Quick History: Cane Furniture

updated Oct 12, 2022
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(Image credit: Apartment Therapy)

The British Colonial look is always especially appealing during these tropical New York City summers, when creamy neutral spaces provide a cool haven from sizzling concrete. Caned furniture is classic in a colonial interior. Lightweight and airy, it seems at home in a palm house or on a veranda (image 1). But while cane was especially popular during the Victorian height of the British Empire, it is one of the most ancient techniques of furniture manufacture, used by Tibetan warriors, Peruvian princesses, and Egyptian pharaohs, for thousands of years.

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Cane furniture in Mauritius, formerly a colony of the Dutch, then the French, then the British (Image credit: Apartment Therapy)

Cane is the term for the material that comes from the outer skin of the rattan stalk. Rattan is a climbing vine-like plant in the palm family. Native to Asia and Africa, it is most commonly found in Indonesia. Rattan grows in strong, solid stalks roughly 2-5 cm in diameter that can extend hundreds of feet as it climbs toward the sunlight in dense tropical forests. It is harvested without harming trees, and there are currently efforts underway to ensure the sustainability of rattan harvesting. Once the rattan is harvested, its thorns and joints are removed and its bark is separated from its core. The bark is processed into thin strands, which are woven to make caned furniture and other objects (image 3). Since cane is the skin of the rattan plant, it is durable, somewhat flexible, glossy and non-porous.

It gets a bit tricky, because the material is called cane, the process is called caning, and the product is caned furniture. This must be differentiated from cane furniture, which is any furniture made from rattan (we will look at rattan and wicker furniture in next week’s Retrospect column).

Cane strips have been used in weaving objects since ancient times, originating as basket material and evolving into furniture. A woven cane bed was buried in Tutankhamun’s tomb in 1323 BC, and a cane coffin holding a Moche princess was buried in Peru around AD 750. Cane was used all over Asia and Africa throughout history, woven on objects like Tibetan shields from the 14th-16th centuries AD (image 2).

Caned furniture first appeared in Holland, England and France around the 1660s, thanks to bustling trade with Asia. Caning was typically used for the seats and backs of wooden chairs (images 4 & 5). According to one vintage source, caned chairs were popular because of “their Durable, Lightness, and Cleanness from Dust, Worms and Moths,” a reminder of how interiors at the time were itchy germ traps. Caned chairs were not only hygienic and airy, but also lighter weight than solid wood, and less formal than the typical seats heavily upholstered with silk or tapestry. Local cane manufacturers sprang up in Europe, and the style remained popular through the 18th century. In the late 1780s, Marie-Antoinette performed her daily toilette (hairstyling and makeup application) at the Petit Trianon while sitting in a lightly-covered caned chair made by Georges Jacob (image 6).

In the 19th century, caned furniture became associated mainly with Dutch and English colonial furniture, because these countries had colonies in places like Indonesia and India where rattan was easily accessed and where the technique may had a long history (image 7). This colonial aesthetic spread across the globe to other European colonies as well; caned furniture made sense in tropical climes because, unlike solid woods, it would not warp or crack from heat or humidity.

Caning became the typical seat material of the cafe chair in the mid-19th century thanks to Thonet, whose No. 14 chair from 1859 revolutionized the furniture industry (image 8). The simple caned seat contributed to the chair’s extraordinary lightness, which meant that it was less expensive to produce and transport. Twentieth century designers like Adolf Loos and Le Corbusier also admired the chair for its sense of hygiene, and how it contrasted with the heavy old-fashioned upholstery that was in style at the turn of the century. Of the era’s domestic interior, Le Corbusier famously said, “The machine we live in is an old coach filled with tuberculosis.” The caned Thonet chairs he placed in his radical interiors were, like the caned chairs of the 17th century, a healthful and modern alternative.

Despite this Modernist endorsement, in the 20th century caned furniture is typically designed in imitation of either colonial styles (image 9) or of 18th century styles (image 10).

Next week, we will explore other types of rattan furniture, and discuss the difference between rattan and wicker.

Images: 1 The Residence, Mauritius, via onlyexclusivetravel; 2 Tibetan shield (14th-16th c.) from the Metropolitan Museum of Art; 3 Diagonal weaving diagram via Former Glory; 4 Dutch cane chair (1680) from the Getty Museum; 5 English cane couch (1690-1710) from the Metropolitan Museum of Art; 6 Marie-Antoinette’s caned toilette chair by Georges Jacob (1787), from the Getty; 7 Anglo Raj chair from the late 19th century, via 1st dibs; 8 Thonet chair, via Trifora; 9 Wisteria; 10 Horchow.

Post Originally Published 6.28.12 – JL