The British Colonial look is always especially appealing during these tropical New York City summers, when creamy neutral spaces provide a cool haven from sizzling concrete. Caned furniture is classic in a colonial interior. Lightweight and airy, it seems at home in a palm house or on a veranda (image 1). But while cane was especially popular during the Victorian height of the British Empire, it is one of the most ancient techniques of furniture manufacture, used by Tibetan warriors, Peruvian princesses, and Egyptian pharaohs, for thousands of years.
Cane is the term for the material that comes from the outer skin of the rattan stalk. Rattan is a climbing vine-like plant in the palm family. Native to Asia and Africa, it is most commonly found in Indonesia. Rattan grows in strong, solid stalks roughly 2-5 cm in diameter that can extend hundreds of feet as it climbs toward the sunlight in dense tropical forests. It is harvested without harming trees, and there are currently efforts underway to ensure the sustainability of rattan harvesting. Once the rattan is harvested, its thorns and joints are removed and its bark is separated from its core. The bark is processed into thin strands, which are woven to make caned furniture and other objects (image 3). Since cane is the skin of the rattan plant, it is durable, somewhat flexible, glossy and non-porous.
It gets a bit tricky, because the material is called cane, the process is called caning, and the product is caned furniture. This must be differentiated from cane furniture, which is any furniture made from rattan (we will look at rattan and wicker furniture in next week’s Retrospect column).
Cane strips have been used in weaving objects since ancient times, originating as basket material and evolving into furniture. A woven cane bed was buried in Tutankhamun’s tomb in 1323 BC, and a cane coffin holding a Moche princess was buried in Peru around AD 750. Cane was used all over Asia and Africa throughout history, woven on objects like Tibetan shields from the 14th-16th centuries AD (image 2).