Quick History: Wicker Furniture

Retrospect

Wicker furniture might seem like an invention of the Victorian era, but that's just when it hit the English and American markets. In fact, wicker is one of the oldest methods of making furniture, common all over the world for thousands of years. But wait, I'll bet you're wondering what wicker is exactly, am I right? So let's define our terms, and take a quick look at the history of wicker.

Wicker is the term for the product of weaving any number of natural materials, including rattan, cane, willow and raffia, among other plant fibers. The material is typically cut into strips of proper width, dried, then soaked in water to make it flexible before it is woven into wicker. So in other words, wicker can refer to anything that's woven, while, say, rattan refers to anything made specifically from the rattan plant (we discussed the characteristics of the rattan plant last week).

Although modern wicker is not necessarily made of rattan, it often is, because rattan is stronger and more durable than reeds and other fibers. Last week, we discussed cane, which is the outer skin of rattan. Rattan wicker furniture is typically made from the tough inner core, or pith, of the rattan vine, woven around a solid rattan or wood structure.

Wicker is an ancient craft that initially developed as basket weaving. Delicately woven rush or reed furniture was buried with pharaohs in ancient Egypt, including Tutankhamen (ca. 1341-1323 BC), who was buried with several examples of wicker, from a chair seat to a headboard to a stool (image 2). The Romans were inspired by Egyptian woven furniture, and adopted wicker as their own furniture technique, spreading the style across their empire.

By the 17th century in Northern Europe, wicker began to look much like it does today. In Holland, wicker was considered particularly appropriate for baby-related furniture, including cribs, bassinets and low-slung nursing chairs (image 4). It was also used for high-backed or hooded chairs, like porter's chairs, favored by the infirm and elderly (image 3). Wicker was considered a healthful material, more breathable and comfortable than solid wood, and more hygienic than upholstery. It didn't hurt that wicker was also pretty cheap, natural fibers being an inexpensive alternative to timber.

During the next couple of centuries, the rise of trade with Asia brought rattan to the West, introducing a stronger material that lent itself to wicker work. Imperialism also contributed to a new perception of wicker as exotic and Eastern, since European colonists encountered the technique in Southeast Asia. Rattan wicker was an ideal material for tropical locales, since it wouldn't warp or crack in heat and humidity.

Wicker furniture soon spread across the British Empire, from India to the West Indies, and to England itself, where it was associated with a safely civilized exoticism that captivated the Victorians (image 5). As the 19th century wore on, however, wicker became domesticated, its flexibility a perfect match for the curlicued fussiness of Victorian tastes (image 6).

In the mid-19th century, wicker came to the United States, where it was quickly industrialized and mass-produced. Two American companies, Wakefield and Heywood, were locked in fierce competition for the American wicker market, each inventing new machines and tools for more efficient production, until they merged and dominated the market for several decades. Wakefield and Heywood followed the tastes of their customers, replacing production of ornate Victorian designs with popular styles like Arts & Crafts and Art Deco (image 7).

A famous wicker example of iconic 20th century design is the MR 20 chair designed by Lilly Reich for Ludwig Mies van der Rohe in 1927 (image 8). The Modernists were interested in wicker and cane furniture as a hygienic and simple alternative to upholstery. It was around this time that an American company (soon purchased by the Heywood-Wakefield company) invented synthetic wicker, further increasing the durability and weather- and pest-resistance of the material.

Much modern wicker furniture, whether rattan, reed or synthetic, has all but shed the material's associations with the Victorian or British colonial past, and can fit in to nearly any interior — or exterior. Wicker continues to appeal as a material, perhaps because of its airy, casual character or its association with traditional hand crafts (images 9 & 10).


Images: 1 19th century wicker by Wakefield, photo by Aimée Herring for Country Living; 2 Ancient Egyptian wicker stool via touregypt.net; 3 Jakob Jordaens, Satyr and the Peasant, circa 1620, via Wikimedia Commons; 4 Esias Boursse, Family Scene with Newborns, circa 1665-1670, via here; 5 Wicker peacock chairs, based on 'exotic' Victorian-era designs, via Wary Meyers; 6 Ornate Photographer's Bench by Heywood Brothers and Wakefield Company, circa 1890, available for $2250 on Dovetail Antiques; 7 Art Deco-style wicker chair attributed to Heywood Brothers and Wakefield Company, circa 1920s, available for $675 from Dovetail Antiques; 8 Wicker chairs by Lilly Reich for Mies van der Rohe, via Apartment Therapy; 9 Erin Martin Design; 10 Futé Design.

Post Originally Pubished 6.7.10 - JL