Robin Pollard’s family wicker is well-traveled. The white sofa, chair, and rocker started out on Robin’s great-grandmother’s porch in Camden. After that, the three pieces continued on to the small town of Red Hill in Lee County, South Carolina, to stay at the home of Robin’s grandmother. While in Red Hill, Robin says, “The rocking chair was put on the screened porch where it didn’t like the elements and didn’t survive.” The remaining sofa and chair headed to Hartsville to live with Elbert and Carolyn Hancock, Robin’s parents. Elbert and Carolyn shored up the sofa with metal plates, had the strings retied in the cushions, and recovered them in a striking royal blue velvet. “The fabric was on there for many years, and we all still remember it,” Robin says with a laugh.
Soon enough, the furniture was on the move again to its next stop at the home of Robin’s cousin in Columbia, where the two pieces settled in her living room. “She used it as her everyday furniture,” Robin says, noting that her cousin remembered their grandmother in Red Hill rocking her in the wicker rocking chair and singing to her when she was little.
The sofa and chair eventually arrived at the Pollards’ house in Columbia, and for the past 28 years, Robin and Rox, her husband, have been proud stewards of the family heirlooms. Robin has repainted the pieces several times, and the royal blue cushions are now beige with a mix of pillows in leopard print and yellow, beige, and white stripes. “It’s just ours and it won’t ever leave the family, especially since it was our great-grandmother’s,” Robin says.
Wicker has been around a long time. The term is derived from the Swedish words “wika,” meaning to bend and “vikker,” meaning willow. Scientists have carbon dated wicker baskets as far back as 8000 B.C., predating pottery. King Tut was buried with a wicker headboard and wicker stool. A woven reed basket held the infant Moses while he floated down the Nile to avoid Egyptian persecution.
Wicker refers to any object that is woven — the over-under weaving technique practiced by basket makers for centuries. Wicker furniture can be made from any natural pliable materials, such as roots, stems, and vines. Most often, wicker is made with reed and cane from rattan, a fast-growing tropical plant found throughout Southeast Asia. Rattan, a member of the palm family, is strong and malleable, making it ideal for handmade furniture. The rattan leaves and outer fibers are stripped off the plant, then it is split into two parts: the core reed and a thin interior, which is called the cane. The reed and cane are then soaked or steamed until they become flexible enough to bend into furniture or baskets.
The golden age of wicker occurred during the reign of Queen Victoria in Britain. The Victorians promoted country living and fresh air as the secrets of good health, and outdoor wicker furniture became an integral part of this lifestyle. The Victorians didn’t like germs, and they considered rattan to be a clean and well-ventilated alternative to upholstered pieces. During this period, wicker furniture took on whimsical forms resembling hearts, peacocks, and cornucopias.
The British also elevated the wicker basket from an ordinary catchall to more than 200 different types with specific purposes, such as butcher delivery baskets, bakery baskets, mail carts, and carriers for messenger pigeons.
Wicker took off in the United States around the mid-19th century, and one man in Massachusetts was instrumental in its popularity. In the 1840s, Cyrus Wakefield, a grocer in Boston, happened to pass a boat moored by a dock and spotted a large bundle of tossed aside rattan, used between large cargo to keep it from shifting around while at sea. Cyrus took the rattan home, soaked it in water to make the plant pliable, and wove it around the frame of a chair. After more experimentation, he sold his small grocery store and founded the Wakefield Rattan Company in South Reading, Massachusetts, which was later renamed Wakefield in his honor. At Wakefield Rattan, workers made buffets, posing chairs for photographers, baby carriages, rockers, and tête-à-tête seats. Later, after merging with another rattan company, the owners followed the tastes of their customers, swapping out ornate Victorian designs for the simpler straight-lined styles of Arts and Crafts and Art Deco, which sometimes featured zigzag designs, arrows, and clusters of diamonds.
In Columbia, Lauren and Rob Smith have a much-loved wicker bassinet. During the summer of 2006, they bought a house from Laura and Jim Leventis, who offered the Smiths a few items, including the bassinet, because they were downsizing. While living in Chicago, Laura and Jim had bought the bassinet at Marshall Field’s department store when they were expecting James, their oldest son. They packed up the bassinet for their return to Columbia, and their four children, as well as a few of their older grandchildren, all slept in it. Lauren and Rob continued the tradition. Lauren says, “We used it for both of our boys, and I’ll probably hold onto it for grandchildren.”
When her children were young, Lauren’s mother, Carolyn Boucher, made a skirt for the bassinet and wove a matching pale green ribbon through the open weave lattice. The bassinet, now almost 50 years old, has a hood, wheels, and handle. “It’s just a sweet piece,” Lauren says. During the day, she kept it in the living room, where her boys, Ramsey, now 13, and Henry, now 10, would nap; and, if one woke up, Lauren says, “I would pull it around the house and move my children to wherever we were.” Lauren has kept a photo of her oldest child standing by the bassinet while her youngest peeked out over the edge.
When Marcella Ridley, another Columbian, was in the ninth grade, her family bought a beach house on Kiawah Island. Marcy and Dexter Hagy, Marcella’s parents, asked an interior designer, Bill Clamp of Greenville, to decorate their beach house. For the family room, he picked out a wicker set made by Palecek, a furniture company based in Richmond, California, known for creating elegant woven pieces from natural fibers. The chair, ottoman, sofa, and coffee table became the focal point of the room. “That’s where we all gathered after dinner and hung out,” Marcella says. When her parents sold the beach house a few years ago, they offered the wicker furniture to Marcella and her husband, Steve. Marcella says, “We grabbed it, lickety-split, because it has a lot of memories and meaning for me.” Marcella put the chair, ottoman, and sofa in her TV room, where they blend perfectly with the white deer antlers purchased at MACK Home in Columbia as well as a guitar hung on the wall.
“As it ages, it gets this rich deep patina to it. It’s really pretty,” Marcella says. The Ridleys are soon moving to a new house, where Marcella plans to keep the wicker on a covered patio. “We feel really lucky to have it in our home,” she says.
Wicker has been woven into everything from bookcases to beach cabanas. In the 1950s, the English photographer and decorator Cecil Beaton played a part in Americans’ exposure to wicker by photographing many celebrities, such as Marilyn Monroe and Jean Shrimpton, seated on a variety of his wicker chairs. Starting in the 1960s, wicker had a resurgence. Fun examples are the throne-like peacock chair made famous on The Addams Family, as well as tiki bars, the most well-known being in Trader Vic’s bars. Over time, wicker evolved for outdoor use with the addition of synthetic materials like resin or vinyl strips woven around aluminum frames. The styles range from minimal and modern to more traditional; and, best of all, they can handle sunlight and moisture and be cleaned with a garden hose.
Southerners have always been attracted to wicker for good reason. It is breathable, making it ideal for warm weather. Wicker made with rattan also holds up well in humid locales since it does not warp or crack in heat. A piece in a room adds a homey touch and texture to even the most formal space. Wicker can be spotted on the porch of a humble bungalow as easily as in a refined conservatory.
Finally, who could resist that satisfying and familiar creaking sound as one settles down in the seat? It seems the South and wicker are made for each other.