clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Rattan furniture is everywhere because we all want to be on vacation

Light fixtures and peacock chairs made from the woven wood are popping up everywhere from Ikea to Anthropologie.

Furniture made from rattan, like these pieces from Justina Blakeney’s Jungalow collection, is becoming more and more popular.

Welcome to Noticed, The Goods’ design trend column. You know that thing you’ve been seeing all over the place? Allow us to explain it.

What it is: Rattan is what’s most often used to create furniture that makes you feel as if you’ve entered a Tahitian beach resort. But to talk about rattan, we should first talk about wicker. Rattan can be wicker, but not all wicker is made from rattan, although the terms are often confused. Wicker is a form of weaving, the process of creating woven items. (Arguably, wicker is truly the rising trend, as woven material — rattan, synthetic, and beyond — is hugely popular, but the term tends to conjure images of antique farmhouse-style furniture, whereas rattan is associated with the tropics-inspired look that’s taken hold.)

Rattan is a material versus a process; it looks and feels similar to bamboo and ranges in density, pliability, and color. Like bamboo, rattan is a strong and durable vine that can grow as a climbing or non-climbing palm primarily found in Southeast Asia’s rainforests. There are many varieties, but generally, they sport fanning green leaves and spikes (or spines) that circle the stalk of the vine as protection.

But that’s rattan in its natural state — it’s better known in furniture form. Rattan pieces come in every shade of taupe and tan imaginable; the peacock chair, a throne-like woven vessel, is arguably the trendiest, most celebrated example of rattan.

Where it is: Rattan furniture is flooding home decor Instagram, especially in the shopping Discover tab, where brands including (but definitely not limited to) Ikea, Urban Outfitters, Joybird, Anthropologie, and Target are advertising their tropics-influenced furniture and home products. (The Ikea light fixture seen ’round the internet is very nearly a staple of every Instagram-worthy home interior; I, too, own it and enjoy taking pictures of it.)

Rattan isn’t only surfacing in envy-inspiring photos or online catalogs — it’s quickly becoming popular as a sort of prop in shops, salons, and restaurants. The aforementioned rattan peacock chairs and similar seating pieces serve as stylish backdrops for businesses that want to benefit from consumers’ love of Instagram playgrounds.

Why you’re seeing it everywhere: Most people would live every day on vacation if they could, and escapism is a hell of a drug. Why not transform your home to resemble paradise?

In 2014, when I moved to the West Indies, there were many surprises. I didn’t realize how expensive cereal would be, or that avocados could get so big. What did meet my expectations, however, was my furnished apartment that screamed “island life.” The rattan kitchen table with a glass top became my desk, which paired with rattan chairs. A few feet away sat the rattan couch (which, naturally, had palm leaf-print cushions) and the glass-topped rattan coffee table. It was simple yet striking, and it perfectly complemented the coral-painted walls and bright orange light that constantly flooded the apartment. It made an unfamiliar place feel homey.

Rattan, and wicker in general, is a staple of tropical climates. I can’t say I expected to find them in such demand years later when I returned to the Pacific Northwest. But rattan and the bohemian aesthetic associated with it are everywhere.

Rattan furniture from Justina Blakeney’s Jungalow brand.

“It’s all about decorating wild,” Justina Blakeney says of her signature tropics-inspired style. The interior designer and author of The New Bohemians Handbook is the founder of Jungalow, a home decor brand that’s wildly popular on social media; the phrase “jungalow” itself has become synonymous with the boho-chic style (though Blakeney’s company retains intellectual property rights over the term). The trend is defined by gentle neutrals mixed with splashes of color (think deep emeralds and rusty oranges), houseplants galore, and, perhaps most importantly, natural materials — the star of which is rattan.

Blakeney says in part, the renewed appreciation for rattan and the bohemian trend overall is tied to the resurgence of ’70s fashion: Flare jeans, corduroy, and macrame are back — or maybe they never entirely went away.

“My feeling is that bohemian is more than a trend. It is actually a style and lifestyle that reflect an eclectic aesthetic — one that takes inspiration from travel and different cultures,” Kim Hersov, co-founder of the clothing brand Talitha, told WhoWhatWear of its timelessness. And, of course, the millennial obsession with travel has certainly championed the vacation-inclined trend.

It’s more than this, though: Blakeney says interest in natural materials like rattan likely also has something to do with consumers’ and manufacturers’ attempts to move away from plastic, and that the popularity of online shopping makes rattan’s lightness a benefit to businesses shipping these products.

Wicker and rattan earned a bad rap after midcentury overuse. Bahamas-based interior designer Amanda Lindroth, who specializes in Caribbean-inspired decorating, explains that in the ’60s, five-piece matching sets suddenly invaded homes — everything was suddenly woven and identical. “We couldn’t look at it again for a few decades,” she says.

But vintage styles in general are reappearing, and this coupled with an interest in bringing the outdoors inside is giving tropical design new life. “It never, ever went out of style for me. But it was a hard sell at times to some people. Now everybody has wicker or rattan in their collection,” says Lindroth.

Rattan furniture featured in Amanda Lindroth’s Island Hopping.
Amanda Lindroth/Island Hopping

The genre’s return makes sense: It’s typically associated with a countercultural reaction to a current era, and ours is a time obsessed with the technology upgrade cycle and offloading of human tasks to machines. Connection is more often made online than off. Consumers’ embrace of the natural world feels like an apt reaction: We fill our homes with living, growing houseplants and hang hand-woven macrame on our walls. And, of course, we anchor our living rooms with rattan coffee tables and peruse Amazon’s dedicated section full of similar items and wares. Rattan exudes summer and leisure time, Lindroth says. Maybe we all need to relax a little, to ease the strictness of our KonMari’d closets and minimalist Scandinavian design schemes.

“We’re seeing such a resurgence of maximalism, and I think that rattan is just a great neutral to kind of balance out some of the bolder wall coverings we’re starting to see,” says Blakeney. “People are using lots of tile and colorful textiles and colorful wall coverings.” Natural materials like rattan are a beautiful, warm neutral that balances all that boldness.

Now, in the swing of summer, rattan will only become more popular. And for those in year-round sunny climates, it will remain fitting — but what about those of us (including this Oregonian) who don’t? Will our peacock chairs and wicker lamps suddenly look off when the weather cools and our interior style is betrayed by the seasons? Lindroth notes that while some rattan and wicker won’t look right in homes in colder climates, many interior design companies are creating furniture that works in more urban environments too. Much of this is extremely high-end and expensive, but chain retailers like Target and Ikea have taken notice as well.

And when the Targets and Ikeas of the world become purveyors of something, that means it’s mainstream. Rattan went from being found at garage sales and on Craigslist to the aisles of big-box stores — so much for counterculture, right?

A very rattan living room.
Amanda Lindroth/Island Hopping

There’s also the question of cultural appropriation; it feels unlikely that every home-staging business and hip hair salon is aware that peacock chairs are said to have originally been created in mass production by prisoners in the Philippines and shipped to and sold in the US in the early 20th century. In the ’60s and ’70s, they were often used in images produced by the Black Panther Party — Blakeney’s parents were part of the Black Panther movement, and she mentions that these chairs hold that association for her. (She’s also designed a beautiful one for Anthropologie.) And while rattan is a sustainable resource, harvesting and working with it is back-breaking, difficult work.

In her thesis on the history of wicker, Emily Morris explains that Europeans recreated the style of wicker rattan by using willow, which lent itself to the shabby-chic, country look. But the “exotic” nature of rattan wicker remained enticing, and Western designers began incorporating it — in some cases, without proper credit. Designer John Patrick McHugh “produced many designs that mimicked Asian rattan forms, and bestowed them with exotic (although non-Asian) names such as the Porto Rico Chair and the Panama Chair,” she writes. There is a long tradition of white designers rewriting history; here is no exception. Blakeney has also written about the generalizations made when boho-chic products are categorized as “ethnic” or “tribal”:

What the word has come to mean in the design world (or at least on Pinterest) seems to be any room, outfit, or adornment that looks like it does not have Western-European origins. This annoys me, and troubles me as well. It’s lazy and inaccurate to call something simply “ethnic.” What’s more, it doesn’t mean anything. It’s kind of like describing something as “interesting.” It’s not a descriptor. It also reinforces the concept of the “other” — like we are like this, they are like that.

Rattan the material isn’t subject to cultural appropriation, she says — but can the trend and style that uses it heavily be? “Fuck yes,” says Blakeney. But she doesn’t see it as a passing fad, and perhaps its fans will learn a little more as its reign continues. “It’s just such a versatile material that I don’t think we’re going to see it go away anytime soon. I actually think we’re at the beginning of the trend right now,” she explains. “The material itself has so many different applications and there are so many different types of rattan and wicker.” Right now the world is appreciating rattan for its boho-chic style, but who knows what form it will take next?

Sign up for The Goods’ newsletter. Twice a week, we’ll send you the best Goods stories exploring what we buy, why we buy it, and why it matters.

Sign up for the newsletter Today, Explained

Understand the world with a daily explainer plus the most compelling stories of the day.