Collection turns gallery into wicker wonderland

March 28, 1993|By Lita Solis-Cohen and Sally Solis-Cohen | Lita Solis-Cohen and Sally Solis-Cohen,Contributing Writers

When Mary Jean McLaughlin was furnishing her waterfront home in Guilford, Conn., in the early 1970s, she planned to decorate one bedroom and the porch with antique wicker furniture.

"I kind of went overboard," she confessed recently, surveying her fully furnished, woven-wicker wonderland. Addicted to curlicue chairs, etageres, tables, settees and sofas, she ran out of room at home, so she opened A Summer Place, an antique wicker shop in Guilford that attracts customers from around the country.

Ms. McLaughlin claims she won't miss the 40 vintage wicker masterpieces she's lending to the first-ever museum exhibition of American wicker furnishings. Among her rarities, to be displayed April 2 through Aug. 1 at the Smithsonian Institution's Renwick Gallery in Washington, will be her rocker with an American flag motif and "1776" woven into its back (attributed to Wakefield Rattan Co., circa 1876) and her Heywood Brothers & Co. square table with a shell-shaped skirt from about 1890. For Ms. McLaughlin and a few serious collectors like her, the recognition that wicker can be museum quality has been a long time coming.

"There's a built-in prejudice in the museum world against exhibitions of 19th-century manufactured goods," said the Renwick show's curator, Jeremy Adamson. He also wrote the lavishly illustrated companion book, "American Wicker, Woven Furniture from 1850 to 1930" (Rizzoli, $45), a study of late 19th- and early 20th-century design and social history.

By examining designers' sketches, contemporaneous magazine and newspaper articles, vintage photographs and other primary source materials, Mr. Adamson shows the important role that wicker furniture played for America's burgeoning middle class.

The Renwick exhibition and book reveal that some 19th-century wicker furnishings are as well designed, finely crafted and enduring as the most celebrated 19th-century hardwood furniture. The names of Wakefield, Heywood, Colt and McHugh can stand alongside Herter, Belter and Stickley in their influence on the way late 19th- and early 20th-century Americans lived. (For information about the exhibit, call (202) 357-2700.)

Wicker is not a single material. The term, derived from the Swedish "wika" (to bend) and "vikker" (willow), refers to woven furnishings generally made of rattan (a fibrous palm native to Southeast Asia), reed (any tall grass or willow) or paper fiber that bends easily. When woven into furniture, these materials yield to the user's weight, explaining wicker's reputation for comfort.

Ancient Egyptians used woven furniture, as did the Romans. Seventeenth-century Dutch artists depicted wicker chairs and cradles in their paintings.

The history of American wicker furniture is well documented in "Wicker Furniture, a Guide to Restoring & Collecting" (Crown, $18.95), by pioneer collector Richard Saunders of Pacific Grove, Calif.

According to tradition, the 17th-century woven willow cradle now in the Pilgrim Hall Museum in Plymouth, Mass., was used by Peregrine White, who was born aboard the Mayflower while it was moored in Provincetown Harbor. It's not known whether the cradle was made in Holland, England or along these shores, but it's considered the oldest surviving piece of wicker used in America.

Wicker furniture appeared in several 18th-century household inventories but didn't figure prominently in household decoration until the mid-19th century. According to Mr. Adamson, wicker's popularity rose and fell with the fortunes of America's middle class. Its designs reflected prevailing tastes and American ingenuity.

Mass production of woven reed, rattan and willow furniture was an American phenomenon. Although many of the workers were immigrant craftsmen, their finished products borrowed little from European designs.

While there were hundreds of small firms producing woven furniture from around 1870 until 1930, the industry was dominated by two bitter rivals: Wakefield Rattan Co. of Wakefield, Mass., and Heywood Bros. & Co. of nearby Gardner, Mass. After weathering two severe economic downturns and the deaths of their founders, they merged in 1897, forming the Heywood Brothers and Wakefield Co. The name was shortened to Heywood-Wakefield in 1921.

Another leading manufacturer was Samuel Colt, the Hartford, Conn., gun maker. He entered the wicker furniture business after a basket maker offered to buy the willow shoots growing on the dike protecting his arms factory from the Connecticut River's flooding. When Colt realized there was money in those reeds, he established a "willow-ware" factory and imported an entire village of German weavers.

Attribution is easy when labels survive. Colt's chairs, settees and sofas are distinguished by their German-inspired, cobweb-like woven backs known as "esparto," after a type of grass. Other examples can be attributed by comparing designs with those in vintage trade catalogs. (Dover Publications has reissued the 1898-1899 Heywood Brothers and Wakefield Co.'s illustrated catalog.)

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