December 2020

The reputation of rattan has had a raw deal in recent years. Turning this around, here designer Aurelie Hoegy describes the research that led to her Wild Fibres collection.

“The work of the craftsman implies collaboration with his material. Instead of imposing a preconceived idea or shape, he needs to listen to his material.” Juhani Pallasmaa, The Thinking Hand, 2009.

For my new collection, Wild Fibres, I use rattan as an architecture of the body. I rediscovered the material during an artist-in-residency in Bali, Indonesia, where the fibres grow wild and strong in the jungle. The rattan that I use is certified with no chemical treatments and can be accessed with minimal interference to the environment. This makes the material more difficult and expensive – usually rattan furniture is made with chemically treated fibres.

Rattan fibres need to pass many stages of processing before they are ready to use. After harvest, the spiny leaf sheaths are removed on the spot. Rattan that is small in diameter is then subjected to a process called runti or lunti in Indonesian, which means removing the siliceous epidermis by rubbing, fumigation, oil curing, bleaching, washing, and polishing. These treatments are necessary to avoid defects and to increase processing possibilities and the market value.

Rattan has been used in crafts since the dawn of time in many different styles. Sadly, the qualitative and creative potential of the fibre’s organic shapes have been relatively constricted through semi-industrialization and mass production of its final products. That’s all given rattan somewhat of an ordinary reputation and it really does a disservice to its potential.

I wanted my work to tackle this, to do something creative to steer perceptions. I strove for research that would help discover new directions, aiming for objects that could be likened to a moving body as well as a living material, shifting the boundaries from the inert to the living.

I guess it was how the plants moved that originally caught my attention. Many contemporary chairs have lost that impulsive interaction between the act of sitting, the body and the environment. A chair’s relationship to the body has become more rigid and stereotyped through time.

My aim with this collection was to address this and after really watching the way rattan expands, grows, moves and follows its environment, I felt it was possible.

Rattan is one of the longest fibres in the world. It is elegant, flexible, versatile, gentle to the touch and also hard and resilient. In Indonesia I learnt a lot about how to choose and evaluate the fibre, which is connected to its colour, structure and diameter. When manipulating it, the main difficulty is finding a balance between how the material wants to bend and how I want to shape it. It took some getting used to this to avoid or prevent breakage – I found it was just best to let the fibres guide me, to find that harmony.

I think the start point for this collection referenced my earlier work with chairs that was also inspired by movement and the body, The Dancers (2015).  Only this time I focus on the direct interaction between the inherent movements of the material itself and our own body movement. This is what informed the construction.

I didn’t really look to other designs when thinking about this work.  I was more inspired by fashion designers, textiles, hairdressers, and choreography. One aspect of my research was to work the rattan as a textile both visually and in terms of process. I was fascinated, however, by the earliest rattan chairs that were made by Europeans in Asia and then brought back over.

One of the most famous is the N.14 Bistro Chair by Thonet. It’s so well known, but for me, even though it was an impressive technique for the time, there seems too much constraint and feels like a strict shape is imposed on a material that wants more freedom.

My approach was from the legs up to let the fibre mould itself to the skeletal structure. As it progresses upwards, the movement unfolds. The stems begin to unbridle and the branches move out more naturally.

When I got back to Paris I started to further develop the concept and focused on creating an extensive “library of forms”.  In the end I had a full assembly line of ideas from traditional techniques right down to the detailed specifics of this particular collection.

I was eventually able to make three prototypes – a duchess, a sofa and a coffee table – that all marry familiar forms with the characteristics of the fibre, giving them an overall natural and fluid anchorage to the furniture collection.

by Aurelie Hoegy

The Wild Fibres prototypes are currently showing as part of La Manufacture: A labour of Love, curated by Li Edelkoort & Philip Fimmano, during Lille Design World Capital 2020.

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First prototype. Image credit: Aurelie Hoegy
Aurelie Hoegy in her Paris atelier by Bruno Pellarin
Aurelie Hoegy in her Paris atelier by Bruno Pellarin
Banian trees in the Indonesian forest. Image credit: Aurelie Hoegy
Aurelie Hoegy's atelier in Indones
Piles of rattan. Image courtesy of Aurelie Hoegy
An old rattan workshop in Indonesia. Image courtesy of Aurelie Hoegy
This article appeared in DAM77. Order your personal copy.