Written by Diyana Jailani, February 18 2022
Personally, I have a hypothesis as to how rattan chairs, coffee tables and other furniture pieces alike have found their way into the Singaporean home. Rattan is a material loosely linked to its natural characteristics that give it a humble yet appealing appearance, heightened luxury that is more subtle than say the deep tones of brass fixtures or rich pigments found in exotic woods.
Michael Thonet’s No.1 chair is one of the first examples of the rattan aesthetic we now all love and adore. At first glance, the structure of the No.1 Chair is almost sculptural, an interpretation of art. The backrest itself is created by the use of a single bentwood element, as are the legs supporting the rattan seat forming an elegant curvature. If the No.1 Chair was a font, it would have been Garamond in Italic. Amongst Thonet’s famous clientele was the Price of Schwarzenberg, who ordered the No.1 chair for his Baroque Garden palace.
If you’re wondering where I’m going with this, I’ll cut to the chase. The No.1 Chair was then re-designed for a larger market where Thonet introduced the No.14 otherwise known as the Consumer Chair. In the present day, the Consumer Chair is also widely known as the Bistro Chair. So now, think casual glamour. Think small cafes in Tiong Bahru or Bugis. Think brunch. Think artisanal drip coffee. Subconsciously, we’ve created a stereotype for where rattan chairs are found; at high-class bistros or cafes that subtly promote the concept of slow-living for the mid-upper classes.
The No.14 chair was also introduced to thousands of cafes in Vienna in the 1850s-1860s, which is where present day cafes take their inspirations from. Other than the added materiality rattan can offer to what otherwise could have been a very basic one-dimensional design (of chairs solely made from wood), the flexibility of the material also alludes the appearance of comfort.
Post-1920s however, rattan was then integrated with the famous Bauhaus cantilever chair that used a tubular steel frame, instead of Thonet’s original use of beechwood. This change in design was of course, further accelerated by the company’s desire to expand; primarily to the Americas. Michael Breuer presented to Thonet (the company) four cantilever chair designs; a chair without back legs, affixed with a rattan seat and backrest. The cantilever chairs were increasingly becoming the icon of modern excellence during the 1920s-1940s, designed by Mark Stam and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. At the pinnacle of modernist Bauhaus furniture, tubular steel had become the icon material of forward-design, other than plastics and glass. The world had abandoned natural materials such as wood or rattan, for man-made materials such as steel, animal leather and flexible fabrics for a Bauhaus aesthetic in furniture design, fore fronted by none other than Ludwig himself.
You can imagine what happened next; the design world witnessed a constant struggle between the traditional craftsmanship of furniture in Eastern Europe that paid more respect to nature’s materials versus mass-produced furniture in the West that took advantage of man-made materials from the glossy sheens of plastic and the sturdiness of steel.
In short, society is now no longer amazed by towering skyscrapers and urban life. Plastics are now co-related to fakeness and ingenuity and urban living is a thing of the past. Good living is now synonymous with slow living; where people are now investing more time into their craft, hobbies, side businesses and the overall idea of being more connected to ourselves and our environment.
The small simple way we’ve done this (albeit unconsciously) was to remodel our homes to reflect what we now desire; the humbleness and human-like depth of rattan as a material itself.