always had the gift to recognise the potential in the simple creative processes around her. It was in the 70s when some bamboo architectural experiments by the multi-talented Terry Stanton, a colourful, gifted Australian who was, as the late Made Wijaya put it, the “rogue GM of Kayu Aya hotel (later to become the Oberoi)”, caught her eye. She saw a whole new set of possibilities in Terry’s musings, and big bamboo furniture would become a dominant theme of her interior designs. She went on to develop many original designs with bamboo that became part of her tropical interiors projects. Her creations in turn caught the eyes of magazines like Architectural Digest and photographer writer team Tim Street-Porter and Annie Kelly who would become lifelong friends.
Above: Two iconic images of Panchoran Estate, photos ©Tim Street-Porter
In the 80s she acquired her dream home of many years, the Panchoran Estate in Nyuhkuning. The estate became an international stage starring bamboo, and her presence transformed the village. The estate was a kind of bamboo-centric botanical garden. Linda loved to take visitors on tours of all the different bamboo varieties, the various local medicinal herbs. Eventually the estate became so popular with visitors she set up small bamboo bungalows for guests to overnight. Jungle chic chez La Garland was a hit, guests came as much for the inspiration as they did for the respite.
As her innovations with bamboo proliferated, her dedication to the natural environment grew stronger and stronger. Upset by the destruction of forests in Indonesia, Linda became determined that bamboo, with it’s many positive qualities – flexibility, environmental friendliness, rapid and relatively easy propagation – be recognized as a viable replacement building material internationally. She embarked on a quest for the best treatment to preserve the bamboo, supported and got involved in an astounding array of new uses for it: cloth, pre-fab flooring, and so forth. She saw bamboo as a real solution for many problems, particularly in the developing world. She traveled tirelessly through Indonesia learning and sharing with locals, even at one stage setting up cheap, quickly crafted bamboo housing for disaster victims.
In 1993 she set up the Environmental Bamboo Foundation, then subsequently was involved with an affiliate organization International Bamboo Foundation. Interior design was no longer priority. Together with Dr Walter Liese from the University of Hamburg, Linda pioneered research into commercial treatment of bamboo against the dreaded powder post beetle. Their work ultimately led to making bamboo durable enough to replace timber as a building material. A grant from USAID and the Earth Love Fund (UK) was used to set up a proper training center in Bali for bamboo agroforestry and commercial use of bamboo.
Then in1995 EBF hosted the IV International Bamboo Conference at the Panchoran Estate. 2000 attendees from 37 countries came to the conference which included was an architectural forum, a trade show, and even a music festival – a classic Garland production. Officially opened by the then Indonesian Minister of the Environment, Sarwono Kusumaatmadja, it was landmark event: politicians, scientists, engineers, architects, environmentalists sat down together to work to develop and promote bamboo. CNN’s Elsa Klench covered the event.
Receiving the Upakarti Award from President Soeharto in 1990 (reproduced from official palace print from Lyn Shwaiko’s archives)
Whereas before she had found her career, she had now found her calling. With an Upakarti Award (the highest official award given for excellence in promoting crafts and local small industries) by President Soeharto in 1990 and an honorary PhD from the Dehradun Forestry Institute in 1995 to boot, Dr Garland had become a real force for bamboo. She traveled to major forums around the world, including in China and Japan, promoting, sharing and learning.
In 1997 Minister Sarwono with EBF launched the first national strategy for the conservation and utilization of bamboo in Indonesia. In the years that followed her younger son Arief Rabik joined her, then after completing his environmental studies in Australia began to work full time for EBF. By this time a string of ailments began to slow down her whirlwind work schedule, but she still kept up her networking and setting up new projects with various partners. ‘Bamboozling people’ as her older son Karim Rabik would joke.
She inspired many others to work and create with bamboo, including John Hardy, creator of Green School, and his daughter Elora Hardy who would take bamboo architecture to new heights in Green Village. And she inspired and encouraged many others to venture out and bring their dreams to life. Robin Lim, CNN superhero midwife, had this to say about Linda: “The eyes of team Bumi Sehat were swollen yesterday, from crying, accepting the passing of Ibu Linda Garland. Her Vision pushed me into making Yayasan Bumi Sehat. Her imagination inspired Nyuh Kuning village.”.
Linda was both reclusive and inclusive. For a while in the 80s our two families shared a tiny, funky, weekend getaway up on Lake Batur with actress Jennifer Claire, hidden from the public eye. But she also loved having her close friends around, and many mini excursions with friends took place on that lake on leaky canoes much to the kids’ delight. Later, after her divorce and Amir remarried, she embraced Amir’s daughter Lula McGlashan Rabik as her own, and Lula’s mother Ondine to boot. Amir’s latest wife, singer Murni Surbakti was also inducted into her clan. Amir himself remained part of her circle. Then there many others across the globe who she held close to her heart. In fact Linda was a modern matriarch with more warmth in her than most people would ever feel in a lifetime.
When the news got out that Linda had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer we all reeled in shock. But typically Linda, who had endured physical pain for a great deal of her life, refused to be defeated. She sold Panchoran, using the money to pay for treatment and setting up a hideaway on the remote eastern Indonesian island of Rote. She continued her crusade for bamboo, and eventually underwent pioneering alternative therapy methods. Karim, a talented artist, dedicated much of his time during this period to caring for her, while his brother Arief battled on for her in the realm of bamboo.
She fought valiantly, maintaining her dignity and self-deprecating humor. Defying all prognosis, she survived seven years while remaining active. Finally, on the 3rd of January 2017, she breathed her last surrounded by her sons, daughter-in-law and grandchildren. She is survived by them, and many loving friends both in Indonesia and without.
We miss you, but are grateful to have known you. Vale Linda.
photo of Linda at home at the Panchoran Estate ©Annie Kelly
with special thanks to the various people who helped out with information and images, amongst others Carolyn Tyler, Lyn and Cody Shwaiko, Joanna Bovill, Karim Rabik, Arief Rabik, Jane Hawkins thank you all for your patience.
text ©Rio Helmi
lead photo ©Rio Helmi
other photos as credited.