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Notes on Willow Furniture : TREASURE HUNTING : Willow Furniture

August 28, 1988|LOIS GIBSON

WILLOW IS PLENTIFUL, flexible, tough and ubiquitous, and the furniture made from it possesses a timeless, rustic beauty. Seminole Indians bent cypress from Florida swamps, and Southwest tribes joined twigs with rawhide thongs. These Indians taught America's earliest settlers willow-craft and, hailed as folk art, the resulting handmade Appalachian "gypsy" chairs were proudly displayed in Victorian parlors. Every half-century or so, urbanites rediscover willow's charm. This season, willow furniture is once again high style.

From the Santa Monica Mountain creek beds, where the Chumash cut arroyo willow for 9,000 years, Linda Steis of Canyon Willow Works collects pliant willow saplings. Leaving bark, knots and sprigs intact, she hand-hews trunks into frames, curves branches into graceful arms and headrests, and stretches slim whips to form backs and seats, creating old-fashioned bud basket chairs, settees, chaises, rockers and headboards. She interlocks twigs to make round, square and oval tables.

Neil Sears of the Wood Bender, gathers willow near Big Bear for beautifully handcrafted bud basket armchairs, chaises, love seats, dining sets, bar stools and a chair swing with log A-frame. Wherever he cuts, he carefully replants.

Jon Clark of Utah's Naturalist finds the willow and oak twigs for furniture in the Rocky Mountains. He hand-builds classic bud basket furniture plus log table bases and exquisite twig chairs with woven rawhide seats.

Willow, flexible only when green, dries silver-gray. Indoors, it can last a century. Outdoors, if shielded from direct sunlight, coated occasionally with linseed oil and yearly with water seal, it might last 50 years--just long enough to be rediscovered.

Canyon Willow Works in Malibu and the Wood Bender in Costa Mesa make willow furniture. Naturalist twig and willow pieces are sold at the Linen Duck in Pasadena, Country Downs in Del Mar and the Linen Man in Rancho Mirage. Prices for willow chairs start at about $175.

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