Dream weavers

Rattan, bamboo and wicker have shed their colonial and hippie associations and are now being worked into utterly contemporary, glamorous and versatile furnishings. Nicole Swengley reports.

May 03 2010
Nicole Swengley

A quiet revolution is shaking up our interiors as homeowners re-evaluate the benign qualities of rattan, bamboo and wicker. It’s not just the eco credentials of these naturally sustainable materials or the resurgence of interest in handcrafted work that’s giving rise to this renaissance. It’s the contemporary approach taken by designers and manufacturers in creating a glamorous aesthetic completely in tune with today’s homescapes.

Of course it’s not the first time that rattan, bamboo and wicker have found a place in our homes and our hearts. Having shrugged off outdated colonial associations, these materials were espoused in the 1960s and 1970s for their hippie “ethnicity” with the pieces roughly crafted at source in Asia and Australasia. What’s different now is both the sophistication with which these materials are handled and their new light, crisp aesthetic.

Take Konstantin Grcic’s handmade 43 chair. This contemporary, cantilever design comprises 43 laminated bamboo slats that exploit the material’s structural ability to create comfort and flexibility. Or check out the bamboo Quattro basin (£1,375, from Bathrooms International) with its caramel-coloured geometrical lines to see how chic the material can look. Turn also to the urbane rattan furniture and accessories in the Potchelli Collection by Belgian production house Sempre at Maison et Objet, the influential Paris trade show, where in January – significantly – the spotlight fell on natural weaves in the “trends” (editeurs) section.

Botanically speaking, their origins differ. Bamboo belongs to the grass family while rattan (from the Malay word rotan) derives from numerous species of palm. Unlike bamboo, which is hollow, the solid stems can be fashioned into wickerwork. Both materials, however, are easily renewable, with bamboo considered the world’s fastest-growing woody plant.

Aesthetically, too, they vary. Gommaire Cleybergh, Sempre’s founder, says, “The roughness and freedom [of rattan] make the product alive.” Meanwhile, furniture designer Suzanne Trocmé observes: “Bamboo has strength, bends well and can create stunning structures. The canes are beautiful when exposed and can be cut and laid as flooring or as a kitchen surface. As we move towards a time of wood scarcity and higher energy costs, I think the ease and cost of transporting lightweight bamboo will be appreciated.”

Ryan Kohn, co-director of eco-conscious interior design company Living in Space (which is currently laying sustainably sourced bamboo flooring in a Hampstead house and using the material for kitchen joinery and shelving), is another enthusiast: “Bamboo copes well with moisture and is brilliant for environmentally friendly kitchens and bathrooms.”

However, interior designer Kelly Hoppen believes the trend owes less to homeowners’ eco consciences than to a desire for “a much more lived-in look”. Having used wicker and bamboo in overseas projects, Hoppen is now embracing these materials in her UK interiors. “I’ve used a wonderful, vintage chaise longue made of woven wicker and bent bamboo in [property developer] John Hitchcox’s house at The Lakes in Gloucestershire,” she says. Meanwhile, a neat bamboo stool (£105) that’s “perfect for contemporary interiors” is available in black, white, red or blue at Hoppen’s London shop.

For clients seeking a hint of 1960s nostalgia, Hoppen hangs up the iconic egg-shaped wicker chair made by Italian manufacturer Bonacina Pierantonio (£1,842). “Wicker has space and air between the weave so is semi-transparent. People don’t want solid plastic surfaces any more,” she says. Sandra Drechsler, creative director of interior design company Taylor Howes Designs, updated the look for a client with a modern central London apartment: “Our client wanted an egg-shaped, hanging wicker chair for a 1960s-inspired room so we sprayed it in white lacquer, which gave it a much more contemporary feel.”

Similarly, Drechsler furnished a balcony terrace off the living space in a newly built development in Belgravia with elegantly modern, white, woven rattan Thomas Pheasant lounge chairs made by US manufacturer McGuire (£3,641, from Baker; matching dining and side chairs also available). “It’s a very contemporary apartment, so I didn’t want to go for the hard finish of a synthetic weave,” she says. “Rattan offered a softer, more elegant look and works well with a trough planted with real bamboo that provides screening and greenery. It isn’t a question of harking back to a colonial style. It’s a very clean look that fits with a contemporary environment.”

Meanwhile, a modern Asian aesthetic was conjured by the cane headboard and footboard of Flexform’s Letto Piano bed (kingsize, £4,924), in a bedroom at Chelsea Harbour’s Imperial Wharf development. “Using grass-cloth wallpaper behind the headboard creates a wonderful feeling of warmth and intimacy,” says Drechsler.

The material’s versatility is also endorsed by Pierrette Bentinck-Reuchlin, of London-based PBDesign, who occasionally collaborates with her Dubai-based sister, Osca Blom-Reuchlin. “Natural materials bring a light and playful touch to an otherwise formal room setting,” says Pierrette. “You can achieve many different effects, for example, by combining bamboo with black and red lacquerwork to create an Asian ambience, or by using bamboo and rattan to create a retro look or to bring a feeling of nature inside.”

Nantucket-based interior designer Kathleen Hay increasingly finds that clients are “in search of an organic feel in the interior landscapes of their homes”. She employs “bamboo, rattan, sea grass, cork and stone to achieve a symbiosis with and connection to the natural landscape outside” and is particularly enthusiastic about bamboo. “You can find flooring, tile, fabric and furniture all crafted from this gift of nature,” she says. Accordingly, she created a dramatic entrance for one Nantucket beach house using a jardinière filled with bamboo stems, and struck a playful note with a bamboo swing on the landing of another. Antique bamboo chairs, meanwhile, segue seamlessly into a contemporary sunroom whose walls are covered in natural grass cloth.

Yet this elemental aspect is not the sole trend-driver. “People have an emotional response to natural fibres,” says Polly Dickens, The Conran Shop’s creative director. “Plastic is wonderful but it’s too even, too perfect. People want to see the hand of the maker coming through in a design. They have a completely different reaction to a material with ‘soul’. There’s a real spirit about rattan and bamboo furniture – it has character. Vintage rattan loungers are snapped up when we find them in flea markets in Provence, and our new pieces are very portable and lightweight for moving indoors or outside.”

Dickens suggests that The Conran Shop’s re-creation of a traditional French rattan lounger (£295) would make a decorative, yet practical addition to a bedroom or bathroom or, indeed, a sunny veranda. The design of the St Rémy dining chair (£95) and circular table (£245) similarly take inspiration from 1930s French café furniture (although the pieces are made at source in Indonesia), while the comfortable Carolina chair (£195) has a manu wood and teak frame over which Kobo (a very strong type of rattan) is woven, giving it a soft, grey colouring.

Acknowledging nostalgia’s role in the new demand for rattan, Dickens has reintroduced an old favourite. Based on a 1930s French design, Mr Toad (£95) was a bestseller for 15 years at Habitat (during Sir Terence Conran’s tenure) until its mid-1980s axing. “Mr Toad is a very comfortable chair because it moulds itself to the shape of the user,” says Conran. “Unlike plastic, it gets better as it ages by changing colour to a nice greyish tone, which looks good indoors and outside.” Durability isn’t an issue, he insists. A rattan sofa and chairs have remained outdoors at his home for 30 years. “They dry out very quickly after rain,” he says.

An equally passionate response comes from Michael d’Souza of Mufti, an interiors company with a strong commitment to reinvigorating traditional hand craftsmanship. “Rattan and bamboo are durable, hard-wearing, pliable and eco-friendly,” he says. “They’re comfortable because the materials have a flexible ‘give’ to them. People often think you can’t use them outside, but they wipe dry and age beautifully outdoors. Wicker breathes and keeps the air circulating so it’s cool to sit on, which is why it’s traditionally used in hot countries.

“The look and feel of these materials is so much more appealing than synthetic woven fibres, and today’s designs are modern and sophisticated,” he adds, citing a bench with ropework made from raffia (£585), a sleek rattan day bed (£935), and a chaise made from reclaimed teak with intricate, handwoven rattan work (£1,375), all from Mufti.

A stint in the material’s country of origin can prove inspirational for designers. “I lived in Indonesia for six years,” says Dutch designer Roderick Vos, who translated this experience into rattan chairs for Driade that imaginatively combine ergonomic comfort and strength while reducing the visual impact of structural support. His Ayu chair remains in production (€770), while the Agung is displayed in Amsterdam’s Stedelijk museum.

Similarly, Christopher Pett of London design studio Pli researched bamboo-growing and -processing techniques in Australia and India before starting to handmake bamboo furniture. His Grass media table (£235) and long table (£588), made from wheat strawboard with a bamboo veneer, were launched to acclaim at London Design Festival in 2006. Meanwhile, Pli’s Whitechapel collection, which debuted last autumn, marries strong shapes with hard-wearing, stain-resistant, toffee-coloured surfaces in a simple unity that recalls the practicality of 1940s utility furniture (tables from £294 to £1,727).

To conjure the sultry warmth of Bali or the big, breezy skies of western France, turn to Paola Navone’s glamorous designs for Gervasoni, an Italian manufacturer with expertise in plaiting and weaving. Navone’s contemporary creations in handwoven rattan, cane, bamboo and pulut (a reed-derived material) embrace sofas, chairs, beds, screens (€991), storage units, lampshades, mirrors and even floor-standing fans. Navone’s standout pieces include Croco 82, a contemporary day bed in handwoven rattan (£1,616), Black 02, a high-back loveseat in handwoven black pulut (£2,813), and Otto 189E, a four-poster bed with a black bamboo screen/headboard (£4,184). Meanwhile, the appeal of the Sweet 102 sofa (£5,372), 112 ottoman (£704) and 111 coffee table (£852) lies in the tactile, oversized calamus weave.

Traditional wickerwork is similarly elevated by US manufacturer Laneventure. Of special note is the canopied Zinnia wicker day bed (from $7,485) with handwoven rattan frame (described as “somewhere between the opulence of an Orient-Express sleeper and the gentility of the veranda”) in its Celerie collection designed by Celerie Kemble. Another show stopper is the Night Passage Queen bed (complete with cast pineapple finials) whose rattan headboard and footboard are decorated with a herringbone weave ($2,310).

Mouthwatering finishes such as butter cream, cappuccino, celadon and coral lend a contemporary flavour to Laneventure’s Ava chaise, with its elegant rattan-pole frame ($2,868), the sleekly curved Rattan Scroll cocktail table ($1,785) and other pieces. And many designs are defined by strong shapes – notably the shelter-style Palm Beach wicker settee ($2,265), Corsica wicker cocktail table ($1,485), compact, woven-wicker Kashmir desk ($2,052), Mondrian wicker dining chair ($1,173) and sideboard ($3,801) and Laguna Accents chaise (single, $2,994; double, $3,387).

Nor is the Italian manufacturer Bonacina Pierantonio resting on the evergreen appeal of its hanging wicker Egg chair, designed by Nanna Ditzel. Other iconic designs such as Continuum, a high-back, hand-bent rattan armchair by Gio Ponti (£2,017), and Martingala (£1,636), a ribby armchair in hand-bent rattan by Marco Zanuso, remain popular but its expertise in handling wicker and rattan hits new highs in contemporary designs such as the light-as-air Asola dining chair (£602), glass-topped TO11 coffee table (£826) and modular P3 seating (£1,147) in which slim tongues of natural wicker lick over a tubular frame.

Natural materials may date back to Garden of Eden days but their epiphany, it seems, is right now.

See also

wicker, rattan, Bamboo