Lithe and lissome

15 min read
14 Apr 2017
15 min read
2152 words
An increasing number of discerning buyers in Nepal are starting to turn to wicker furniture as their preferred option for decking out their residences

Every culture on earth has had some sort of weaving tradition, whose techniques have been employed to make rugs, baskets, charpoys, etc. These traditions have been kept alive for thousands of years, in some cases. Over years, the techniques have been refined and modified.

Some techniques were transplanted to regions spread across the globe, and specially with the growth of trade, commerce and communication, weaving techniques from everywhere were brought together and used by furniture makers to create wicker furniture. Modern-day wicker designs are the beneficiaries of that storied wicker history. And in modern-day Nepal—as elsewhere—wicker has been getting increasingly popular among both Nepalis and expats alike.

Wicker furniture is a collective term for any furniture that has been woven from one or more varieties of pliable materials such as rattan, cane, bamboo and elephant grass, among others. “Wicker furniture is increasingly being adopted by homeowners in Nepal,” says Varsha Pandey, founder, architect and interior designer at Building Concepts, a firm that provides architecture and interior design solutions. “People today want furniture, or any appliance for that matter, that fulfils its practical obligation of being functional, and also fulfils the intangible obligation of aesthetically pleasing the user. Wicker meets both those requirements.”

Wicker has many things going for it. The beauty of wicker is that it can accommodate designs and patterns spanning the whole spectrum from austere to ornate. Because wicker entails weaving around a frame, it gives you many design options to work with. It is easier to incorporate curves into wicker furniture compared to wooden ones because achieving curves in wooden furniture would require carving and sawing. For carpenters working with wood, creating curves requires quite a bit of expertise, and the process would produce quite a bit of waste. But with wicker, if you can come up with a skeletal frame for the design you have in mind, you can fill out the design with layers of weave.  

Because wicker furniture feels light and lithe (obviously so because they’re made from light raw material), they seem to exude a certain no-nonsense charm that’s not marred by even a scintilla of ostentatiousness. Wicker is also easy to maintain compared to wooden furniture and upholstered furniture. In the unfortunate event that an upholstered sofa set gets stained, you will have to heave the (heavy) set out of the house, clean it with a mild detergent and sun it. Not to mention, you will then have to lug the set back into the house. In the case of wicker, all it calls for is removing the cushions from the furniture and sunning it outside, and wiping the wicker with a wet cloth.

Durability is an important quality that buyers take into consideration when purchasing furniture, and wicker doesn’t disappoint in this department either. Wicker is usually made from light yet sturdy materials such as rattan, which are known for their sturdiness. Well-made wicker with securely tied ends can endure years of rough use. And the fact that wicker is environmentally friendly makes it all the more desirable. “People today are very conscious about what they buy and how it’s affecting the environment,” says Sangeeta Shrestha, general manager at Nepal Knotcraft Centre, Kupondole. “Many of them try to refrain from buying products, whose production processes created adverse effects on the environment, and for such conscious buyers, wicker is proving to be a great alternative to wooden furniture and plastic furniture.”

But wicker’s benefits aren’t merely practical. Wicker furniture also lend a cosy, natural look to your indoor and outdoor environments. “Wicker connotes a laidback atmosphere. It makes you feel at ease—which is why you’ll find wicker furniture in many hotels and resorts,” says Pandey.

Wicker sits very well in covered patios and porches. Because wicker has an earthy and organic feel (owing to its curves and its colours), it effortlessly blends in with gardens and patios surrounded by, say, lush greenery and gravel-topped pavements.

Wicker furniture also mixes and matches well with other furniture, especially wrought-iron furniture. Imagine a space, say a living room, that features wicker chairs with long, slightly curved backs, and a wrought-iron table, with c-shaped scroll patterns, taking centre space. In such a combination, you can discern a motif-continuity between the various furniture items: the curves of the wicker chairs blend seamlessly with those of the wrought-iron table, forming an unbroken aesthetic whole. Have the walls painted white or pastel, and the whole room will have a disarming, welcoming aura. Such aesthetics create a great setting for living rooms, spaces primarily designed for socialising and conversing. Wicker, say furniture makers, has a more inviting charm compared to furniture with straight, aggressive lines and sharp edges.

Most of today’s wicker furniture designs are informed by what can seem to be an aesthetic of minimalism. But during the Victorian era, wicker furniture used to feature highly intricate weaving and ornate and almost-baroque, sometimes rococo, details. The Victorian era was a time when emphasis was placed on the ornamental aspects of furniture—the time taken for making them and the intricacies showcased by the furniture signified value and desirability. Functionality was compromisable. The aesthetics of most of today’s wicker, however, is coloured by the Arts and Crafts movement—which advocated for simple forms and austere designs, which resulted in today’s minimalistic and clean wicker—in stark contrast to the ornate furniture popular during Victorian times—the world over.

In Nepal, wicker has actually been used for ages by people across the country. From gundri—rugs made out of straw—to cane chairs, wicker has been a mainstay of many households. Perhaps, that’s why wicker items were earlier perceived to be merely ‘ordinary’ furniture, considered unsophisticated, cheap options. “Earlier, ‘quality’ and ‘modernity’ were connoted only by expensive wooden furniture,” says Shrestha. “In fact, there was a persisting social stigma around items such as gundri in Nepali society. They were often associated with lower class and low social status, especially because Western ideals of classy interior designs were what people aspired to.”

In Nepal, wicker has actually been used for ages by people across the country. From gundri—rugs made out of straw—to cane chairs, wicker has been a mainstay of many households

Nepal Knotcraft Centre has been trying to break that stigma by elevating the designs of traditional wicker furniture and catering to clientele who are tired of the same cookie-cutter furniture designs that have flooded the market. Traditional gundri, for instance, woven from straw, sheds a lot of its husk strands and starts looking frayed and shabby after some time. As a solution, Knotcraft uses elephant grass to make gundri. Dried elephant grass hardly sheds at all and does not get worn easily. Along with elephant grass, which Knotcraft sources from places such as Bardiya, Dang and Banke, the company also makes use of corn husk, cardamom fibre, rattan, and bamboo, all of which are brought from different parts of Nepal.

Weaving at Knotcraft is done either by hand or with looms in their three-storeyed factory inside Patan Industrial Estate, or in the villages itself, by local women. Since women from different villages incorporate their local styles in their work, the Knotcraft’s furniture feature a variety of weave patterns—twine weave, simple weave, Kathmandu weave, string weave and DW weave, to name a few. “The various weave patterns have all evolved over ages to produce robust woven products,” says Shrestha. “And our buyers are happy to have so much weave varieties to choose from.” Also, because wicker is handcrafted, the craftsmanship shows in the weaving and knotting, and it gives the furniture an artisanal feel, whereas modern wooden or steel furniture comes across as having been industrially manufactured—some would say sterile and cold.

At Knotcraft, before the dried raw materials are woven around skeletal frames, the fibres are first fumigated—since the natural raw materials are likely to be infested by insects. The weaves can then be personalised according to the needs of the customers. For some items, such as rush seats, the fibres are woven around their wooden armature. For other items, woven panels are pasted or nailed onto the framework. As for the cushioning, foam and cloth are mostly used. However, with furniture made from fibre such as elephant grass—which provide natural cushioning (elephant grass is sort of spongy) and have a smooth finish—cushions don’t need to be added on. And owing to the combination of their ergonomics, good design and good finishing, the wicker furniture sold at shops like Knotcraft far from connoting drabness, actually feel chic. “Expats purchase our wicker as well, but the majority of our customers are Nepalis who want well-crafted furniture,” says Shrestha. “The perception of wicker is changing—so much so that even Nepalis are now opting for wicker over other types of furniture.”

While customers visit shops like Knotcraft for well-finished indoor furniture, the various ‘baet and baans’ furniture shops in and around Kupondole sell a different category of wicker. As suggested by their names, the raw materials that these furniture outlets primarily use are baet, or cane, and baans, or bamboo. Loosely grouped together under the bamboo and cane umbrella are other related species such as nigalo and rattan. These raw materials, although available in Nepal itself, are imported from India because the infrastructure necessary to harvest and process these raw materials has not been set up in Nepal. Once the raw materials arrive in Nepal—mostly from Assam—furniture is built in the factories inside Patan Industrial Estate, and are then brought into showrooms like those in Kupondole.

“The reason why these showrooms are located in Kupondole may be because most of their clientele are expats and people from INGOs, and most of these establishments are based around these shops,” says Pandey. The wicker found in these shops are ideal for customers who keep relocating or for those who are in the country temporarily; the furniture from these baet and baans shops in Kupondole are significantly cheaper than high-end wicker, with prices ranging from Rs 2,200 to a maximum of Rs 45,000. However, the wicker at such shops are not as well-finished, or as elaborately woven as the ones at Knotcraft or other high-end wicker shops.

However, first-time wicker buyers must understand that wicker is not terribly good at withstanding rain. Therefore, for wicker furniture that are to be kept outside the house—on porches, patios and gardens—buyers have an alternative known as resin wicker, which is essentially a synthetic material used for weaving furniture. This material is also known as all-weather wicker, and for good reason. It can withstand rain as well as the sun’s UV radiation, which is why resin wicker furniture is the go-to option for people who want to furnish their outdoor spaces.  

Wicker furniture, says Pandey, has certainly come a long way from those days when Nepalis regarded them as poor cousins of the more ‘standard’ wooden furniture. In the hands of expert craftsmen, wicker can be fashioned to produce some quite stunning furniture. And a good interior designer or a homeowner with a great aesthetic sense can create interesting furniture sets that add a lot of charm to their home and hearth.