As the summer sun sets outside my apartment before I turn the key to enter, I contemplate its warmth and am reminded of summers past. When I was younger, I would sit with my siblings on the patio on the patio cushioned by weathered pillows on wicker furniture. It was never our furniture–it belonged to a grandparent, aunt or uncle–and that makes the memory all the more special.
Woven furniture fascinates me. I’ve always traced the surface with my fingers and imagined the craftsman at work methodically sculpting its form from bundles of reeds. These fibers create such an interesting texture–like rolling hills. The best wicker chair is one perfectly worn–not so new that it’s uncomfortable but still sturdy enough that you won’t fall through.
Surprisingly, wicker handiwork is rather legendary. According to the Mesopotamian creation myth, the world is a floating wicker raft with soil on top. In the Christian tradition, a wicker basket carried the infant Moses, the Biblical prophet, away from danger to the Pharaoh’s court.
Historically, weaving utilitarian goods is common at the beginning of civilizations around the world. Later, that tradition of weaving would transition to the craft of pottery. To me, it’s interesting that woven goods are still used to this day.
Since the beginning of the Egyptian civilization, wicker furniture was common place. Middle class families could afford a few pieces per household, and they were sometimes gilded with gold hieroglyphics for royalty.
The weaving of utilitarian commodities–pots, baskets and furniture–also gave rise to the craft of pottery. Wicker woven goods were covered in clay and fired in an oven or underground. Special clay could also be added before firing for decoration or to further increase the product’s weather resistance.
Furthermore, on the American continent, the Native Americans of Arizona and New Mexico could weave utensils, traps and furniture so well that they were waterproof. These tribes are considered among the elite masters of the craft.
During the Victorian era, wicker furniture became more widespread due to imperialism. It offered a convenient alternative to the bulkier and less hygienic upholstered options. These wicker pieces could also be used both indoors and outside. Due to a shortage of rattan in the east, Victorian ingenuity used native western reeds that were more easily woven, stained, and painted.
It would be a disservice to discuss wicker furniture without mentioning its industrial American pioneers. Although a wicker cradle was discovered aboard the Mayflower from the 1620’s, the Heywood-Wakefield company reignited its conventional use in the second half of the 19th century. Originally in the late 1800’s, Wakefield Company and Heywood Brothers & Company competed heavily, but the two merged to form Heywood-Wakefield in 1897.
Today, wicker remains popular and widely available. The materials and finishes have adapted to 21st century technology–pieces are often made with synthetic materials, but it is still common to find high-quality wicker furniture crafted by hand from natural materials. Regardless of when it was made, wicker furniture brings warmth, comfort, and a reminder of its heritage to the spaces we share with it.