Form and Function

With their durability and tropical charm, rattan furnishings stand the test of time.

rattan close-up in a a dark lighting setting with cherry colored weave.
Text by
Anna Harmon
Images by
Laura La Monaca & courtesy of Soane Britain
Rattan weaving is often a family tradition—three generations of rattan weavers work side by side at the Soane Britain rattan workshop in England.

Rattan is a bounty, a multitude, a diaspora. Technically, rattan is a spiny palm consisting of more than 550 species that grow in tropical forests of Asia, Africa, and Australia. While some rattan species prefer to stand along the edges of forests and roads, most of them are inclined to climb, wending toward the light filtering through a forest canopy.

In use, rattan is food, medicine, building materials, the stuff of baskets and mats, a source of income—and the makings of furniture. Rattan, with its vine-like characteristics and strong core, lends itself to curvaceous, airy forms. When heated, its rigid fibers can be bent into armchairs, sloped into chaise lounges, and twisted into coffee tables. Its peeled skin is made into cane webbing or used to tightly wrap junctions. Split rattan core is woven into wicker furniture.

Growing up on the island of Java in Indonesia, Rattan Creations owner Atin Monroe was surrounded by rattan furniture and baskets. “Rattan is very popular in my country because it’s lightweight and strong and will last a lifetime,” says Monroe, whose personal collection of Balinese art hangs on the walls of her showroom in Honolulu. All around her, still, are rattan furnishings: a sofa with acacia wood arms and a rattan frame, a darkly stained rattan coffee table, a classic lowslung rattan chair with metal end caps and custom cushions. Outside, a stack of rattan creations await repairs—an increasing demand of the business.

Rattan furniture was sold in Hawai‘i as early as 1848, when it was listed in an S.H. Williams & Co. ad in The Polynesian newspaper with the call-out “New China Goods! … Sundries … Bamboo Hats, Rattan Chairs.” In the 1920s, it was marketed as furniture fit for lanai (patios or verandas commonly found in Hawai‘i). Atin Monroe’s husband, Richard Monroe, started Rattan Creations 44 years ago, and at one point Atin suggested manufacturing in Indonesia, where the company continues to produce its custom designs.

Rattan’s pliable outer layer is favored as a finishing material.
Rattan’s pliable outer layer is favored as a finishing material.

According to Lulu Lytle, author of Rattan: A World of Excellence and Charm and founder of interior design firm Soane Britian, rattan was used outside of Southeast Asia starting in China as early as the 15th century. Both the Dutch and British began importing rattan in the 17th century as they colonized and laid trade routes across Asia and Africa, employing it as lightweight packing material before realizing its potential for woven, caned, and wicker furniture. England’s Edwardian area, France’s Belle Époque, and the turn of the 19th century in the United States were golden eras of rattan furniture, Lytle shares. During World War II, rattan furnishings were popular with U.S. military personnel in the Pacific Islands.

Lytle’s interest in rattan began when she was a child, piqued by a portrait of her grandfather reading a book in a laidback rattan chair in Cape Town, painted by his brother around 1920. “I started collecting before my teens, beginning with baskets and little tables and moving on to larger chairs and sun loungers,” she says. Wanting to recreate an Edwardian rattan sofa for Soane, Lytle began working with England’s last remaining rattan workshop. Soon enough, she was designing new rattan products, joining a longstanding tradition of drawing inspiration from the dynamic material.

In the last few centuries, rattan has been tapped for an abundance of designs. There is the iconic French bistro chair with a bent rattan frame and woven seat and backrest by Maison Drucker that dates to 1885. The iconic peacock chair, which originated in the Phillipines, was likely first made by inmates of a prison in Manila for Western tourists in the early 20th century. Hollywood designer Paul Frankel created his signature square pretzel-arm lounge chair in the 1940s. Midcentury makers like Abraham, Wegner, and Gio Ponti embraced the fluidity of rattan to geometric and flowing effect. Monroe says customers still come to her shop referencing the Art Deco rattan living room set from The Golden Girls.

Rattan is widely associated with the tropics, which makes sense given its natural habitat. The range of forms it has taken in furniture design reflects not only its material potential but also the imperialist fanbase that eagerly adopted rattan furniture for its breezy comfort and exotic appeal. In Hawai‘i, a tropical island chain impacted by a similar history, and where indoor-outdoor living is the norm thanks to moderate temperatures year round, rattan furniture has found ongoing resonance.

Rattan Creations has worked with customers to furnish entire units at local hotels and residential properties.
Rattan Creations has worked with customers to furnish entire units at local hotels and residential properties.

Atin Monroe remembers when there were at least 15 stores on O‘ahu dedicated exclusively to rattan. While these numbers have diminished, her 21-year-old daughter, Monica Monroe, still aspires to get into the Rattan Creations business full time. In the meantime, Monica spends evenings and weekends helping her mother at the shop. “I’ve been walking around here since I was little,” she says from behind the showroom desk. “It’s my whole life.”