Rattan: timeless!

For baby boomers and their children, the rattan chair often evokes a memory of early childhood. Often used as outdoor furniture in the home, it recalls afternoons spent in the garden with family and friends, or even holidays at the seaside… Although rattan is a material that experienced an exponential boom in the 1960s and 1970s, it was already a material synonymous with chic and elegance during the Belle Époque. Who still remembers Coco Chanel having tea on a rattan set? A look back at a timeless decoration material that is regularly coming back into fashion!

Photo credit: Brocante Au Paradis Perdu
Rattan living room typical of the 1970s.

The first Europeans to import rattan from their distant colonies were the Dutch and the British. Towards the end of the 17th century, London became the hub for the import of “exotic” chairs. It was not until the middle of the 19th century that rattan became a popular accessory in European salons.

Under the Second Empire, rattan became an element of garden furniture and was also used for interior decoration. Rattan seats and benches imitated the styles of Louis XV and Louis XVI, and adopted the curves of the Napoleon III style. Rattan then became very fashionable during the Belle Époque in aristocratic circles, before beginning a career (still ongoing!) on the terraces of Parisian bistros and cafés. In France, Louis Drucker popularised the rattan bistro chair with the Jacquart weave.

Photo credit: Maison Louis Drucker
Range of bistro chairs manufactured by Maison Louis Drucker. Founded in 1885, the company still exists and continues to produce rattan furniture.

The Art Nouveau style, a pure product of the Belle Époque, influenced the rattan seats, which were produced with rounded edges and details. Rattan manufacturers discovered and used the malleability of this palm liana from the rotang tree. Rattan seating is now being used in the winter lounges of Parisian establishments as well as on café terraces. Rattan furniture is very popular: the English company Dryad made the chairs for the Titanic café in Paris. In addition to Louis Drucker, who specialised in the supply of rattan chairs for cafés, the Manufacture Perret et Vibert, which became “La Maison des Bambous”, designed very well-made rattan chairs.

Photo credit: Jardin Déco
Antique rattan armchair in the Belle Époque style.
Photo credit: Deco Stock
Antique rattan armchair in the Belle Époque style.
Photo credit: Deco Stock
Antique rattan armchair in Belle Époque style.

Rattan bench by Perret and Vibert, circa 1880. The style of the manufacture is identifiable by the rattan weaving, the x-braces, the shape of the backs and the care taken with the basketry decoration.
Photo credit: Galerie Vauclair

Magnificent rattan seat-horn by Perret & Vibert, circa 1880. The piece is made of rattan and rattan cane lacquered in several colours, the upper part is covered with a removable zinc plant tray.
Photo credit: Galerie Canavese

Magnificent rattan cane chair by Perret & Vibert, circa 1880, detail.
Photo credit: Galerie Canavese

During the inter-war period, rattan remained popular. The shapes of the seats evolved with the design of the time, from Art Nouveau to Art Deco, marked by more geometric lines and more discreet ornamentation. One of the great classics of the period, the bridge chair with its horizontal openwork arms is covered in rattan, usually with a woven back, sometimes with openings.

Art Deco armchair in wood and rattan, 1920s.

How can the success of rattan be explained? First of all, the word “rattan” comes from the deformation of the Malay word rotang, a type of palm tree from which it comes. During the Second Empire, the fashion was for exotic styles, which explains its arrival and its gradual acceptance in living rooms. Then, manufacturers specialising in the art of basketry gradually worked the material to match the style of the different periods. They produced furniture with woven and dyed patterns and, gradually, the models became more sophisticated, with ornaments in the form of rosettes and crosses

Rattan, not to be confused with wicker and bamboo, has several advantages: the palm tree whose stems provide the rattan, the rotang, grows rapidly, the material is robust and above all flexible, i.e. ideal for designing elegant shapes. Finally, it is resistant to parasites

After the Second World War, rattan fell into disuse, competing with the arrival of new materials such as fibreglass or the mastery of wood techniques (moulding and bending of plywood). However, while it was thought to be forgotten, some designers are taking an interest in rattan and revisiting it in their own way. Joseph-André Motte, Franco Albini, Nanna Ditzel and Dirk Van Sliedregt are all working on it. But it is a couple who are really giving rattan its rightful place: Janine Abraham and Dirk Jan Rol.

Pair of “Tripod” armchairs, design Joseph-André Motte, 1949. The base is made of wood with steel knots.
Photo credit: Art Curial

Pair of “Margueritte” armchairs, designed by Franco Albini for the publisher Vittorio Bonacina.
Photo credit: Jasper Maison

Hanging egg chair, design by Nanna Ditzel, 1950.

Set of 2 vintage rattan chairs, design Dirk Van Sliedregt, 1960s. The steel legs are symptomatic of the evolution to a black lacquered metal frame.

Janine Abraham, originally from the Cantal region of France, and Dirk Jan Rol, of Dutch origin, met in the office of the architect and decorator Jacques Dumond in the 1950s. They lived and worked together. In 1957, they founded their agency and were noticed for the creation of the Citron armchair. One year later, they became famous with a piece that has become a classic of rattan design: the Soleil armchair. The latter, recognised for its bold lines, won them a gold medal at the XII Triennale in Milan in 1960.

Lemon” armchair, contemporary edition OXYO, design Janine Abraham & Dirk Jan Rol, 1957. Natural rattan frame and rattan bark links. Lacquered stainless steel legs.

Pair of “Soleil” armchairs in rattan, 1950s, design Janine Abraham & Dirk Jan Rol.

In the 1960s and 1970s, rattan experienced a second golden age. Technology evolved, weaving was replaced, and the use of non-barked rattan became widespread. Rattan “nets”, thin rods attached to the structure, made it possible to speed up production. The pieces are light, open-worked and yet still very robust. The style is more refined, the seat rests on a tubular steel base in black lacquered metal.

Since then, rattan has come back into fashion regularly and the major manufacturers no longer hesitate to call on designers. KOK, for example, a Dutch company that has been present in France for three generations, calls on young talent. The Louis Drucker house calls on Philippe Starck or André Putman. In 2016, the sought-after Spanish designer Jaime Hayón received the German Design Award in the category “best product design” for his rattan armchair “Frames”. Timeless rattan!

Rattan armchair with armrests “Frames”, design Jaime Hayón for the Iberian publisher Expormim, 2014.
Photo credit: Archi Product

François Boutard