Wicker and Bamboo Furniture
By Karen Parr-Moody
Despite a reputation of becoming popular during the Victorian era, wicker actually has a history that dates back thousands of years. Items of wicker furniture were, in fact, found in King Tut's tomb. Today, wicker -- along with its more recent cousin, bamboo -- continues to retain a spot of popularity on Americans' porches and sunrooms.
Wicker is one of the oldest forms of furniture manufacturer, and encompasses the weaving of various natural materials, including rattan, cane, willow, raffia, and other plant fibers. This ancient technique, related to basket weaving, comes about when a material is cut into strips, dried, and then soaked in water to make it flexible before it is woven. While people may use the terms "wicker" and "rattan" interchangeably, for example, "wicker" is an umbrella term, while rattan is one of the materials used in wicker making. Modern wicker is often made of rattan because it is stronger and more durable than reeds and other fibers.
Wicker initially developed as basket weaving. Rush or reed furniture was buried with pharaohs in ancient Egypt. King Tut's tomb included a chair, headboard, and stool. Being active in Egypt in ancient times, the Romans became inspired by Egyptian woven furniture. They spread the style throughout their large empire. Styles from this period would have been simple, as evidenced by finds from the pharaoh’s tombs. Items such as the simple table and chairs in the photo at right would have not looked very different then as they have the last 100 years ($95; Booth B-317).
Despite wicker's ancient roots, it wasn't until the 1600s that it gained a strong foothold in Northern Europe. By nature of its perception as a "hygienic" material, it was first used in Holland for baby-related furniture, as well as for that for the infirm and elderly. Wicker was considered healthy because of its breathability; it also didn't collect the dust attracted by heavy, plush upholstery.
During the centuries that followed, trade between Europe and the Far East flourished, bringing with it new forms of wicker. Rattan was a strong material that was used in Southeast Asian in wicker production, and it gained popularity in the West. It was also ideal for the European colonists, as it didn't warp or crack in the elements of the tropical colonies.
Of course, fans of Victoriana know that wicker found its rightful owners in the Victorians of England, who loved its ability to conform to the fussiness of relatively ornate and romantic shapes. Peacock chairs and chaise lounges would have taken their places among the smart set, for use either in the home or in the garden (photo, upper left, modern wicker chaise, $150; Booth B-211). Victorians were great fans of hygiene and cleanliness, and like the natives of Holland, they believed that the raw wicker was far more sanitary for furniture, collecting less dust than its upholstered counterparts.
Wicker came to the U.S. in the mid 1800s, where it was at first hand-produced, then mass produced due to new machinery. The two competing wicker manufacturers, Wakefield and Heywood, would eventually join forces as one company. They followed the tastes of their customers, producing Victorian-inspired designs such as the chair seen in the photo at right ($82; Hermitage Court Antiques).
As wicker became an accepted furniture style in America, it was eventually crafted to resemble other popular furniture of the day, such as that of Arts & Crafts and Art Deco. One of the iconic 20th-century designs was the MR 20 chair designed by Lilly Reich for Ludwig Mies van der Rohe in 1927. Wicker also came to be fashioned into a variety of items, and painted a variety of colors, such as the robin's egg blue of this delightful planter in the photo at left.
Another casual wood, often used in outdoor furniture, is bamboo. Its use in furniture is hard to pinpoint, but it seems to have been used in India as early as the second and third centuries A.D. A bamboo chair was recorded for the first time in China during the Sung dynasty of 960 to 1279. Like so many Asian artisan crafts, bamboo furniture eventually made its way to Europe through the booming Chinese trade routes that flourished beginning in the 1600s. Because of its light weight and casual appearance, bamboo has long been popular for outdoor use. However, it does lack durability under damp conditions, which can shorten its life span. It also has place indoor popular; interior designers of the Hollywood Regency style loved to pepper their interiors with real or faux bamboo furniture of all stripes, from china cabinets to end tables to dining room chairs. The bar tray seen in the photo, right, would fit into the indoors or outdoors, and certainly maintains the casual insouciance for which bamboo is known (tray, $125; Booth B-103).
Modern wicker and bamboo furniture has an airy, casual character that makes it a common sight in American homes. With the continued popularity of vintage style, shoppers at GasLamp can find wicker and bamboo furniture that keeps up their decorating theme, even when extended to such areas as the porch, which has become an "outdoor room" in modern parlance. Dressed up with popular indoor/outdoor fabrics, such furniture brings a whiff of ancient and colonial handcrafting into the sunny light of modern day.