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 1stDibs.com, 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.