Life with Cane: The Resurgence of Cane Furniture

Features Issue 39 Aug, 2010
Text by Roshan Gurung

Cane furniture is gaining popularity once more and is quite easily available. But do you know how cane grows? Chances are, few people really know how cane grows in the wild.

Cane also known as rattan, is a climbing palm that is mostly found in southern Asia, particularly in countries like Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia. It is known to climb more than 200 meters up to the treetops in the dense jungle. Holding on to the foliage with its thorns it helps itself all the way to the top.

But harvesting cane is relatively easy. One need not climb to the top. The method is simple; the stem is cut through at the base and the plant is dragged down from the trees and cut into suitable lengths. After removing the thorns, the cane is primed with disinfectant. This is an important step in preserving cane. It is then dried and sorted into different sizes and qualities.

While making furniture, cane is basically used in two ways. Either it is used as a whole to form the main structure of a chair or table, etc. or it is split into strips to be used for the weaving of backs and seats. The weaving is used to make interesting patterns that make cane furniture so desirable. The final product is generally varnished but some do like to have them painted over.

Susan Fowlds who uses cane furniture has this to say, “ Since arriving in Nepal 9 years ago, I have over these years purchased my share of cane furniture, to furnish the flats and houses I have rented.  Recently I noticed that the style of cane chairs was becoming more sophisticated.  They had gained design ideas from international design magazines, and were putting them into practice.  I needed a couple of new chairs and after scouting around I found a cane ‘guy’ near the gate of the Hyatt Hotel in Bouddha.  He fashioned two chairs for me, not perfectly, but not bad either. They were a very pale cane which I don’t really like, so with the aid of my houseboy we painted them using the burnt orange/red colored oil. I didn’t wish to varnish them to seal the paint, as I am very aware of the toxicity of varnishes here in Nepal.  The chairs are not perfect, because each time I put my sweaty or warm hands on the chairs the colour comes off on my hands.  Probably what I should have done was white undercoat, and plastic paint.  Maybe we will do that later, but at present I am quite happy with my painted cane chairs.   

 In England, the use of cane for furniture goes back to the 17th century, but it was in the 19th century that it came into prominence. The advantages of using cane are their elasticity, lightness, durability and toughness. Hence, cane is used extensively in some households.

Cane furniture is quite popular even in Nepal. We quite often come across such furniture in star hotels. Anyone who has been to the Hyatt Regency or Shangri-la will have noticed the cane furniture used there. Furniture producers inform us that diplomats are quite fond of cane furniture and if you were to visit an ambassador or two you will definitely see some cane. An interesting set of furniture can also be seen in Bhojan Griha. They are meant for low seating.

 One of the major manufacturers of such furniture in Kathmandu is Dibya Interiors with a showroom in Kupondole and a factory/showroom in the Balaju Industrial district. One can recognize the building with the big sign reading “Sigma”. Established in 1984, they originally started with wood and bamboo, but now produce exclusively cane furniture. Prerana Shah who now looks after the business is better known for winning the position of first runner-up in the Miss Nepal Beauty Contest 2003. The furniture business was started by her father, Raghu Shah. “Most of the cane comes from Singapore but they are actually grown in Malaysian,” explains Prerana. “Cane is one of the fastest growing plants. We discourage the use of wood for environmental reasons. Cane furniture has a lot less mass compared to wood furniture. We are planning to encourage farmers here to grow cane. By using cane, we preserve trees in the forests,” she adds. Dibya Interiors has exported furniture to most of the countries in the world besides the communist countries. “Some foreigners like the furniture so much that they take them all with them when they leave,” says Prerana. According to her, the demand was very good once, but has gone down in recent times. New trends in furniture with the new technological age changed the tastes of people. But people who care for the environment go for cane furniture. Most in demand are the sofa sets but many people prefer to have everything in cane.

Cane is processed to avoid pests. Even though the cane that is imported is already processed, Dibya Interiors disinfects them to be doubly sure. The variety of products is impressive. You can pick up anything from small baskets to almirahs and large size beds. The other products are tables, cupboards, book-shelf, dustbin, pot-holders, dressing tables, corner racks, coat hangers, laundry baskets and magazine racks of all kinds. Moreover, they also make many items on order. During our visit, there was an order for tea-boxes. It is amazing what you can do with cane. The possibilities seem limitless. Prerana talked of how some helicopter companies have ordered cane baskets that can be
air-dropped. They prefer cane for its combination of lightness and toughness. There is yet another order for a cane palanquin to be used for carrying a mountaineer who is paralyzed below the waist. He plans to lead an expedition to the mountains.

Elsewhere in Kathmandu, it is along the Kupondole road that one sees most of the cane furniture displayed. Save for a few, most of them do not live up to our expectations. One interesting piece is the almost completely round sofa that is available here.  Some of the furniture found here are not even cane, and are in fact bamboo. Bikash Balami from Kupondole says, “Most of the cane that we use here comes from India and some from the forests of Bardia in Nepal. But the local cane is quite small in diameter and grow wild in the forests. In the past, the people who bought cane furniture were mostly foreigners especially those from INGOs, but today many Nepali people also go for it. Depending on the designs, a set can take up to 15 days to complete.”

By far the most number of cane furniture displayed is along the road to Balaju. But there are quite a few outlets in Kupondole and one in Tangal. Their factories are located all over the valley; some in Balaju, some in Boudha and some as far away as Sankhu.