One could argue that cane furniture has its roots in British Colonial style, as it was popularized during the Age of Exploration of tropical materials for new lives in tropical climates. Still, no single style has made such prodigious use of the caned chair as shabby chic decorating. It is the romance of worldly exploration and island cottage fantasies that make caned chairs such an alluring and easy choice for shabby chic interiors.
When England fell in love with caned chairs, they fell deeply. So strong is the association between Britain and caning that one could say the whole craft has undergone a sort of “rebranding” as English Cottage style. One anglophile in Chicago uses just those terms to describe her sun-drenched conservatory where every piece of furniture is a version of woven rattan.
Originally, the rattan material used to cane furniture was left raw and unpainted. This wasn’t so much an aesthetic matter as it was a default: One side of the skin of the rattan palm’s bark is smooth and glossy and simply doesn’t absorb paint very well. Imagine trying to paint over a varnished surface without doing a little sanding first. In the modern era, we’ve found workarounds, of course, and it is now possibly to remake a caned chair in whatever color strikes your fancy.
Pictured is one of the most famous and best-selling chairs of all time, the Thonet #14 caned bistro chair. Created in 1859 by a furniture firm that is still in business today, the chair debuted in European bistros. Restauranteurs loved that it was inexpensive, space-efficient, and easy to clean. Le Corbusier was so inspired by these chairs, he used them regularly in his architectural projects.
Chairs aren’t the only pieces of furniture that have benefitted from the caning craft. Bed frames are the next most common application. With flouncy ruffled bedding and lots of chintz, they look romantic and feminine, while an earthy color scheme and antique accompaniments like the spindle stool pictured give them a historic and homey character.
In graceful antique-laden homes, you’ll sometimes find a caned loveseat or settee. Vintage connoisseurs almost universally appreciate the craftsmanship of a well-caned chair and will gladly invest in re-caning a thrift score even knowing that it will require more preservation and delicacy than a solid wood frame.
There are even fabrics and tape trims (a trim resembling tape that is sewn flat onto drapery, bedding, pillows, and more) that pick up the caning pattern at a variety of scales. The small all-over pattern is the right scale for a bedskirt and begs to be admired as the biggest pattern statement in the room. It suggests that whoever lives here appreciates history and tradition with a modern taste for simplicity.