Bamboo, rattan, reed, cane and wicker have been around since the beginning of civilization. There is historical evidence of these natural grasses being used for household goods since 8000 B.C. From Egypt to China, samples have been found, all claiming to be the oldest pieces furniture and accessories in existence. Indisputably, ancient baskets and containers are a part of the history of mankind throughout the world due to their daily use.
Furniture of wood and grasses span civilizations from Mesopotamia to ancient Rome and Greece. Initially, furniture was enjoyed by kings and the upper classes as a form of art. Designs were made to show off the strength and quality of the weavers and furniture makers. As the material was easily grown in Japan, China and the Philippines, bamboo and rattan furniture were widely used in Asian furniture.
Although sometimes the terms “bamboo” or “rattan” are both used to describe any casual wood furniture, there is a great difference between both materials. Bamboo is from the grass family, and it is hollow and unbendable, whereas rattan is a type of palm tree, and its core is solid and therefore can be bent and woven into intricate designs. “Wicker” is a term to describe the process where slim strands of bamboo or rattan are woven around wood or metal frames. Wickerwork was highly coveted because of the extravagant shapes, especially curves that could be elaborated.
Caning is quite popular in tropical furniture. Cane is produced by shaving off the layers from bamboo and weaving the material into patterns. Everything from rocking chairs to chaise lounges have used caning as a lightweight yet durable material that has the added benefit of allowing air to flow through it. This makes it the material perfect for hot climates.
In the Western world, bamboo and rattan furniture became popular during the Victorian era as travel to Asia became accessible via cruise ships. Well-heeled travelers became fascinated with the sturdy yet light nature of these crafty creations. These became the preferred furniture of loggias and sleeping porches. They became accents to the global and eclectic decor of the times.
Fast-forward several decades, to the 1930s and ’40s, as Hollywood studios began filming movies that were set in faraway locations. Bamboo and rattan furniture became quite popular on movie sets. They evoked an air of travel, and the materials lent themselves to curvaceous designs that foiled well with the streamlined designs of the art deco and moderne styles of architecture.
To this day, posh places from Beverly Hills to Palm Beach seem to enjoy the relaxed sense of luxury that these crafted furnishings bring. Vintage bamboo that harkens back to tiki huts and tall cocktails are all a part of the lore and are considered highly collectible. Even in contemporary interiors, these quirky pieces are great accents that can bring a special touch to the most austere interior and make you feel bamboozled.
Joseph Pubillones is the owner of Joseph Pubillones Interiors, an award-winning interior design firm based in Palm Beach, Florida.