Monday, June 23, 2014

Woven Beauty

QUESTION: I recently purchased a wicker table at an antique show. It doesn’t have any markings and the dealer who sold it to me couldn’t tell me much about it. I love this piece and it now occupies a prominent place in my den. Can you tell me anything about it? And can you also tell me a bit about the origins of wicker in general.

ANSWER: Wicker has been around for quite a while, but your table originated during the peak of its popularity. Back then, the ornateness of wicker brought an element of taste to middle-class American homes.

Back in the 17th century, the Dutch made wicker and brought it to England before sailing across the Atlantic to the New World. For the next several centuries objects made of wicker imported from Europe decorated American homes.

Until the 1850s, furnishings were inexpensive and serviceable, therefore easily disregarded. Then through a changing cultural, economic, and social conditions, wicker became a status symbol for America's rising middle class.

Although the mass production of wicker began in America, the main materials used in its manufacture—cane and reed—came from rattan palms, which grew wild in Asia. In the early 1840s, Cyrus Wakefield, a shrewd young Yankee grocer, noticed huge quantities of rattan being discarded around the Boston docks after serving as packing material to protect cargo on clipper ships returning from Asia. Discovering that chairs and tables could be made more cheaply from this strange material than importing finished pieces, he began making small pieces of furniture using this discarded rattan.

In 1873 he founded the Wakefield Rattan Company in Wakefield, Massachusetts. By the end of the decade, his firm accumulated sales of over $2 million. At its peak, his  company employed 1,000 workers in 30 buildings in Wakefield and another 800 in  Chicago.

Wakefield's successes encouraged Heywood and Brothers Company, wooden chair makers in Gardner, Massachusetts, to begin making wicker furniture in 1876. For the next 20 years, the two companies competed fiercely and dominated the industry.

Both companies responded to economic prosperity following the Civil War which enabled middle class families to leave America’s dirty, crowded cities for clean, airy suburbs, prompting a demand for wicker furnishings. These light, airy pieces were ideal for the new gabled and turreted Queen Anne-style homes and for the verandas of resort hotels catering to the new vacationing middle classes.

Because it was easy to keep clean, wicker attracted those concerned about sanitation, and its lightness, adaptability and design potential, Victorian tastemakers loved it. Wicker not only satisfied those with good taste but did it at an affordable price.

When the Aesthetic Movement swept America in the 1870s, stressing the uplifting moral and spiritual influence of artistic decors, tastemakers recommended the use of ornamental wicker in people’s homes. This emerging middle-class interest in aesthetically correct furniture encouraged Wakefield and other manufacturers to create increasingly ornate pieces that people associated with art and beauty. Fancy wicker enhanced the ostentatiously overdecorated Victorian parlors and expansive porches while proclaiming the taste of its owners.

Curling, shaping and twisting pliable lengths of wetted reed into whimsical scrolls, spirals, and whirlygigs, skilled craftsmen fed the Victorian fever for more exotic wicker objects. They incorporated a variety of astronomical and botanical forms, flags, Oriental fans, shells, and ships into their elaborate designs. Two of the most unique pieces was the tete-a-tete, in which two people could sit side by side or the serpentine "Conversation Chair,"  in which a courting couple could sit facing each other.

Elegant tables were important to the decor of Victorian homes. With its intricate grid of legs and embellishments, fancy skirt and caned top, a square table would have added grace and utility to its owner's room.

The growing demand for more elaborate forms reached its peak during the 1890s, when American wicker became more fanciful and ostentatious. A good example is the "Fancy Reception Chair,” featuring intricate tiny scrolls and frilly curlicues. Often designed as show pieces for elegant parlors rather than for actual use, these ornate chairs are fairly hard to find today and often sell for upwards of $1,000 in good condition.

By the turn of the 20th century, Victorian ornate design faded in favor of simplicity. Design reformers instead promoted the "Bar Harbor" style, simplified wicker furnishings with wide open, diagonal latticework that would fit plain, open interiors.

Just before World War I, the Arts and 'Crafts movement inspired American wicker   manufacturers to create boxy, unornamented shapes ideal for the minimalist interiors of bungalow homes. Arts and Crafts leader Gustav Stickley produced a line of square and severe willow furniture using geometric designs. However, by the  beginning of the Great Depression, wicker was all but dead in America.

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