When I was 5, my Mother hand-hammered these napkin holders
in a class at the Roycroft Studios in East Aurora.
After each class, she showed me how carefully she had to strike pieces of heavy gauge copper with a special hammer that left a textured design in the metal—
then make the edge design—using a different hammer.
My life-long curiosity about the quality of home products was launched. My journey? EXCITING!
EVERYDAY HOME ESSENTIALS: HOW DO WE KNOW IF THEY’RE GOOD?
Currently, few essentials are excellent, some are good, many are less-than-good.
Less-than-good quality essentials are the result of raw materials and production standards determined by each manufacturer; and today’s flawed consumerism thrives on questionable quality, lack of label transparency, deceptive advertising
and brand-biased web-sites.
Consumers are fooled by twisted opinions of the truth. Most cannot discern quality differences: most think they can.
My mission is to provide unbiased, timeless standards of quality entrusted to me by international experts for glassware, dinnerware, flatware, cookware, serve-ware and furniture: essentials we can’t live without, yet know little about.
The synthesis of raw materials and production methods is explained for each category.Please refer to this information the way you refer to your favorite cookbook: However—Wherever— Whenever —you need it!
Humbled by 50 years of uncommon global interaction with customers, students,
suppliers and technical experts, this is my moment in time and space to give
voice to irrefutable standards of quality consumers can apply to all everyday essentials.
Consumers will develop confidence to JUDGE FOR THEMSELVES.
‘WICKER’ furniture is much loved, even though there’s no natural plant or material called wicker (a generic term for woven willow, reed, rush and rattan and several other varieties of plants and grasses).
Natural wicker can remain natural or it may be
dyed, stained, painted, shellacked, varnished or lacquered.
Hundreds of species of pliant woody plants as willow, reed, rush and rattan are prepared in different thicknesses of varying flexibility in order to weave diverse patterns strong enough for all styles of wicker furniture.
These natural materials must not be too dry or brittle in order to be to be woven; and large diameter rattan and bamboo must not feel rough. The natural color of the frames and the wickerwork should be uniform. Many manufacturers bleach natural materials to achieve uniformity.
Colorful all weather wicker furniture —woven of resin,
vinyl, high density polyethylene, or other—on aluminum
frames which do not rust, has become very popular.
‘Man-made wicker’ has no ‘protruding fibers’—because
these synthetic materials provide continuous fiber; just
as a large ball of yarn provides for a sweater.
Weaving must be meticulous. Where lengths of pliant fibers are joined, endings are tucked-in and clipped—to appear ‘invisible’.
Woven natural wicker is firmly attached to, or built upon strong structural components of hardwood, bamboo, rattan, wrought iron or other material chosen for strength and style.
Structural frames for smaller pieces of wicker furniture as chairs,
are usually bamboo or rattan. Large sized wicker furniture usually
has frames of hardwood— capable of mortise and tenon joinery. Wicker dining tables and chairs are often combined with wrought
iron or tubular steel components as arms and legs.
Bamboo or rattan structural frames are nailed together.
Mortise and tenon joinery is not possible.
Nail heads are covered with wood-fill and wrapped with fine willow.
Finished wicker furniture is singed to eliminate protruding fibers—and then, ‘wetted-down’ to tighten as it dries —before staining, painting or lacquering.
JUDGING THE QUALITY ofNEW and VINTAGE NATURAL WICKER FURNITURE:
Examine corners where woven material is attached to the frame to make sure joined components are wrapped in willow. If nails are visible, pass.
If all joining is secure, good. If any joined components ‘wiggle’, it’s seen better days, pass.
If woven wicker is ‘clogged with paint’, think twice.
Stripping paint on wicker is difficult.
If you see screws or staples in wicker furniture—pass.
Never accept protruding fibers.Endings of joined fibers should have been ‘singed’ at the factory—and wetted-down before staining, painting or lacquering.
Desks, bookcase, table and chairs, dressers or any large furniture made of wicker must have strong structural components as hard wood or metal. If rickety,pass.
If wicker chairs or sofas have springs,suspension standards (see upholstered furniture) apply. If suspension standards are inadequate:pass.
CARE: Use the brush attachment of a vacuum cleaner to keep wicker clean. Keep wicker away from heaters, radiators and fireplaces.
Avoid direct sunlight (natural wicker can dry out).
The beauty of hand work is lack of perfect uniformity,
not lack of standards.
Woven wicker has natural variations: but INSIST ON EXCELLENCE.
About 4,000 B.C.,
man began to weave nature’s pliant woody plants
into baskets to carry burdens, serve foods and cradle babies.
This became a universal culture known as WICKER;
even though there is no plant or grass called ‘wicker‘.
(In Swedish, wika means ‘to bend’, vikker means willow.)
This post is about NATURAL wicker furniture—
made of woven willow, rush, reed, rattan and other pliant woody plants.
But know that colorful all weather wicker furniture
made of resin, vinyl or high density polyethylene woven on frames of aluminum (which doesn’t rust)
is also available.
Natural wicker stools, chests, baskets and even wicker sandals were found in Tutankhamen’s tomb. Diverse styles of natural wicker furniture and accessories continue to be made globally.
NATURAL WICKER FURNITURE
Willow: Pliant branches from a species of deciduous trees and shrubs growing in temperate climates and known for diverse application for basketry and wickerwork.
Rush: A grass-like marsh plant having pliant, hollow or pithy stems. Rush was used in medieval times as a covering for stone floors, baskets, mats and chair seats. The thinner the rush and the more it’s twisted, the finer the finished product.
Reed: A tall grass with straight-slender leaves and growing in marshland.
Rattan: A variety of climbing palm with long, tough slender solid core stems used for wickerwork.
Split stems of rattan, called cane, have been used since the mid-17th Century for interwoven chair seats and backs.
Bamboo: Bamboo is a rapidly growing tree — known to grow 16 inches in one day in tropical climates. Bamboo is often the structural wood component for woven wicker furniture. It has slender, woody, hollow stems with well-marked joints or nodes.
Bamboo furniture originally was simple and described as “rather rickety”.In the 18th Century the influence of bamboo furniture from the Far East spread and the ‘look of bamboo’ was simulated by turning hard woods on a lathe. Replicated bamboo furniture became very popular in Europe and the United States.
Because of its’ rapid and sustainable growth, bamboo is increasingly used for cutting boards, kitchen counters, hardwood floors and as a textile fiber. Soft shoots of new bamboo growth are savored as a vegetable.
For centuries, plants and grasses from Italy’s Macerata region were harvested for wicker furniture, handbags and baskets. Today, this fertile land is more productive for growing food and sunflowers for oil.But the tradition of artisan production of wicker furniture has lingered with the skilled craftsmen—who must now import natural raw materials —usually from Pacific Rim nations.
PRODUCTION OF NATURAL WICKER FURNITURE:
Wicker furniture is currently made in countries having a strong tradition in techniques of construction and weaving natural materials. Bamboo, rattan and some hardwoods provide structural components for woven wicker furniture. Bamboo and rattan is joined with nails because mortise and tenon joinery is not possible for these woods.
A lot of natural wicker furniture is also made with structural components of wrought iron and/or tubular steel.
I visited a renowned manufacturer of wicker furniture in the Macerata region of Italy and was amazed by the variety of their imported natural materials.
Bamboo and rattan—for sturdy furniture frames.
Flexible willow—for weaving.
Fine willows—for wrapping nailed joints.
Bamboo —bent by heat and pressure.
Steam is used to soften many woods for bending—but because bamboo has a high moisture content, it can be held in a vice while craftsmen use heat and brute strength to bend bamboo corresponding to a template.
Bamboo poles are measured, cut and nailed together as furniture frames.
Nail heads are covered with wood-fill and joints are wrapped with strips of willow for a refined look.
A sofa takes shape as flexible willow is woven and pulled tightly through vertical bamboo ribs securely attached to the base frame. New lengths of willow are added periodically and endings are tucked-in and clipped in a neat, secure manner.
The craftsman’s hands move with rhythm, speed and dexterity
— reminding me of how warp and woof interlocks on a loom.
Protruding fibers are singed with a torch and the furniture is wetted-down to tighten as it dries. The finished furniture is spray-painted to specification— for international destinations.
CANE: Cane is the hollow, jointed stem of a tall grass
as bamboo, sugar cane or the split-stem of a palm as rattan. Since the mid-17th Century,
cane has been interwoven for chair-backs and seats.
Hand-caning used to be an inexpensive way to ‘seat’ a chair. Today, ‘skilled-labor’ hand-caning— is very costly.
Machine-caning, woven by the yard,
is popular for today’s chair-backs and seats.
In Venice, I visited a shop specializing in repairing and restoring rush and cane seats for antique furniture. Their major clients were European art galleries and museums.
After removing worn caning, hand carved pegs are placed into holes around the entire perimeter edge of a chair seat. Strips of cane, kept wet as they’re pulled and wrapped around the pegs–are woven horizontally, vertically, and diagonally. Care is taken that thin flat pieces of cane do not twist and are not pulled too tightly.
Strips of cane are joined only at edges where a finishing strip of cane is whipped under and over secure tapered pegs—and hammered back into the hole. The woven cane shrinks as it dries to provide a firm and comfortable seat.
Pat Breen: EYEWITNESS TO QUALITY
My next post: JUDGING THE QUALITY OF NATURAL WICKER FURNITURE
After the Industrial Revolution, styles of metal furniture and accessories originally handcrafted by artisans, inspired the mass-production of metal furniture and accessories in broad price ranges through the use of different metals and technology. This became a format for the democratization of many everyday home products.
The 20th Century introduced mass-production of flat and tubular steel furniture. The first tubular steel chair made in 1925 is cited as the beginning of modernism.
Enchanted by the golden sheen of Chianti Country while driving to my appointment at a metal furniture factory—a bend in the road suddenly revealed an Industrial Park—home to the furniture factory.
In an office filled with international awards, the factory owner revealed many facts about the ‘global-consumer’ for whom this affordable metal furniture is made.
My factory tour began in a hangar-like space—housing diverse steel tubing for both capital and labor intensiveproduction.
A craftsman bends a single hollow steel tube into a perfect chair frame.
An identical single hollow steel tube is bent by a mechanical robot —into the identical perfect chair frame—in less than one minute.
Mechanical robots enable increased production to meet demand for styles that continue to be made in the factory by craftspeople. Selling large quantities of a style affords better technology for greater efficiency —while maintaining quality. This marketing practice is called ‘economy of mass’.
Good quality tubular steel furniture demands ROUNDNESS of hollow tubing is maintained —especially at corners.
Tubing—flat when turning corners, and frames made of joined pieces of tubing,
After steel tubes are bent into a chair frame, tubing ‘ends’ are soldered together. This creates oxidation which is polished away before frames are chrome plated.
Some styles of bent tubular steel chairs are original
—others are influenced by the ‘classics’ as Thonet’s bentwood chair.
Steel furniture can be brushed, polished, chrome plated or painted.
Leather seats and backs, sewn by a leather contractor,
complete a popular design.
In a cavernous part of the factory–steel tables and chairs,
hanging from conveyor belts suspended from the ceiling—
fly slowly through a journey of rust proofing and very hot air.
Brilliant colors of paint are sprayed on the furniture by ‘masked-men’
and baked with very hot air for maximum durability. MY FILM WAS BAKED, TOO.
METAL FURNITURE SUMMARY
IDENTIFY THE METAL: Iron, brass, steel, aluminum, chromium.
Iron, brass and steel furniture is currently mass-produced in a broad range of price, quality and style. If we understand differences in metals and basic artisan and mass-production techniques, we can choose with confidence, tables, chairs, beds and other metal furniture at prices we can afford.
Brass furniture components are cast, hand-hammered or cut from
hollow brass pipes.
Iron furniture components are cast, hand-forged or cut from hollow
Flat steel furniture components are cut from flat steel. Tubular steel components are cut from tubular steel and shaped by bending.
Shapingflat or tubular steelfurniture requires capital-intensive
machinery to bend very hard metals.
Mass-production of cast metal requires labor-intensive tasks performed by skilled workers. There must be no mold markings —nor visible seams where components are soldered together. Surfaces must not have pits caused by impurities in the molten metal.
HAND-FORGED: Expect variations in hammer marks—but sloppy soldering is unacceptable. The beauty of hand work is lack of uniformity—not lack of standards.
BALANCE: Chairs of any metal must be perfectly balanced so they won’t easily tip over. Sit down and attempt to rock back and forth; chairs should resist.
Quality metal furniture has heft so it won’t blow over on a windy day.
BRASS: Solid brass is an alloy of copper and zinc. Harder than copper, brass usage began in the 16th Century.
Make sure furniture is solid brass—not plated.Avoid lacquered brass;
it inevitably peels. Solid brass usually requires polishing once or twice a year.
IRON: Iron is second to aluminum as a common element found in ore. It was first used by early man for weapons and later, for utilitarian and ornamental objects. Iron is soft, ductile and malleable. Cast iron is an alloy of iron and carbon —added as a hardener.
STEEL: Steel is 85% iron alloyed with other elements. High carbon steel is 12% carbon. It is similar —but harder than cast iron.
STAINLESS STEEL: Stainless steel is stain less-–not stain proof. An alloy of iron, chrome and nickel, stainless steel was developed in England in 1913. Different formulas have varying tensile strength; 18/8 or 18/10 means iron is alloyed with 18 parts chrome and 8 or 10 parts nickel. 18/10 is superior. Stainless steel resists corrosion.
Examine all corners of tubular steel furniture to assure roundness of the tube. All joinery of tubular steel must be invisible and all endings of flat steel must not be sharp (as bottom of legs).
FLAT & TUBULAR STEELchairs are relatively heavy and won’t tip over easily. Tubular steel is often CHROME PLATEDfor a durable and bright finish.
ALUMINUM: Many styles of hand-forged iron furniture are copied using aluminum—a smooth, strong, hard grey surface which is less expensive and lighter in weight than iron.
Aluminum, the most abundant of metals, was not isolated until the 19th Century. Second in usage to iron/steel, it is lightweight and easy to shape. Anodizing is an electrolytic process that thickens the natural skin of aluminum to createa smooth, strong, hard grey surface.
CHROMIUM: Chromium (chrome) discovered in 1797—was commonly alloyed with iron, nickel or cobalt for hardness and strength. Chromium is 8 to 10% stainless steel. Because of its’ brilliant shine, hardness and corrosion resistance, chrome is often electroplated on metals requiring a durable finish.
CARE FOR ALL METAL FURNITURE :
• Follow all care directions on manufacturer’s labels. • If solid brass is not lacquered, brass polishes can be used. • If wrought or cast iron furniture or railings need painting: use rust-proof paint. • Chrome plated tubular steel and flat or tubular steel requires only dusting.
Soap and water will remove sticky hand-prints—but dry thoroughly.
Iron, first smelted in 1000 B.C., brought boundless benefits to mankind; historians labeled it THE IRON AGE.
Since antiquity, wrought iron, cast iron and brass have been used to make head and foot boards for beds and other furniture.
Wrought iron furniture (hand-forged), traced to the Romans, became popular in the 17th Century as garden and cemetery furniture.
Hand-forged iron requires painstaking craftsmanship. Iron must be heated (annealed) frequently so it can be hammered into shape without splitting – before all components are soldered together.
Cast iron was used commonly for out-door furniture in the 1840’s. Skills for casting iron include making intricate plaster molds, melting and purifying the iron so it’s devoid of impurities, pouring molten metal into molds, grinding away mold marks —and soldering metal components together.
After the Industrial Revolution, machine technology enabled
mass-production of metal furniture and by the 1870’s, brass beds were popular in England—not for their beauty—but because
“they didn’t harbor bed bugs“.
Since the 1920’s, global acceptance of metal furniture for kitchens, formal living spaces and gardens keeps growing.
A factory/showroom in a 16th Century villa in the outskirts of
Firenzé was a perfect setting to showcase artisan-made brass
candlesticks, 3′ tall brass vases, brass cymbals for symphony
orchestras—and cast brass and hand-forged iron furniture—
made to specification for international architects and interior
The clarity and amazing tone of the brass cymbals
— made for international symphony orchestras—
is attributed to the exceptional purity of the brass.
In the foundry, skilled craftsmen create intricate
plaster molds and make sure the molten brass is
devoid of pits and impurities before being poured
into the molds.
Great care is taken when removing hardened brass components from the intricate molds.
Before soldering brass components together, mold marks from each section must be ground away. Finished table bases are polished and topped with glass.
In another building, an artisan hand-forges tables, chairs and chaise lounges for the Villa San Michele in Fiésole. Each strip of iron is annealed before being hammered into shape and soldered together.
One month later, my visit to Villa San Michele proved it a perfect setting for this furniture. Matching tables and chairs graced the veranda cocktail lounge—now with fresh white cushions.
Small hand-wrought iron tables and chairs nestled in the gardens— and lawns were filled with matching chaise lounges and umbrella tables.
At another Italian metal factory, artisans hand-forged iron
and hand-hammered brass and pewter for home accessories:
cutting, bending and soldering hollow iron pipes to become
small tables, sconces, candelabra and chandeliers.
A tub of acid in the middle of the factory was for pickling small
hand-forged iron shapes to remove oxidation and residue before
painting. Hand-forged iron products are painted white; prior to
hand-painted poly-chrome finishes.
My respect for metal artisans is limitless because of the meticulous
craftsmanship I observed in diverse international factories.