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FURNISHINGS : Wicker: Comfortable in Many Decors

August 06, 1994|ELIZABETH LARGE | TIMES-POST NEWS SERVICE

Exotic and at the same time cozy, wicker is turning out to be an ideal furniture for the '90s. Because it goes with so many different styles, it fits comfortably in today's eclectic settings and takes advantage of the current popularity of natural materials.

Companies such as Braxton Culler, a leading manufacturer of wicker furnishings, sell almost as much in cold-weather states as they do in Florida. Wicker sells well year-round and is being used in every room of the house--living rooms, bedrooms and dens as well as sun rooms and playrooms.

The newest collections from high-end furniture companies are a wide departure from the ornate curlicues of a Victorian rocker. Donghia chairs and chaises, for instance, are highly designed, with simple lines, innovative weaves and the ability to hold their own with more formal pieces. Company vice president Sherri Donghia probably isn't far wrong when she calls them "antiques for tomorrow."

Wicker is the generic term for a variety of woven materials. Starting as far back as 2600 BC, wicker furniture was fashioned from palm, reeds and dried grasses. Until the middle of the 19th Century, Europeans made wicker out of willow. By the 1920s, 85% of wicker furniture was made from a manufactured fiber.

That was the cause of its demise, according to Jeremy Adamson, curator of last year's exhibit "American Wicker: Woven Furniture from 1850 to 1930" at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington. Because machine-made wicker was inexpensive, it became "low-end and therefore less attractive," he said.

The wicker revival started in the 1970s, with a resurgence of interest in antique wicker furniture for its decorative appeal and the quality of its workmanship.

But only recently, since it has become acceptable to mix quite different styles, has wicker become a significant part of interior home furnishings.

"Casual wicker/rattan has become a furniture category in itself," says Jerry Byrd of Braxton Culler, "like traditional or contemporary."

"Antique wicker is constructed well," says designer Richard Taylor of Taylor/Siegmeister, "but it's somewhat fragile. It's better as an accent."

Most of today's wicker comes from the vine-like rattan palm, imported from the Philippines or Indonesia. Credit American ingenuity for a major wicker breakthrough in the mid-1800s: the use of the core of the rattan pole, which up until then had been a waste product, in manufacturing the weaving material.

Reproduction wicker, such as Henry Link's Smithsonian collection, is one alternative to the costly and more fragile real thing. Although they are true to the nostalgic spirit of antique wicker, most reproductions are built on a different scale (people are taller these days), and the finishes last longer.

Some manufacturers, such as El Monte-based Brown & Jordan, are making wicker-like furniture out of wear-resistant resin.

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Because wicker has an airy look, people often don't realize just how durable it can be.

"Rattan is a fiber," says John Norcross, whose company, Mark David, manufactures high-end, mostly commercial wicker. "It's stronger than wood and more malleable. If you dropped it off a building, wood would smash, but wicker would bounce back."

Good-quality wicker can also be very affordable, although buyers should be wary of cheaply made pieces that may fall apart in a few years.

Companies such as Pier 1 Imports have been selling well-made, inexpensive wicker for years. Often what consumers are paying for when they buy pricier wicker furniture is innovative design and superior craftsmanship, not necessarily a more durable product.

When shopping for new wicker:

* Make sure it doesn't snag and that arms and legs don't wobble.

* Examine the joints, which should be secured, with peel core (the outer skin of the rattan) used as binding.

* Check the weight--heavy wicker lasts longer.

Remember that wicker has never been outdoor furniture. (A porch is as far outside as it should go.) Moisture will cause it to crack and warp; direct sunlight isn't good for it either.

But inside wicker is almost maintenance-free. All it needs is dusting and an occasional wipe-down with a damp cloth.

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