Rattan has been used since the early days of civilization to make furniture, handicrafts, and shelter. We can track woven artifacts to ancient Egypt; pharaohs, like Tutankhamen, possessed beautiful wicker treasures to take with them to the afterlife. The Romans crafted chairs, tables, sofas, and baskets made from this sustainable material. Rattan has proven to stand the test of time, spreading to Asia, Europe, and the Americas as a versatile trendsetter.
Native to the tropical rainforests of Africa, Asia, and Australia, rattan is part of the palm tree family. Wicker and cane are produced from its stalks; the skin of the trees is peeled off to create the cane for weaving, while the inner ‘core’ is separated to produce wicker for furniture making. Rattan is solid, unlike its hollow bamboo cousin, so its versatility lies in the fact that that it can bend quite easily. Lightweight and easier to harvest than timber, Rattan is ideal for making inexpensive, environmentally friendly furniture that can withstand the outdoors.
In the 19th century Victorian era, wicker furniture was highly sought after; wicker was considered a much better sanitary option for furniture, the alternative being dust filled upholstery. One such item designed at this time was the famous Peacock Chair (also known as the ‘Peacock Throne’ or ‘Hourglass Chair’), which is said to have been produced in the Philippines before making its way to England and the Americas via trading routes. With its flared back, elaborately woven details and throne-like qualities, these chairs were an example of Victorian ‘exotic’. It later saw a revival in the height of the Hollywood Regency movement (1930s), evoking the spirit of glamour; it made its way into the swinging 60s and 70s as backdrops to boho-chic inspired photo shoots with it girls Brigitte Bardot, Katherine Hepburn, Zsa Zsa Gabor, and Marilyn Monroe.
Today the recognizable chair has had a re-birth of coolness; one of the best known and most sought after designers in the field of furniture, Spanish born Patricia Urquiola, reinvented this wicker chair by classically combining cultures and eras to create a new postmodernist interpretation of the chair that is simple, dignified and handsome.
Following the anti-industrial and romantic aesthetic of the Arts And Craft Movement, Modernism brought with it industrialization, social change, and advances in material — creating a boom in rattan furniture fabrication across Europe and America. The design principles were based on the merging of art and industry; they maintain that furniture should be practical and functional, and that the admirable qualities of ‘handmade’ should co-exist with the “machine made”.
“The artist possesses the ability to breathe soul into the lifeless product of the machine…” (Walter Gropius, director of Bauhaus 1930)
Modernist architect Mies van der Rohe and associate Lilly Reich collaboratively designed the MR20 Armchair in 1927. These exceptionally graceful chairs consist of high polished tubular steel with natural rattan — perfectly simple, entirely functional, and an essential member of the modern furniture industry. Similarly, in 1928 Marcel Breuer designed his B32 chair, which is ranked today as one of the 10 most important chairs of the 20th century. This chair, also known as Cesca (for Francesca), exudes airiness and comfort with its cantilever form and soft curves. By 1970, rattan resurged once again with Milo Baughman’s famous Chrome & Cane Back dining chairs, made from flat-bar chrome and finished with natural caning. These chairs epitomize the 1970s: silky, sleek, and sparkling.
In 1959, Danish designer Nanna Ditzel designed the very recognizable hanging rattan chair. A sculptural and functional addition to both indoor and outdoor environments, the Hanging Egg Chair is made from rattan and palm stems and is suspended from a simple chain. This organic form personifies Ditzel’s approach to design — soft and feminine. The design has been reincarnated over the years and several versions of this chair exist today. The mid-century modern version Noorwolde, designed by Dutch company Rohe, employed expert craftsman to fabricate the most beautiful rattan and cane hanging chairs; today these versions are on such high demand, it is rare to see to them on display or for sale! Retailers like CB2 have embraced the fun nature of the piece, which has become a hot commodity in home furnishings.
Fast forward to the 1980s and we witness rattan’s comeback with the dawning of Tropical Design. No better example of 80s rattan furniture is seen than on the set of The Golden Girls. Rattan classics like the Art Deco “Fan” armchair (1938) graced their Miami family room. The intention of this new décor style was to make you feel like you were on vacation; in fact, whole homes were outfitted with the tropical comfort of rattan and cane pieces — à propos considering the rainforest roots of this palm tree. At the same time, if you are familiar with the hilarious Santa Monica trio of Jack, Janet, and Chrissy, you’d probably remember their rattan-filled, beach-y apartment, complete with foyer chair and wicker bookcase, numerous woven plant holders, and cane kitchen chairs. Amazingly, rattan and cane furniture similar to that of this era continue to be mass produced; maybe not to the liking of the Modernist snob or the Victorian germaphobe, but for one who seeks a little sunshine, a little colour, and a little 80s nostalgia.
As with the revival of numerous furniture pieces from centuries and decades past, we see a revitilization of good design coupled with good quality. Modern rattan furntiture continually morphs itself into nearly any interior and exterior. Even though technology may create efficient production, this ancient craft is still taught today and the funiture produced manages to grace rooms with its sometimes bohemian, sometimes cheeky, and always cool vibe.