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The wicker primer.

IT'S SATURDAY morning. The kids are watching "Stunt Dawgs" in the family room while you and your spouse pore over the furniture ads in the paper and savor a caffelatte on the deck. Now, we can't do anything about the quality of children's programming, but if you've been noticing wicker lately everywhere you turn--from museum exhibitions to recent books--we can tell you a few things you ought to know before you buy.

Mass-produced wicker has been around since the mid-19th century, when a New England grocer named Cyrus Wakefield first saw the commercial possibilities for furniture made from easy-to-bend rattan (a dense-cored, vine like palm from Southeast Asia). The versatile furniture quickly caught on, adapting to bric-a-brac-ed Victorian sunrooms, the practical parlors of Craftsman bungalows, and shadowy porches everywhere. Today, wicker for both indoor and outdoor use comes in a bewildering array of types and styles. At a national furniture show last fall in High Point, North Carolina, for example, we counted 50 different wicker manufacturers. So where do you begin?

Start with definitions. Wicker, as the word is used to describe furniture, refers to a process--weaving--not a material, and includes objects woven out of a variety of different plant fibers. Most wicker is made from rattan, but canes, reeds, sea grasses, willow branches, fiber rush (twisted paper), and synthetic materials are also used. Rattan itself yields several different wicker-making elements, as illustrated in the details at right: rattan pole, the stalk of the rattan plant; reed, cut from the core of the rattan; and rattan peel (sometimes referred to as cane), the skin of the plant. Wicker furniture frames are usually made out of pole rattan, hardwood, or metal, and then decoratively wrapped with reed or peel, sometimes both.


With so many types of wicker and wicker products on the market, how do you judge quality? First, lift the chair and shake it slightly. It should feel solid, with each element securely tied to the frame. Sit in it to test both its comfort and sturdiness. Next, run your hand over the weave in several places. The surface should feel smooth, not coarse. "If your hand snags on something, walk away," counsels Steve Robinson, the wicker furniture buyer for Pier 1 Imports, one of the largest wicker importers in the world. Inspect the underside to see how the frame is constructed. Generally, the better pieces are made of rattan pole frames, though hardwood is sometimes used on heavier pieces, like sofas. The best rattan frames are joined with screws and notched together; a lot of hardwood used as bracing is not a good sign. According to wicker manufacturer Allan Palecek, "If you use good-quality rattan, you don't need a lot of bracing. Pound for pound, the tensile strength of rattan is higher than for most other fibers." Joints in the frame are often wrapped with cane: these should be secure and tight.

Though it's associated with outdoor living, most wicker is not weatherproof. Indeed, prolonged exposure to the elements is not recommended. High temperatures and direct sunlight can dry out the fibers, making them brittle and prone to cracking. Rain and moisture can damage paint and sometimes weaken the wrappings and framework. If you plan to use your wicker furniture outdoors, remember to bring it in during winter months, and keep it clean during the summer (dirt hastens decomposition).

Of course, there will always be those for whom such ounces of prevention seem worse than the cure. Such souls can thank baby carriage manufacturer Marshall Lloyd, who, in 1917, invented a machine to weave wicker furniture. A descendant of this process--called "Lloyd loom all-weather wicker"--is nowused to make synthetic wicker furniture from latex-coated fiber over an aluminum frame. While often used in doors, this furniture can with stand the sun and the rain. In Infact, according to Janice Feldman, owner of JANUS et Cie, a showroom specializing in synthetic wicker at the Pacific Design Center in Los Angeles, this "all-weather" wicker can even handle snow.


At left, woven strands of latex-coated wood fiber wrap around aluminum frame of weatherproof red chair from R J Collections, San Francisco. At right, wrought-iron frameforms base for woven rattan reed Chair is from Pier 1 Imports.


Chair-back detail, left, shows how frame of bent rattan reeds and poles support woven rattan "frabic". Wrapped peels. secures joint between reeds and poles. Similarly, sea grass wraps reeds and poles antique rocker, right.


The variety of wicker textures is illustrated by two details from a chair made by Palecek, Richmond, California. Herringbone-pattern rattan peel is at left. Bent poles and woven reeds form the striking design at right.
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Copyright 1993 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:wicker furniture
Author:Gregory, Daniel
Date:Aug 1, 1993
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