Lulu Lytle on Rattan Weaving for the Furniture and Lighting collections of Soane Britain.
Why did you become interested in rattan?
I can’t pinpoint precisely when I fell in love with rattan, other than adoring a 1920s portrait of my grandfather sitting in a rattan chair in Africa. I first became aware of the plant material used for making furniture when I was studying Egyptology and saw the pieces with which Tutankhamen was buried!
How did you formulate the idea of making rattan furniture and lighting for Soane?
Having bought an Edwardian rattan sofa from a house sale in Ireland, I decided to make a modern version for Soane, but quickly realised how hard it was to find British rattan weavers. Every avenue I explored in my search for rattan workshops assured me that I would have to go to the Far East, but I was determined that the sofa should be made in Britain, just as every other Soane design is.
Eventually, in 2003, I found Angraves, the last rattan factory in the country. It was a family run business which had been founded in 1912. Although it employed 35 people, there were only two craftsmen left who knew how to practise traditional rattan furniture making. Having made our sofa so brilliantly, we collaborated on many pieces with Angraves for the following eight years.
Taking me completely by surprise in 2010, the owner of Angraves called me to say that the company was going into administration. I was galvanised by the fear of losing these specialist skills from England forever and a need to fulfil client orders, so we borrowed money to buy the raw materials and machinery from Angraves’ administrators and rebuild the workshop. Buying the workshop was undoubtedly one of Soane’s proudest moments. We now make a mix of our own new designs, adaptions of antiques and bespoke pieces for clients who want one-off designs.
What is rattan?
Rattan really is an extraordinary material, stronger and more durable than most other plants. Like bamboo, which ranges from the miniature to the giant, there are about 600 species of rattan. However, unlike bamboo, rattan is a vine with flexible stems which scramble through and over other vegetation, using spines that act as hooks.
Rattan is an eco-friendly material, cheaper and much faster growing than timber and therefore more sustainable, as it’s very fast growth does not require forest clearance. The plant was originally brought to Britain in the 19th century by traders returning from Indonesia, China and Japan.
How long does it take to make each item?
Traditional, handmade rattan furniture is extremely labour-intensive. The plant arrives in the workshops in bales and is then cut to size. The canes are soaked and then steamed to make them more malleable. Once they are soft enough to be woven, each cane is either bent into shape or woven by hand, which is rather like knitting without the needles and a lot more physical. As it dries, each of the rattan strands contracts, giving the piece a tight finish. It can take a skilled weaver up to three days to make a large lampshade and over 2 weeks or more to finish a sofa. An extremely contemporary commission, a double bed with a geometric woven headboard, was more than a month’s work!
Which rattan items look best painted, and which look best in a natural finish?
There is a tendency to view rattan rather nostalgically, but what is so exciting about this material is the versatility of what can be achieved. The finish really transforms it. Rattan is particularly at home surrounded by plants in garden rooms and orangeries, and in these spaces, with good natural light, my preference is usually for natural rattan, but in some rooms it can also look wonderful painted in joyful colours. My favourite painted finishes are emerald green, lacquer red, shell pink, and a new addition ‘Messel Green’. Black painted pieces can also look extremely dramatic.
What are some of the most interesting pieces you have made for designers?
Commissions can vary enormously. We recently made a beautiful, clean-lined bench designed by Foster & Partners for the entrance of Maggie’s Centre in Manchester, as well as the rattan bar at Chiltern Fire House designed by Studio KO. Most recently, we collaborated with Cox London on a curvaceous rattan and forged iron screen for the VIP Lounge at Collect 2019, commissioned by interior designer Douglas Mackie.
How do you visualise the rattan range expanding in future?
I really love the soft, diffused light rattan gives and I have particularly enjoyed designing rattan lighting over the last 15 years. We currently have some very sculptural lighting designs being prototyped.
Visit Soane Britain to view inspirational footage of the rattan weaving process.
Soane Britain: 50-52 Pimlico Rd, London, SW1W 8LP
T: +44(0) 20-7730 6400