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TREASURE HUNTING : Call It Wicker : . . . or Vikker

March 20, 1988|LOIS GIBSON

DERIVED FROM THE Swedish word vikker (willow), wicker is a generic term for furniture made of willow, bamboo, fiber, reed, raffia, rush, grass and rattan. (Rattan is so strong and flexible that Asians used it to build suspension bridges; the Japanese still build scaffolding of bamboo.)

Wicker furniture first arrived here aboard the Mayflower, but none was produced domestically until 1844. Clipper ships returning from the Orient used rattan poles to keep cargo from shifting, then discarded them in Boston Harbor. A young grocer named Wakefield fished out the rattan poles and turned them into lawn chairs. Next, finding the inner core of the poles even cheaper and more pliable than the rind, Wakefield spun the rattan into matting. This woven "fabric" was used for skirt hoops, railway-seat covers and America's first mass-produced wicker furniture. Water-resistant, durable and adaptable to baroque Victorian designs, it was ideal for outdoor use.

By the turn of the century, central heating permitted wicker (not as insulated as overstuffed furniture) to be used indoors. Glassed-in sun porches suddenly abounded with wicker plant stands, phonograph cabinets and matched furniture sets.

In 1921, a manufacturer by the name of Lloyd developed a machine for inexpensive close weaving, flooding the market with tightly woven wicker furniture sets embellished with the contrasting diamond motif which distinguishes genuine '20s pieces. His Lloyd Loom chairs, especially, were so widely and cheaply sold that by 1930, wicker finally went out of fashion. In the past decade, wicker has again become popular for indoor use.

Perhaps the best local selection of antique wicker can be found at the Hays House of Wicker in West Hollywood. R.A.'s Place in Santa Monica and King Richard's Antique Mall in Whittier also carry some antique wicker, and used furniture shops throughout the area occasionally have wicker pieces. New wicker is not as heavy or well-made as antique wicker, but it is far less expensive. Pier 1 Imports has an excellent selection in all styles.

Replacing broken reeds, reweaving torn seats and rewrapping bald chair legs on antique wicker is not as difficult as it sounds. Seven Seas Rattan Mfg. Co. in West Los Angeles, A Wicker Workshop in Northridge and Marie's Antiques in Long Beach maintain repair departments. For do-it-yourselfers, materials and instructions are available at the Cane and Basket Supply Co. in Los Angeles and Frank's Cane and Rush Supply in Huntington Beach.

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