Vintage rattan furniture has such a distinctive look that modern imitations have remained incredibly popular for both indoor and outdoor styles. This natural fiber furniture evokes a sense of the raw wilds in whatever space it's added to, making it a beloved form of patio furniture for decades. Yet, rattan furniture got its start nearly two centuries ago and has gone through its own evolution to become the mainstay of modern design that it is today.
What Is Rattan?
When natural fibers are incorporated into furniture design, they all tend to have a similar look in the end, which can make it difficult to parse out one fiber from another. Rattan describes a natural plant that grows upwards and bends over as it continues growing in a vine-like manner; its stems are solid, which makes it an excellent candidate for creating sturdy furniture. Endemic to Southeast Asia and the Philippines, this plant is stripped of its leaves and outer fibers by the furniture designers to prepare it to be bent and steamed into a desired shape. This fiber can be used to create wicker, which differs from the natural fiber in that it only describes a certain way of weaving natural fibers together.
First Wave of Rattan Furniture
Besides the archaeologic discoveries of rattan furniture which date back to antiquity, rattan's first major period of popularity was during the mid-late 19th century. Over the course of several decades, rattan furniture was crafted to embody the elaborate designs of the Victorian era. There were two major manufacturers that spearheaded this specific market at the time: Wakefield Rattan Company and Heywood Brothers Company.
Heywood-Wakefield Company and Its Rattan Legacy
Cyrus Wakefield launched the Wakefield Rattan Company in 1836 and became the first major American manufacturer to create rattan furniture. Quickly, Heywood Brothers Company began to compete with Wakefield's, and the two engaged in an intense rivalry for about two decades, marking a period known as The Golden Age of Wicker. Yet, Wakefield came out on top when it absorbed Heywood in 1897 and merged the two names together.
Second and Third Waves of Rattan Furniture
The Art Deco period of the early 20th century was a luxurious time for the arts, with rattan chairs and sofas inspiring the Hollywood elite so much that the style could be seen in the homes of the biggest actors and actresses of the 1930s. The 1950s and again in the 1970s, rattan furniture design flourished with artists like Paul Frankl, Milo Baughman, Franco Albini, and the Ritts Furniture Company, each of which had their own distinctive styles that collector's love identifying today.
Paul Frankl is considered by many to be the first designer to create rattan furniture in a modern way, with his Art Deco inspired pieces - such as his 'Speed Chair' - catching the eye of Hollywood during the 1930s. His pieces became associated with creating motion in a static environment and remained popular through the 1950s.
Milo Baughman was a slightly later designer who worked for Calif-Asia, and he was well-known for how he incorporated conflicting materials into beautiful pieces of furniture. For example, this pair of rattan and chrome lounge chairs designed by Baughman, which is listed for $3,000 in one online auction, marries metal with organic vegetation in a unique way.
An Italian architect and designer, Franco Albini was incredible for his modern designs which utilized traditional Italian craftsmanship. Using inexpensive materials, Albini was able to craft unique rattan pieces that swept the world by storm. His Margherita and Gala chairs, in particular, are still emulated today.
Ritts Furniture Company
This husband and wife duo supported the rattan resurgence in the post-war period in the United States and were quite successful because of it. In fact, the Ritts pair had the style down to such a science that they helped create the set design for the famous Elvis Presley vehicle, Blue Hawaii (1961).
Identifying Vintage Rattan Furniture
Given its massive popularity, it's quite easy to find vintage rattan furniture in your local thrift stores and consignment shops. Unfortunately, to the untrained eye the natural fiber looks nearly identical to other fibers, like bamboo, so it's best to have a professional assess a piece before you make an assumption about it's content on your own. However, because rattan was such a lucrative market, chances are very high that any piece you think is rattan actually is rattan. That being said, identifying a piece's maker can be difficult because most rattan furniture doesn't bear any maker's marks; thus, it's best to call in the experts if you want detailed information.
Vintage Rattan Furniture Values
Since rattan is such a hardy material, vintage rattan furniture really withstands the damaging effects of aging well. This means that you can find a lot of high-quality vintage rattan furniture pieces out there; unfortunately, those from reputable designers will cost you anywhere between $1,000-$10,000 depending on their age and style. For example, this French solitaire chair from Janine Abraham and Dirk Jan Rol is listed for a little over $1,000 in one auction, and an unmarked rattan bar cart from the 1960s is listed for just little a bit less. Yet, most rattan furniture you find in vintage shops and thrift stores is going to cost significantly less than those listed at auction, meaning if you don't mind waiting to find a piece in person, you can save some money upfront.
Going Natural Feels Great
Whether you're looking for a new patio set to match your poolside set up or you're cleaning out your grandmother's clutter, investigate the different styles of vintage rattan furniture out there and see if any of them speak to you. Rattan furniture is built to last, generally affordable, and environmentally friendly, meaning you can remain ethically conscious of your purchases while still redecorating your space.