New Book Gives Rattan Furniture its Glorious Due

A contemporary London sitting room with chairs by the 20th century decorator Renzo Mongiardino, often credited with popularizing rattan furniture for indoor use

I love vintage rattan furniture so much that I once toyed with the idea of opening a store in lower Manhattan, back when stores were a good idea, and calling it Bamboozled. That would have been a misnomer, since bamboo is a different plant, rigid and dense, that grows in divided sections, whereas rattan — from the Malay word rotan and native to Malasia and the Phillippines — is a plant fiber that is hollow and bendable and lends itself much more easily to furniture construction. Rattan is not entirely synonymous with wicker either, wicker being a broader term for craft of woven furniture, often but not always made of fibers from the pliable rattan plant.

Bamboozled was still a great name for a store. File that one away in great ideas that never came to pass. But I was serious about the concept. Round about 1976, my wasband and I drove to Florida and spent a couple of weeks going up and down the secondhand furniture stores and thrift shops of Dixie Highway, which was a rich trove of rattan furniture. Rattan was always a popular choice for subtropical locales, from the days of the British raj in India to the open verandahs of the Caribbean.

Much of what we were drawn to in Florida was Art Deco-style, like the then-unrenovated hotels along Miami’s South Beach, where we also spent time among elderly folk in aluminum folding chairs who didn’t seem to notice the peach-colored mirrors etched with flamingos in the lobbies of the hotels in which they lived (and which are now, of course, boutique hotels thankfully saved from destruction and populated by a whole different group of people).

We filled up a U-Haul and drove back to New York, where we may have gone straight to a store on Hudson Street called Secondhand Rose. The proprietor, Suzanne Lipschitz, took one look at the contents of our trailer and bought most of our haul for what we thought was a very good price (laughable now, of course). We had enough to furnish our Tribeca loft with rattan sectional pieces, including a “pretzel” sofa and chair, which might well have been by the designer Paul Frankl (or might not).

At any rate, with this history, I was very pleased to recently get a review copy of the first comprehensive book about vintage rattan furniture in decades, below.

Rattan: A World of Elegance and Charm, just published by Rizzoli, was written by Lulu Lytle, a woman after my own heart, who took her fascination with rattan furniture all the way to the top of the British furniture industry, founding a company called Soane Britain that manufactures rattan using traditional hand techniques. Lytle even purchased the last remaining rattan workshop in Leicestershire, England and employs 15 people there, some of them older people engaged in passing down the craft through an apprenticeship program.

The book, as I wrote in my review for Introspective, the online magazine of, is a triumph of photo research, showing the evolution of rattan’s use from Victorian times through the modernist era and into the glamorous 1960s and ’70s, when it caught on with decorators and movie stars from Hollywood to Milan. Lots more great photos in the review and, of course, in the book itself.

This is one coffee table book that will remain on my coffee table for a long time.

Rattan often made appearances in Impressionist paintings
Girls in a ‘Robin Hood’ chair made by Dryad, a rattan workshop founded in 1907 in Leicester, England
The British Royal fam on the grounds of Windsor Castle, 1946
The Paris winter garden of Madeleine Castaing, one of the 20th century’s renowned decorators
The versatile material is still very much in use today, even by IKEA
American interior designer Celerie Kemble made prodigious use of rattan for a resort in the Dominican Republic

BOOK REVIEW: 111 Places in Brooklyn That You Must Not Miss

When I saw that Brooklyn had been newly added to the list of international travel destinations covered by the German publisher Emons in its 111 Places series (joining the Twin Cities; Verona, Italy; Malta; Liverpool and other less-expected spots), I have to admit I allowed myself a small scoff.

As a Brooklyn resident for 42 years, my jaded self doubted there were many sites in the book I hadn’t at least heard of, if not been to.

When I read the bio of the author, John Major, and found out he’s a newcomer to the borough (only 12 measly years), my certainty grew.

How wrong I was. The book soon reminded me of Brooklyn’s unknowable vastness and the multitudes it contains. Most shamefully, that I’m barely acquainted with all that’s happened in Bushwick, Williamsburg and Greenpoint over the past couple decades, which are outside my traditional Brownstone Belt stomping ground.

Barge traffic on the Gowanus Canal and Downtown Brooklyn as seen from the Smith-9th Street subway platform

There were some listings I expected to see, including such old favorites as Sahadi, Bargemusic, the Kings Theatre, the site of Ebbets Field, the harbor view from Fairway Market in Red Hook. Like all 111 entries, each has a full page devoted to it, opposite tantalizing photos by Ed Lefkowicz.

Fish Friday at Acme Smoked Fish in Brownsville, the only day it’s open for retail sales

But so much in the book was new to me that I was forced to shed my arrogant (albeit very Brooklyn) attitude. I was impressed by the author’s hip, offbeat selections and stunned at my ignorance of the answers to such questions as:

  • Where were Woody Guthrie’s ashes tossed after he died in 1967? (The rocks near West 37th Street and the boardwalk in Sea Gate)
  • Where can you do laundry, drink beer and play pinball all at the same time? (Sunshine Laundromat in Greenpoint)
  • …take a pole dancing lesson, starting at “Level Zero”? (IncrediPOLE Studio, also in Greenpoint)
  • …buy smoked fish at wholesale prices from a company founded in 1905? (Acme Smoked Fish in Brownsville, Fridays only for retail customers)
  • …find Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s childhood home? (1584 E. 9th St., Midwood)
  • …discover what became of Lundy’s in Sheepshead Bay? (It’s now the Cherry Hill Market, with Russian and Azerbaijani specialties)
Cakes and pastries at Cherry Hill Gourmet market in Sheepshead Bay

111 Places in Brooklyn is a smartly written, nicely designed package that pays homage to places even longtime locals don’t know about. Nor does it shy from dark chapters in Brooklyn’s history, like the 1903 execution of Topsy the elephant in Coney Island and the site of the infamous 1960 Park Slope plane crash.

Black Gold, a vinyl, coffee and antique shop hybrid in Carroll Gardens

Last year, the same publisher put out 111 Places in Queens That You Must Not Miss. I was born there, so surely there can’t be much I don’t know.

BOOK REVIEW: Chanticleer’s The Art of Gardening


I FEEL DISLOYAL saying this, but I have a favorite public garden, and it’s not the Brooklyn Botanic Garden — as much as the BBG is a local treasure and a restorative for my spirit in all seasons. It’s Chanticleer in Wayne, PA, just outside Philly, a garden that exists for no reason beyond unabashed pleasure.

Chanticleer, which opened to the public in 1993 on 35 acres formerly owned by the Rosengarten family, heirs to the Merck pharmaceutical fortune, it’s probably the ‘artiest’ garden I know, dynamic and contemporary, framed by great trees.


It’s one delight after another, around a 1920s Mediterranean-style house: the Teacup Garden, above, around a fountain; exuberant perennial beds on the flat, sunny space once occupied by a tennis court; an Asian woodland; a sun-soaked garden around a brick folly known as the ‘Ruin,’ and all manner of other beds and borders, bleeding into native woodland at the property’s edges.


Chanticleer has evolved over the years and with the seasons, lovingly tended by a team of 15 gardeners who are not purely horticulturalists, but creative artists working with color and texture and shape, as a painter works with paints and a sculptor with stone.

The garden is stuffed with ideas for the borrowing. Now many of them have been incorporated into a big, luscious book, The Art of Gardening: Design Inspiration and Innovative Planting Techniques from Chanticleer (Timber Press, $35)


The book is a group effort by Chanticleer’s executive director, R. William Thomas, and its team of 15 gardeners, who have each written essays on their various specialties, from color schemes for container planting to using ribbons of grasses as a unifying element, planting in a native woodland and under mature trees, and designing meadows where once was lawn, as well as pruning and planting basics and plant suggestions galore.

What I love most, after the stunning photos by Rob Cardillo, which include many of Chanticleer in the months from November through March when it is closed to the public, is the encouraging “throw caution to the winds” tone. “We experiment in public view,” writes one gardener, and so should we, even if our experiments are not always successful.


The book is a tonic to Northeast gardeners like myself who need something to sustain them during the nearly half-year when outdoor garden work is normally impossible, and until Chanticleer opens for the 2016 season.

Read about one of my springtime visits to Chanticleer here: Sheer Pleasure: Chanticleer

BOOK REVIEW: Truman Capote’s Brooklyn Memoir, with Long-Lost Photos by David Attie

60-Flower Wagon I

“I live in Brooklyn. By choice.” So begins Truman Capote’s cheeky essay for the February 1959 issue of Holiday. The travel magazine had hired the writer pre-Breakfast at Tiffany’s, when he was practically an unknown, to craft a piece about his then-down-at-the-heels neighborhood, Brooklyn Heights, which they ran without even putting Capote’s name on the cover of the issue.

1-Capote Staircase

They published the article with just four black-and-white photos by a young photographer named David Attie, the result of several days spent in the Heights in the spring of 1958, at Capote’s rented digs on Willow Street (Attie photographed him there, above, though Capote actually lived in the ground-floor apartment and not in the part of the house with the grand staircase) and then along the gritty waterfront and the area’s back streets.

Attie captured a horse cart filled with flowers for sale, children in school uniforms doing their homework on a stoop, a barber shop, a wedding reception, an antique store, waiters at Gage & Tollner, the Promenade in the rain.

23-Boro Pet Center

Meanwhile, boxes full of negatives from that shoot lay untouched in the Manhattan brownstone where Attie, who went on to have a long career in commercial photography, lived until his death in the 1980s. Only very recently, Attie’s son Eli, a TV writer, was motivated to look carefully through this trove for reasons he explains in an afterword.

He brought them to the attention of The Little Book Room, the boutique publisher that had brought Capote’s evocative essay out in book form years earlier, and the result is this brand-new, profusely illustrated edition, Brooklyn: A Personal Memoir by Truman Capote with the Lost Photographs of David Attie.


The regrettably brief essay, in Capote’s breakneck writing style, is pure fun. He introduces us to an old-money matron who insists he sign a petition and adopt a stray cat, pokes around in George Knapp’s curio shop, informs us that the St. George Alley, adjoining the cinema that existed until last year, was a “shadowy shelter for vagrants, wino derelicts who wandered over the bridge from the Bowery.”

He whips us back nearly sixty years to the days when Brooklyn had a working waterfront where you could sometimes — who knew — dine on ships at the invitation of the crew.

“I, for one, am always quick to accept, embarrassingly so if the hosts are Scandinavian; they always set a superior table from larders brimming with smoked “taste thrills” and iced aquavit. Avoid the Greek ships, however; very poor cuisine, no liquor served except ouzo, a sickly licorice syrup; and, at least in the opinion of this panhandler, the grub on French freighters by no means meets the standards one might reasonably expect.”

The whole thing is a delicious read, but it’s the atmospheric photos of the streetscape, still familiar yet not entirely recognizable, and the people, caught in the act of living their ordinary lives, that make this book exquisitely nostalgic — at least for those who, like myself, remember the New York City of that era in vivid childhood memories, when kids thought nothing of jumping into the East River for a swim on a hot day.

19-Swimming East River

BOOK REVIEW: Design: The Definitive Visual History


AS ONE WHOSE SHELVES are already groaning with auction catalogues and design reference books (even wrote a couple of ’em myself), I couldn’t imagine how the new, nearly-500 page tome, Design: The Definitive Visual History, would tell me anything I didn’t know. Published by DK/Penguin Random House in association with the Smithsonian, it was bound to be authoritative, but at this point, what more is there to say or show?

The book is what it says: a comprehensive history of Western design, in carefully chosen photos. It lays out, in a chronological fashion that appeals to my linear brain, the evolution of design from the mid 19th century, when industrialization and the growing demand for household furnishings and decorative wares by a new middle class first necessitated that everything be “designed,” up to the present.

From William Morris and Tiffany lamps to IKEA and cell phones is a broad purview, to be sure, and the book is of necessity a cursory look at a vast subject. It’s a highlights tour of the icons, for the most part, but if you want all your information in one place. this encyclopedic book is for you.

This is the book to reach for first if you need reminding who Achille Castiglione was and what he designed, or the difference between Art Deco and Streamlined Modern. Its clear, sparkling graphics and hundreds of images, which include many period interiors and such enjoyable extras as timelines and pithy pull quotes, make it fun just to flip through.

It also provides something often taken for granted: a definition of good design, or function meeting aesthetics at a price many can afford. At $50 (about penny a page), this book is a case in point.