Home and Kitchen Diaries

How wicker became
the pandemic’s ‘It Girl’

What is it about wicker that catches
the fancy of millennials and Gen Z?

1. Snurk Wilfred wicker pillow cover – snurkliving.com
2. Mario Lopez Torres large toucan, parrot, monkey chandelier – mariolopeztorres.com
3. Serpui Marie Odette turtle tote – shopbop.com
4. Arizona Love Trekky raffia sandal – revolve.com
5. Cayman seagrass-wrapped pitcher – serenaandlily.com
6. Simone Rocha raffia-embellished pearl necklace
7. Kway rattan pet bed – kalinko.com
8. Sopheap Pich Seated Buddha
9. Topshop raffia headband

Wicker used to be camp. Now it’s cool.

Once a forgotten relic from the Golden Girls’ lanai, wicker furniture’s popularity has been steadily rising over the last years, fueled in part by the surge of interest in boho chic. Who hasn’t seen those hanging rattan egg chairs adorned with an artfully thrown sheepskin rug?

A confluence of factors last year, however, cemented wicker’s iconic status. The pandemic lockdown spawned home improvement at a scale so unprecedented, America’s sawmills ran out of lumber.

With homes now doubling as workplaces, people looked to move to bigger premises or, if that wasn’t possible, at least upgrade their furnishings (thank you, stimulus checks). As brick-and-mortar stores were closed, they turned to online furniture retailers who profited handsomely from the nation’s new furniture fixation.

One such retailer, Wayfair, reported that it had acquired five million new customers and grew quarterly profits by 84 per cent in the second quarter of 2020 alone. The pandemic boosted its business—this was its first quarterly profit since it went public six years ago.

The second factor would be Instagram. There are over 300,000 unique posts containing the hashtag #wicker, and wicker furniture were among the top Instagram home trends of the decade. The list includes macrame wall hangings, indoor plants, and bar carts. How 70s: Blanche would be thrilled.

The third factor would be the world’s tightening embrace of all things natural, whether that be electric vehicles or sustainably designed clothing. Wicker furniture fashioned from rattan, willow, and other plant materials is considered environmentally friendly. Rattan, in particular, is easily renewable and its usefulness as a shoo-in for wood wicker helps preserve forests. It’s easier to buy new furniture when you’re saving the planet!

For all these reasons, wicker is having an extended It Girl moment. A look at Google search trends for ‘wicker chair’ in the last 12 months shows a predictable rise in seasonal demand, at the onset of warmer weather. As the lockdown deepened in March and April, search interest crested at 100, indicating peak popularity for the term.

Before we continue, let’s clear up a common confusion. Wicker refers to the weaving method, while rattan, reed and bamboo are just some of wicker’s materials. There is natural wicker and synthetic wicker, the latter mostly constructed from polyethylene.

Wicker furniture isn’t new, in fact it’s much older than we all think. The ancient Egyptians had wicker pieces, with more elaborate items found among the pharaohs’ belongings in their tombs. These very posh tables, chairs, and chests had woven panels of reed, rattan, and swamp grasses.

From Egypt, wicker made its way to Rome. During the Age of Exploration, European seafarers brought back rattan palms from Asia, and their softer cores were found to be very useful for making woven furniture.

Wicker really hit its stride during the Victorian era. A shortage of rattan from China in the 1850s  led to experimentations with reed, which was easier to weave and could be painted or stained. Furniture makers went to town creating pieces with elaborate scrolls, ornate patterns, and lavish embellishments.

An American Victorian wicker rocking chair by Heywood Bros. Photo from Newel.

These wicker bells and whistles all looked overwhelming and fussy at the onset of the 1930s, when Art Deco’s clean lines and angles became the rage. Wicker furniture faded into the background, only to have a resurgence in the ‘60s and ‘70s. For most of us, this is the vintage wicker we know: the statement Peacock Chair, Franco Albini’s Lobster Pot Foot Stool, and other mid-century modern pieces that highlighted the sculptural qualities of wicker.

Primavera armchair and low table by Franca Helg, 1967. Photo from Atelier Vime.

What is it about wicker that catches the fancy of Millennials and Gen Z? It’s not cheap. It’s a pain in the ass to clean with all those nooks and crannies. And heaven help you if you’ve got a teething puppy or obsessive cat whose pastime is unraveling the carefully woven strips.

It is very Instragrammable. Plus nothing screams ‘vacation’ more

For newcomers to wicker, these are all mere details. Wicker’s contrast with modern furnishings is striking and very Instagrammable. Nowadays how your interiors photograph dictates how it’s decorated and lit.

Plus nothing screams “vacation” more than a sunlit room, tons of plants, and wicker furniture. It’s our little escape from a broody world where holidays as we knew it—hopping on a plane sans mask – sadly belongs to the past.

For those of us who grew up with wicker, in a country like the Philippines where rattan furniture is plentiful, the fuss over it can seem amusing. It’s just wicker.

Until you see Kenneth Cobonpue’s whimsical Babar desk, the ultimate work-at-home diversion. Or the fantastical woven chandelier by artisan Mario Lopez Torres, replete with gold-faced monkeys, gold-billed toucans, outstretched parrots, palm leaves, and an alligator thrown in for the mix. Or the stunning sculptures of Cambodian artist Sopheap Pich, in whose gifted hands rattan and bamboo undulate, stretch, and seem to take on a life of their own.

For Pich, a Cambodian refugee, the traditional wicker techniques of his homeland were used to create the forms, images, and memories of his childhood. In describing one of his most arresting works, Morning Glory, he said, ‘It’s got amazing presence, but at the same time it’s very porous. It’s aesthetically extremely pleasing, but it has all this past to it.’

Wicker doesn’t seem so ordinary when seen through this lens, as a medium for artistic expression. The wicker craze will surely fade, as some designers are already predicting, but expect it to be back, as it has come back before, to reign over our interiors and hearts once again.

Kenneth Cobonpue’s Babar cabinet (photo from KennethCobonpue.com)

About author

Articles

She started writing in 1988 for the Manila Chronicle. Before moving to Hong Kong in 1993, she was the lifestyle and travel editor for the Inquirer. She has lived in Hong Kong, Chicago and Dallas and conducted business all over the world. A marketer for many years, she now lives outside Seattle, Washington where she grows dahlias and feeds hummingbirds.
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