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Popular outdoor furniture reigns during warmer months

Home Depot’s Hampton Bay Java loveseat, coffee table and round end table are made of resin wicker, in white and natural tone.

AP photos

NEW YORK — It’s the season for moving summer furniture out onto porches or deeper into balmy back yards. It’s furniture we may already enjoy year-round inside, and it’s often wicker -- or do we mean rattan, or bamboo?

Or how about, well, vinyl?

When manufacturers say “wicker,” they’re referring to every woven furniture product, said Georgel Miloje, of the marketing department at Designer Wicker & Rattan, a furniture manufacturer based in Orangeburg, S.C. Rattan is one of the materials most used for natural wickerwork.

However, demand for outdoor furniture made with synthetic materials is on the increase, and manufacturers are keeping pace. Miloje said his company sees surging growth in the demand for synthetic wickerwork, which people like because it’s weather-resistant.

“Five years ago, 10 percent of our sales were synthetic furniture, now it’s about 40 percent,” Miloje said in a phone interview. “We’re making more synthetic because there’s a demand for it. It’s the hot product now, because people are concentrating more on their outdoor rooms.”

Wicker furniture made with several kinds of woven synthetics is available in chain stores such as Restoration Hardware and The Home Depot.

Mitchell Ross, owner of Connecticut-based Patio.com, said his company is now selling about 60 percent synthetic wicker and 40 percent real wicker. Four years ago, he said, they were selling about 90 percent real wicker and only 10 percent synthetic.

“The synthetics, vinyl or whatever, now look very much more like real wicker,” he said, commenting on the product’s improvement. “We recommend some kind of synthetic for outside, to put by the pool, for example, but there are natural wickers that can be used in somewhat covered places outdoors.”

A Restoration Hardware store in Manhattan stocks both natural rattan and manmade wicker, and it’s hard to tell which is which without reading labels.

Both are hand-woven with an airy look, come in natural-look finishes, and are sold with fitted upholstery cushions; the resilient manmade pieces woven on aluminum frames also come in dark-brown “espresso.” The sturdy natural rattan collection, which includes beds, is built on mahogany frames.

Sales manager Jason Goldberg said customers who want to keep a consistent design look at their beach homes are buying both kinds: natural rattan for indoor use and manmade wicker for outdoors. Restoration Hardware’s manmade furniture tends to be higher priced than their natural rattan pieces.

Miloje indicated a personal fondness for natural wicker because it’s a renewable material and “it’s durable enough, especially if you keep it sheltered, or under cover,” he said.

“We use mainly rattan core for our wicker furniture, sliced by machine into strips, like spaghetti, in different diameters,” Miloje said. “The rattan mostly comes from Indonesia and the Philippines. They make the furniture for us out there, we apply finishes and make cushions and upholstery in this country.”

“We still use the natural wicker for our indoor furniture lines, especially for bedroom furniture,” said Bill Herren, marketing director of Whitecraft Rattan, Charleston, S.C. “Rattan is so versatile, you can weave it in a million different ways, for everything from beds to chairs and dressers.” His company also makes natural wicker treated for outdoor use under cover.

The most popular wicker finish right now is a medium-brown stain, he said, but they notice that consumers are going more toward darker walnut and mahogany tones.

“In the ’80s and ’90s everything was whitewashed, but since the late ’90s people are starting to go darker, even for outdoors.”

Terms you need to know

Here are some definitions:

• Wicker is a general description of material (traditionally thin, flexible twigs or woody strips, typically of rattan, bamboo or willow) woven to make wickwerwork furniture; the word is also often used for the furniture.

• Rattan trees are tall palm trees, sometimes called vines. They have slender but tough stems, used straight or curved for rattan furniture, or cut into finer strips to be woven into wicker or cane furniture.

• Bamboos are semitropical or tropical grasses that often look like trees, with jointed stems that are woody, springy and often hollow, growing as tall as 75 feet. The stems are used in construction, for furniture and for textiles.

• Cane is made from fine, flexible stems of plants such as bamboo or rattan, split and woven into chair seats or decorative panels.

• Both rattan and bamboo are eco-friendly, renewable materials, since they’re cut from plants that grow back relatively quickly.

How to care for it

First, stop your natural wicker from drying out, warned Randy Keeling, who runs a business called A Cane Wood & Wicker Fixer, out of Tigard, Ore. “One of the better things is just to take a mister and spray it, unless you live where there’s a lot of moisture,” he said in a phone interview. Of course, if it’s varnished or painted, spraying won’t make any difference, he added.

To clean your wickerwork, especially at the beginning of the season, again, use plain water. “Just take the furniture out, turn it upside down and turn the hose on it.” Or use an air hose to blow the dust off.

What to avoid: “The mess you’ll make if you try to use wax or oil on it. You’ll never get it all off, out of the weaving, and it will get on your clothes.”

What else is new

“This year, most of what we’re selling is wicker that’s usable both as indoor or outdoor furniture because of its durability and comfort,” said Petey Fleischut, owner of Casual Furniture, speaking from her store in Hockessin, Del.

Newer materials including vinyl-weave wicker on aluminum frames with fade-resistant acrylic cushions are now so attractive that people may be buying traditional wicker furniture for a sunroom, “and what they’re choosing is something that would be totally suitable for outdoors, too, because they love its comfort as well as its durability,” Fleischut said.

Among newly improved wickerwork items: Deep-seat swivel chairs, and gliders (chairs that glide back and forth) for outdoor use, Fleischut said.

Marlys Baldree, owner of three RC Rattan & Wicker stores in Arizona, said swivel rockers are a perennial favorite with her customers — “people like movement,” she said, speaking by phone from the Phoenix store. She, too, mentioned the trend to darker colors in wicker.

New materials she is selling this year include banana-rush, sea-grass and water hyacinth wickerwork with a natural finish, on wood framing. A swivel rocker in better-quality rattan would range in price from $550 to $650, and a natural wicker sofa could cost from $850 to $2,000, she said.

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