When my wife and owned an antiques shop early in our marriage, there was a revival of interest in the Victorian style of décor, and I can’t say that we were an enthusiastic part of it. This style from the second half of the 19th century was known for plush, heavily upholstered furniture on rounded, narrow legs, velvety textures, ornate details, and a crammed abundance of plants, glassware and textiles. We were more into the relative simplicity of earlier periods.
However, in the midst of this opulence, wicker furniture at the time offered a refreshing contrast with its airy lightness. The pieces we had sold well back in that time, and I was secretly pleased to “inherit” a few white-painted chairs and a wheeled baby carriage (which we used as an indoor planter) to keep after we had enough of running the store.
Wicker furniture is made from a variety of materials, although rattan is the most traditional. “Wicker” refers to the technique of weaving wet strips of material, such as rattan, willow, paper rush or synthetic materials, in a distinctive basket-like pattern to create furniture and household items. The method itself is ancient, and some of the earliest evidence of wickerwork comes from the Sumerian culture of 4000 B.C. The popularity of wicker furniture surged when the United States and England began regular trade with China. The rattan used to hold cargo in place during the voyage was often left as refuse on the shore. Enterprising individuals gathered up this material and put it to good use, with the hard inner core of the rattan serving as the frames for furniture, and the outer layer stripped and woven to form the seats and backs. Cyrus Wakefield utilized this former waste material so effectively that his business grew into the Wakefield Rattan Company – at one time the largest rattan furniture manufacturer – and the town of Wakefield, Massachusetts, was named for him.
With all the heaviness of the Victorian fashion, wicker furniture was valued for being a hygienic option. In an era that predates vacuum cleaners and dry cleaning, the breathable and nonporous surface of wicker was easier to clean and air out than thickly stuffed upholstery. For this reason wicker was considered especially appropriate for furniture meant for babies, infants, the elderly and the sick.
Coinciding with the Victorian age was the period of British colonial rule in India. Not only was wicker furniture easier to maintain in warmer, more humid environments, but many citizens of Britain wished to emulate the tropical style of those colonies. Wicker furniture was lightweight, strong and easily to clean, but the flexibility of the rattan core and outer fibers made intricate patterns possible. Eventually, Victorian and British colonial styles faded, but wicker endured as a designers’ choice whenever a flexible material was needed. The basket-like patterns were adapted to cover Art Deco and other modern styles.
Wicker furniture may seem like an obvious choice for outdoor spaces, but unless it is crafted from synthetic materials, it would be a mistake to set your wicker furniture outside and forget about it. The sunlight would fade unpainted rattan, and exposure to rain and humidity would cause the natural fibers to rot. Paper rush is literally made from paper, for example, and would obviously not hold up well in the rain. Wicker furniture made from natural materials should remain under the shelter of a sunroom or enclosed porch if you really want it to last. If you want to use wicker for your outdoor furniture, be certain that it is made from a synthetic material specifically designed to stand up to the elements.
Maintaining indoor wicker items is simple. Vacuuming with a soft bristle attachment should do it. Adding cushions is a good idea, because although wicker is strong, it holds up to stress better when the pressure is not all on one point (don’t stand on it, for example). If your furniture needs to be repaired, I advise going to an expert to get the job done. As John Bausert, a master of the craft and owner of Veteran’s Chair Caning & Repair in New York City, said, “The materials cost next to nothing, but it’s labor-intensive.”
While the Victorian era has passed, the warm-weather feel of wicker furniture is still attractive to decorators and home owners, even as their design tastes change.
Bill Primavera is a Realtor® associated with William Raveis Real Estate and Founder of Primavera Public Relations, Inc. (www.PrimaveraPR.com). His real estate site is www.PrimaveraRealEstate.com, and his blog is www.TheHomeGuru.com. To engage the services of The Home Guru to market your home for sale, call (914) 522-2076.