Wicker is 'in' again, moving from the patio to a place in the parlor

July 24, 1994|By Elizabeth Large | Elizabeth Large,Staff Writer

Exotic and at the same time cozy, wicker is the perfect furniture for the '90s.

Versatile wicker is moving indoors these days -- into living rooms, bedrooms and dens as well as sun rooms and playrooms. Because it goes with so many different styles, it fits comfortably in today's eclectic settings. And the current popularity of natural materials and neutral colors makes wicker, well, a natural.

It's no longer just the furniture of summer homes and tropical climates. Nowadays companies like Braxton Culler, a leading manufacturer of wicker furnishings, sell almost as much in this area as they do in Florida. And wicker sells well all year round.

If the word "wicker" brings to mind the ornate curlicues of a Victorian rocker, take a look at the newest collections from high-end furniture companies. Donghia's chairs and chaises, for instance, are highly designed, with simple, beautiful lines, innovative weaves and the ability to hold their own with much more formal pieces. Company vice president Sherri Donghia probably isn't far wrong when she calls them "antiques for

tomorrow."

"Wicker" is the generic term for a variety of woven materials. Starting as far back as 2600 B.C., wicker furniture was fashioned from palm, reeds and dried grasses. Until the middle of the 19th century, Europeans made their wicker out of willow. By the 1920s, 85 percent of wicker furniture was made from a manufactured fiber.

That was the cause of its demise, according to Jeremy Adamson, curator of last year's exhibit "American Wicker: Woven Furniture from 1850 to 1930" at the Smithsonian. Because machine-made wicker was inexpensive, it became "low-end and therefore less attractive."

The wicker revival started in the 1970s, with a resurgence of interest in antique wicker furniture for its decorative appeal and the quality of its workmanship. But only recently, since it's become acceptable to mix quite different styles, has wicker become a significant part of interior home furnishings. "Casual wicker/rattan has become a furniture category in itself," says Jerry Byrd of Braxton Culler, "like traditional or contemporary."

For sturdy, durable yet flexible furnishings with a light feeling, interior decorators are turning to contemporary wicker. "Antique wicker is constructed well," says designer Richard Taylor of Taylor/Siegmeister, "but it's somewhat fragile. It's better as an accent."

Most of today's wicker comes from the vine-like rattan palm, imported from the Philippines or Indonesia. Credit American ingenuity with a major wicker breakthrough in the mid-1800s: the use of the core of the rattan pole, which up until then had been a waste product, in manufacturing the weaving material.

Reproduction wicker, such as Henry Link's Smithsonian collection, is one alternative to the costly and more fragile real thing. Although they are true to the nostalgic spirit of antique wicker, most reproductions are built on a different scale (people

are taller these days), and the finishes are longer-lasting.

Because wicker has an airy look, people don't realize just how durable it can be. "Rattan is a fiber," says John Norcross, whose company, Mark David, manufactures high-end, mostly commercial wicker. "It's stronger than wood and more malleable. If you dropped it off a building, wood would smash but wicker would bounce back."

Good quality wicker can also be very affordable, although buyers should be wary of cheap imports that may fall apart in a few years. Companies like Pier 1 have been selling well-made, inexpensive wicker for years. Often what you are paying for when you buy pricier wicker furniture is innovative design and superior craftsmanship, not necessarily a more durable product.

When you shop for new wicker, especially if it's inexpensive, inspect it carefully.

Make sure it doesn't snag, and that arms and legs don't wobble.

Examine the joints, which should be secured with peel core (the outer skin of the rattan) used as binding.

Check the weight: heavier wicker will last longer.

Remember that wicker has never been outdoor furniture. (A porch is as far outside as it should go.) Moisture will cause it to crack and warp; direct sunlight isn't good for it, either.

But inside wicker is almost maintenance-free. All it needs is dusting and an occasional wipe-down with a damp cloth.

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