Sarah Natkins – New York director of a London design PR firm – has just reclaimed her original cane-backed and -seated Marcel Breuer cantilevered Cesca dining chairs from her parents’ storage. After moving into a new apartment, she realised the chairs would go perfectly with her 1960s Jens Risom maple dining table. “I didn’t really appreciate the design I was surrounded by when I was growing up,” she admits. “These chairs faded into the background. But now I see the metal tubular steel makes the woven cane feel contemporary, while the cane brings a softness and texture to the chairs that makes my dining room feel both warm and modern. It’s a brilliant combination.”
Natkins’ recognition that the woven look offers visual and textural appeal is mirrored by recent international design projects and renewed interest in previously dated materials. Take the new George’s dining chair (€1,201) by Spanish designer David Lopez Quincoces for Living Divani. Curvaceous and simple yet sexy, the woven-backed chair with an ash seat results from the designer’s third year of collaboration with the brand. For Quincoces, the attraction of using a natural material like wicker in his work is that “it is somehow alive. It takes on a lovely patina over time and acquires extra character. Plus, natural materials bring lightness and warmth.”
Similarly, Mario Ruiz – whose new designs for Spanish rattan specialist Expormim include a dining chair (£408) combining ultra-pared-down strips of rattan with timber and leather – suggests rattan’s appeal lies in its lack of pretence. “Natural materials don’t mask what they are. Their authenticity delivers an aesthetic that chimes with important values for good design today.”
Glamorous woven-cane collections for Gebrüder Thonet Vienna include Front’s super-elegant cocooning Hideout chairs (£2,130), Nigel Coates’ sinuous Bodystuhl dining chair (£612) and GamFratesi’s elegant modern reinterpretation of Viennese woven-cane furniture in the form of the slimline Targa sofa (£3,104), high-backed Morris dining chairs (£534) and beechwood Allegory desk (£1,528) with a circular rattan screen. Elsewhere, there’s Sebastian Cox’s limited-edition woven Glenlivet Nàdurra drinks trolley (£4,200) – a collaboration between The New Craftsmen in Mayfair and Glenlivet and made from slivers of reclaimed whisky casks – and Casamania’s characterful Raphia rocking chair (€1,325) by LucidiPevere, with a contrasting red-painted metal frame.
These standout designs are helping to dispel the idea that rattan is a dated material. Alberto Alès, design manager at Expormim, says the brand’s mission to make rattan modern began in the last decade. “Many factories had closed down and much rattan was considered low quality and of poor taste.” At that time, rattan generated less than five per cent of the company’s turnover. Now, thanks to designs by Mario Ruiz and Jaime Hayón’s award-winning cane-backed Frames armchair (€1,252), it is the majority of Expormim’s export business and still growing.
Similarly, at Soane Britain, owner Lulu Lytle is seeing her rattan portfolio take off for the first time in years. In 2011, the interior designer bought the Leicestershire rattan concern where her designs are made. Now she is investing in extra craftsmen and apprentices, thanks to commissions like the woven-rattan bar at the Chiltern Firehouse. Soane has now launched a new funiture collection in collaboration with US interior designer Mark D Sikes, including an impressive all-rattan dining table (£2,764) and the midcentury-style Lily Drum table (£1,156), plus bespoke commissions (from £1,000), such as sofas for a house in France and panelled walls for a dressing room. “It’s a very versatile material and everyone views it in a different way, so requests can cover things we’ve never thought of,” says Lytle. “It’s exciting to be investing in rattan. People are realising its possibilities once more.”
This reappraisal of rattan and other woven materials is reflected not just in new projects like Soane’s, but in the rise in reissues of midcentury rattan design. Galerie Patrick Seguin, for example, has a single Pierre Jeanneret 1950s wicker-seated and -backed Conference armchair (€12,000) originally created for a project in Chandigarh, India. At Mint, Lina Kanafani has introduced walnut benches (£3,900) and dining chairs (£5,600) with handwoven rush seats and backs designed by Mel Smilow in 1956. And Molteni&C recently reintroduced Giò Ponti’s elegant folding high-backed wicker chairs (£1,500), which look as fresh today as they did in 1970.
Midcentury influences are evident at Habitat too, where creative director Polly Dickens has looked to Nanna Ditzel’s cult hanging woven egg-shaped chairs and Egon Eiermann’s mushroom-like chair. “I’m inspired by the femininity of these pieces,” she says. “Rattan can take on beautiful curves,” as seen in the handwoven, high-hooded Harpa armchair (£450 with footstool) in Dickens’ spring collection.
“Rattan is an incredibly sculptural material,” agrees Porky Hefer, the South African designer/sculptor who uses kubu, an Indonesian cane, for bird’s-nest-inspired chairs (one of which was sold at the Christie’s design sale in November for £13,750). “The cane is strong yet flexible and I’m often amazed so few others are using it,” he says. “You soak it overnight and then sculpt it into position. When you remove the cable ties, it holds its shape.” Yet for Hefer, it is not just the workability of the material that is interesting, but also its organic aesthetic. “I want to show that if you use natural materials over synthetic ones, you have to look after them and respect their fragility.”
For Mint’s Kanafani, an interest in sustainability plays a major part in rattan’s resurgence. “Designers are looking to incorporate natural materials into their creations and, in addition, help local communities become economically viable by harnessing their traditional skills. Aesthetically, it’s also a reaction to the dominance of technology in our lives.” At autumn’s London Design Festival, Kanafani’s showcase of woven materials included a wicker-fronted metal-framed cabinet (£1,700) by Chudy and Grase and a collection of funky furniture hybrids (from £850) called Tokyo Tribal by Japanese practice Nendo that integrates handwoven baskets into the design. Kanafani also introduced pieces by Swiss duo Pour les Alpes, for which Annina Gähwiler and Tina Stieger worked with a traditional straw-hat plaiter to combine maple and intricate weaving techniques in decorative Khan side tables (£750) and stools (£690).
Traditional weaving also comes into play in PET Lamp, a project devised by Madrid-based designer Alvaro Catalán de Ocón. His first collection utilised the regional techniques of weavers in Colombia to form sustainable and colourful woven shades around discarded plastic bottles. Last year his reach expanded to shades by bamboo artisans in Kyoto and the indigenous Mapuches in Chile (set of three Chimbarongo Triple pendant lights, €2,360). The lights have so far appeared in Rossana Orlandi’s Milan restaurant Pane e Acqua, as well as London’s Ham Yard Hotel.
What is clear is that while natural fibres like rattan possess exemplary outdoor properties, such as rot and water resistance, they are now becoming a significant part of our interior design lexicon. Indeed, Danish outdoor furniture specialist Cane-line has introduced its first indoor collection – its Curve armchair (£455), with black binding over the rattan body, and the minimal white rattan Sense sofa (£1,415) that echoes Scandinavian midcentury influences. Expormim, meanwhile, always includes both indoor and outdoor rattan furniture in its arsenal. “We have been making indoor collections for years, even when the numbers did not side with us,” says Alès wryly. “So we are certainly not going to drop the idea now that the numbers are finally starting to agree.”