By Judy Carmack Bross
Lulu Lytle Photo: Soane Britain
“When I was a child I was fascinated by an evocative portrait of my grandfather painted by his brother in Cape Town around 1920. He is reading a book in a laid-back rattan chair. Somewhat incongruously he is wearing what looks like a thick, dark suit in what must have been a glorious climate!” —Soane Britain founder and designer Lulu Lytle.
Photo: Soane Britain
On a visit to Chicago to work with clients on the North Shore, Lulu Lytle– often referred to as one of the most loved designers of Britain’s smart set– told about her lifelong passion for rattan, her book on the subject, and the sustainable qualities of the rattan furniture, lighting and bespoke commissions produced in her Leicestershire artisan workshop created to ensure that the specialist skills of the craft survived.
Front cover of Lulu Lytle’s book on rattan
“Soane started out making copies of 18th to 19th century pieces and interpretations of classical forms, but we quickly began developing our own designs and experimenting with materials such as rattan. It is an extremely collaborative process, we are led by the makers, who understand better than anyone the materials they are working with, and I constantly learn from them.”
Still of Elizabeth Taylor in a rattan chair from the film Suddenly, Last Summer, included in Lytle’s book
In his foreword to her book, Mitchell Owens, decorative arts editor for Architectural Digest, writes: “For more than two decades, this lively, wide-smiling endlessly curious Englishwoman and enterprising cofounder of the award-winning home-furnishings firm known as Soane Britain has been the standard bearer for the artisanal. She stepped in at a perilous moment in 2010 when England’s very last rattan-weaving workshop was on the verge of closing its doors forever, ensuring its survival and brings its expertise to a new audience.”
Crafting of the ripple console Photo: Soane Britain
We loved learning from Lyle about her career and the sustainability and history of rattan.
CC: What was your path to Soane?
“Old houses have always fascinated me, most particularly their contents, where they came from and how they were made. The more I researched, the more I felt there was an urgent need for people to understand the importance and value of craftsmanship. I set up Soane in an effort to preserve making skills that were in jeopardy and I believed there was a market for well-made, long-lasting furniture, lighting, fabrics and wallpaper; so I embarked on a road trip to find makers including blacksmiths, cabinetmakers, and upholsterers workshops were closing. We have an uncompromising commitment to British manufacturing, and every single piece is made in Britain. The evolving collections include new designs as well s pieces inspired by antique originals.”
CC: What attracted you to rattan and its sustainability?
“For me, rattan has always had associations with warmth and relaxation and in its undemanding, easy-going way it visually drawls “Good times”.
“At a time when we are rightly scrutinizing the origins of materials more than ever, rattan’s credentials, when responsibly harvested are very favorable. It is an eco-friendly material, cheaper and much faster growing than timber and therefore more sustainable as its very fast growth does not require forest clearance.
“When I began the search for rattan weavers in Britain, every person I spoke to assured me that I would have to go to the Far East but luckily I eventually found a long standing family workshop, Angraves, the last of its kind in England. They made the most perfect replica of an Edwardian sofa for me which led to Soane commissioning more and more pieces including my own new designs. Working with this workshop from then on was a great education and our rattan collection grew faster than I could have imagined. And then in 2010, after eight years working with Angraves, I received news that it was going into administration.
“Competition from cheap imports from South East Asia had diminished the status of rattan furniture and, as a result, demand for traditional and laborious hand-weaving dried up. Soane was Angraves’ only customer commissioning traditionally made rattan furniture and they saw no future for rattan weaving in the UK. The combination of fear of losing these specialist skills from England forever and a need to fulfill client orders gave me the courage to buy the raw materials and machinery from Angraves’ administrators and rebuild the workshop, initially with just two weavers. The team of craftsmen working at Soane’s Leicestershire workshop today numbers 18, with just two of the weavers having a combined 110 years’ experience between them! We also have young apprentices so I feel confident that the future of weaving here is no longer in jeopardy. Rattan weaving is often a family tradition with three generations of one family working together in the Soane workshop.”
Rattan workshop photos
Photos: Soane Britain
CC: Is there a difference between wicker and rattan?
“Yes, a crucial distinction must be made as antique pieces are often mislabeled because of the all-encompassing term ‘wicker’. Rattan is a natural fiber a Southeast Asian climbing palm–calamus rotang. Wicker is not itself a plant but the product of the craft of weaving plant fiber, not only rattan but also willow, reed, rush and raffia amongst other many other fibrous materials.”
Rattan Workshop Photo: Soane Britain
CC: Is there a particular collector, or room or time that best shows the beauty and lovely look of rattan in history?
“Rattan’s popularity has ebbed and flowed over the last 150 years so it would be reasonable to say there has been more than one golden age, especially when you consider all the countries in which it was so fashionable. In England it was undoubtedly the Edwardian era, whilst in France it was the belle époque which saw a blossoming of experimentation with the rattan palm, not seen again in Continental Europe until the mid-20th century, with designers such as Abraham, Rol, Adnet, Wegner, Gio Ponti, Albini, to name just a few, pushing boundaries with rattan. In the US it was in the last quarter of the 19th century when, boosted by the boom in rattan furniture since the 1876 Centennial Exhibition, and the mass migration of middle class families to the suburbs, the two preeminent producers (and fierce competitors,) merged. Heywood Brothers and The Wakefield Rattan Company joined forces in 1897, to become the Heywood Wakefield company.”
Rattan ripple console and daisy lamp Photo: Soane Britain
Cecil Beaton and David Hockney, featured photo in Lulu Lytle’s book
CC: How can someone best add a piece of rattan to their other furniture or accessories?
“Rattan’s essential fluidity as a material allows for the expression of a really wide range of styles. I wouldn’t be too prescriptive about how and where to place it in an interior as I feel it works in so many different settings. In my book I have tried to show how cleverly different designers have included rattan in a wide range of interiors, from Van Day Truex’s restrained rusticity in 1970s Provence to David Netto’s modernist house Los Angeles to Veere Grenney’s white painted haven in an Oliver Messel designed villa in Mustique. Be it woven into a tight mesh or open and airy, generously curved or strictly rectilinear, rattan has provided endless scope for interiors of every style.”
“The finish really transforms the look of a rattan design. As a material, 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 colors.”
CC: What are some of the variety of rattan pieces that Soane creates? Is it hard to work with it?
Photo: Soane Britain
“The majority of our rattan sales are for standard pieces in our collection, many of which are original copyrighted Soane designs. We are probably best known for being the first company to design rattan lighting, especially large scale hanging lights.
“Bespoke commissions can vary enormously. We have made a beautiful, clean lined bench designed by Norman Foster for the entrance of Maggie’s Centre in Manchester, as well as the rattan bar at Chiltern Fire House designed by Studio KO.
Photo: Soane Britain
“Yes, rattan is hard to work with when using traditional techniques. Entirely handmade pieces are extremely labor 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.”
Photo: Soane Britain
CC: I know that you work with some Chicago clients what do you like about this work? Are there keynotes of your style that mark it as Lulu Lytle?
“It would be impossible to narrow in on any particular style in the pieces we make for architects and decorators in Chicago as they themselves are working on such disparate projects. Our commissions involve many different materials, from rattan to steel to hand-stitched leather, drawing on many design languages. Collaborating with some of the very best in Chicago is always inspiring and feels a great privilege as I have learnt so much from them.”
CC: I loved the story of your grandfather and the painting. Were you aware of many rattan pieces as you were growing up?
“My childhood interest in all wicker–of which rattan is a subset– was fuelled by a visit to Egypt whilst studying at university, where I saw not only new wicker furniture made from the ubiquitous date palm but also the astounding woven plant furniture buried with Tutankhamun.”
Photo: Soane Britain
CC: Mies van der Rohe worked and taught in Chicago for many years and I was interested to see his work in the book. How would you describe his work in rattan?
“Mies van der Rohe was a pioneering modernist designer who drew on rattan so cleverly in some of his designs. Whilst it may have played a supplementary role in some of his iconic chair designs in the form of caned seats and backs, it contributed an important visual lightness. Mies’s MR20 cantilever chair (1927) was not the first of its type, but its generous curves give it the sculptural quality that has deservedly afforded it enduring appeal.”
Sun porch in Southampton completed with Soane Britian design, featured in Lulu Lytle’s book
CCM: Are you writing a new book right now? Or do you have one you are hoping to do soon?
“Not a week goes by without me doing some research into historic rattan and wicker prompted by something I have seen or read. Of course, like any subject which really gets under your skin, the more you research the more you realize you don’t know! So inevitably I will have a large body of research to distill into another book at some stage but not for a few years I suspect. Austrian wicker after the First World War has been my particular fascination most recently.”