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By Diane Small
It’s one of the earliest materials ever used to make furniture: the ancient Egyptians used it to make tables, chairs, chests and baskets; later, they passed their knowledge of how to use it to the Persians. The Romans popularised the material, and then the Europeans became infatuated with it–wicker had gone global.
By the 1500s and 1600s, wicker, which was comprised mainly of swamp reeds, grasses and willow switches, was ubiquitous in Europe, and particularly in Vienna, where a type of woven seated chair was so well made and aesthetically pleasing, it’s still considered a classic design today.
During the Age of Exploration, when international traders returned from southeast Asia with a species of palm called rattan, which proved to be much stronger than previously used wicker. In fact, it was soon realised that the material could be used both outdoors as well as indoors, and its popularity got a further boost when the prudish Victorians decided it was more sanitary than upholstered furniture (which is probably true!)
In recent times, its aesthetic was influenced heavily by the Arts and Crafts movement at the turn of the 20th century, and despite their different composition, rattan and wicker furniture were merged into one singular description (today, few can tell the difference).
These durable, pliable materials were a welcome addition to furniture makers looking for something novel, and served as the perfect foundations for larger pieces of furniture, such as beds and wardrobes. Today, it could be argued that their best feature is the fact that unlike hardwoods like oak, rosewood and mahogany that were previously used as staple materials for furniture, rattan and wicker grow extremely quickly and are much more eco-friendly.
Today, the more things change, the more they stay the same–wicker and rattan’s eco-friendliness is increasing its demand once again with designers, who are creating fabulous furniture from the same stuff used 5000 years ago by the Pharaohs.