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The Art of Wickerwork

In the realm of interior design, certain elements stand the test of time, weaving themselves through the pages of history. One such treasure is rattan, a versatile material that has graced homes with its charm for centuries.

With the introduction of our Treillage collection in the Spring of 2022, we ventured into furniture crafted from the natural reeds of the rattan palm. Though the material was new to our collection, the art of wickerwork, and of weaving rattan, has been around for centuries and is one of the oldest recorded furniture making techniques. 

The word “wicker” is of Scandinavian descent and originates from the words wika which means “to bend” and vikker which means “willow.” Rattan refers to the group of climbing palms which, like willow, raffia, or cane, can be woven into wicker, which is more of a catch-all term for the resulting woven material.

Rattan’s story begins in ancient times, tracing its roots to the tropical rainforests of Southeast Asia where it grows. Early civilizations recognized the strength and flexibility of this slender vine, weaving it into everyday items like baskets and mats. The natural abundance and malleability of rattan made it a favored choice for crafting functional yet aesthetically pleasing pieces. It was also used to weave armor including caps and armlets meant to protect warriors during battle.

Large Oval Storage Basket, New Kingdom, ca. 1492–1473 B.C., Egypt. From the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Some of the earliest traces of wicker date to around 3000 B.C. Egyptians used the grass growing along the Nile river to make a wide variety of furniture such as baskets, chests and chairs. A recent discovery, wicker baskets filled with fruit dating back to the 4th century BC were found underwater in the submerged metropolis of Thônis-Heracleion, in the Egyptian bay of Abū Qīr. 

As trade routes expanded during the colonial era, so did the popularity of rattan. The British, Dutch, and Spanish explorers, enchanted by the lightweight and durable nature of rattan, brought the material back to Europe. Soon, wicker furniture became a symbol of refined taste, decorating parlors and conservatories of the elite.

By the Seashore by Auguste Renoir, 1883. Photo from The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The Victorian era witnessed the zenith of wicker’s popularity. Rattan furniture, with its intricate weaves and delicate patterns, became an integral part of the Victorian home. From cozy sitting rooms to sprawling gardens, wicker creations adorned every corner, blending seamlessly with the era’s romantic aesthetic. As a testament to its enduring appeal, many of these Victorian wicker pieces are still sought after.

Photo from the National Museum of African American History and Culture.

An iconic design, the wicker peacock chair can be seen in many Victorian wedding photos. It’s also famously featured in a portrait of Huey Newton, the founder of the Black Panther Party and an African-American civil rights advocate.

Elm, wicker, and ivory armchair ca. 1880. Gift of Albert Hadley to the Cooper Hewitt Collection.

Cane reed, an outer layer that can be stripped from rattan, was commonly woven for chair seats, as seen in this chair owned by Albert Hadley.

Dryad Ltd. was founded in Leicester in 1907 by businessman Harry Peach. Their aim was to improve the level of design and manufacture of British cane furniture. The company showcased a commitment to the principles of the Arts and Crafts movement, emphasizing the integrity of materials by exclusively using unbleached pulp cane in their product. Benjamin Fletcher, the designer, utilized the flexibility of the cane to infuse their pieces with a fluidity characteristic of Art Nouveau.

In Orkney, an archipelago of small islands off the coast of Scotland, resourcefulness and a lack of local hardwood led local farmers to craft seats from found materials like driftwood and native grasses. Not following a set pattern, each was made specific to the sitter, though each was woven for practical purposes.

Tall straw hooded backs served to insulate the sitter. Keeping warm air in and cold drafts out. In some versions–if enough wood could be scavenged–a small drawer under the seat was used to store personal belongings.

With the advent of the 20th century, wicker experienced a renaissance, particularly during the Art Deco movement. Designers sought to marry the simplicity of rattan with the geometric shapes and sumptuous materials characteristic of the era. The result was a stunning fusion of functionality and glamour, with wicker furniture becoming a staple in both indoor and outdoor settings.

Rattan enjoyed yet another resurgence in the mid-20th century, as designers embraced the ethos of the Mid-Century Modern movement. The clean lines and organic forms of rattan furniture complemented the minimalist aesthetic of the time, and iconic designers like Arne Jacobsen and Eero Saarinen incorporated rattan into their creations.

Pieces from our Treillage collection on Bunny’s screened porch.

A longtime fan of wicker furniture, Bunny was eager to incorporate the materials into the BWH collection, but only if it was special and unlike anything already on the market.

The wicker pieces in our Treillage collection use the natural fibers of the rattan palm: graceful, minimal frames are contrasted with a variety of decorative wicker artistry: tight loops run along the chair aprons, with airier open meanders on their upper levels, complemented by circular medallions. The Kinley Armchair is comfortably upholstered with tie-on seat and back cushions.

A recent addition to the collection, our Laurel Armchair incorporates a variety of cheerful and charming elements, including a scalloped apron over the legs, a rolled leg rest, and rolled arms all with rippled, reed caps.

Another recent addition, our Mirabel Side Table is expertly crafted from cut-rattan, with an inlaid rattan top, and complemented by s-curve legs and a cruciform base. A perfectly in-between size table, often referred to as a lamp table, it makes for both an ideal end table or a bedside table when space is at a premium.

The story of rattan in wicker furniture is one of enduring elegance. From its humble beginnings in ancient craftsmanship to its current status as a staple in contemporary design, rattan has stood the test of time.  We look forward to continuing to develop wicker pieces for our Treillage collection which you can shop here. We invite you to follow Treillage on Instagram here. 

Further Reading:

Posted to Collection on March 13, 2024

Further Reading