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Focus on natural materials

Design and sustainability combined in cork and rattan furniture

The rediscovery of the two familiar natural materials has led to a new trend for furniture made of rattan and cork – and that for good reason. Not only are the sustainable materials environmentally friendly, they also offer great flexibility. The latest examples of cork and rattan furniture show how the furniture industry is using the two fast-growing wood alternatives in creative and modern ways.

Rattan furniture "Nautica Swing Chair" by Expormim S.A.

The cosy hammock chair with the structure in peeled and toned natural rattan is manufactured with a three-step coating that is highly resistant to solar radiation because of the integrated UV-filtering particles. (Photo: Expormim S.A.)

Cork: malleable, comfortable and functional

The unique natural material can be used for far more than pinboards or sealing wine bottles. Its properties make cork ideal for a new kind of furniture design. It’s water-repellent, antiallergenic, easy to clean and both malleable and hard-wearing. Cork feels pleasant to the touch, exudes a comforting scent and boasts heat- and sound-insulating properties . As a result, cork furniture quickly creates a special, cosy atmosphere.

When working with the flexible bark of the cork oak, furniture designers are free to unleash their full creativity. Jasper Morrison is a pioneer in this field: he designed the Cork Family for Vitra back in 2004. He once compared working with the soft, malleable block cork to sculpting, and designed a range of playful stools for the long-established brand. Other seats, shelves and tables followed for the Kasmin Gallery in the USA – including both angular designs and chairs with sweeping lines.

Cork furniture often boasts unique aesthetics: the pieces look as if they have been carved out of one block, with a soft yet textured surface in a dominant brown that still provides a variety of shades. Organic curves, interesting grain, striking shapes: cork offers the same advantages as the natural material wood, but combined with the flexibility of plastic. The Burnt Cork collection by the Made in Situ design studio also combines flowing designs with motifs from nature, growth and the traditional Portuguese craft of cork production. Once the finishing touches have been carried out by hand, there is no denying how remarkable a material this is – or how sustainable.

Cork bark for the production of cork furniture by Maja7777 on Pixabay

Cork is taken from the bark of the cork oaks to produce furniture. The raw material can be harvested once every 9 years, making it a renewable and sustainable choice. (Photo: Maja7777 on Pixabay)

Rattan: the return of the natural material

From the Viennese wickerwork of the 19th century to the garden furniture of the 1970s , rattan has a long tradition in furniture design. The current search for sustainable natural materials has brought the rattan palm back under the spotlight of furniture manufacturers. The plant’s stems are strong yet lightweight. They are versatile and can be used as entire rattan canes or in peeled form as wickerwork. However, the material must be processed with oils or plastic to make it weatherproof for outdoor use. It is also slightly more expensive than wood – after all, rattan furniture is hand-made and each piece is unique.

Beyond the retro charm, modern furniture made from the natural material offer a new, sustainable form of luxury furnishing in harmony with nature . Tranquil curves, a pleasant feel and warm wood tones make the raw material extremely versatile. The Roy Cocoon garden chair by Vincent Sheppard exhibits a modern language of form with a focus on elegant geometry. In contrast, the Titus Dining Chair , also by Vincent Sheppard, looks more classical, with the fine Viennese wickerwork familiar from the iconic Thonet stools.

Thanks to the light oak wood, the natural material is also great when combined with youthful, Scandinavian furnishing concepts. Playful boho accents are a feature of the Nautica Swing Chair by Expormin, in which the large wicker produces a striking appearance. On the other hand, the Snug Chair by Feelgood Design s manages to integrate the woven look of popular 1970s furniture into a design that feels surprisingly contemporary.

Titus Dining Chair" rattan furniture by Vincent Sheppard N.V.

With its bright oak frame and the light- and air-permeable rattan mesh, the “Titus Dining Chair” by Vincent Sheppard N.V. exudes an air of lightness and casualness. (Photo: Vincent Sheppard N.V.)

Natural materials and sustainability

The success of the two natural materials is also down to their sustainable properties. The bark of the cork oak can be harvested around once every nine years – without having to fell the tree. Cork is also highly recyclable and up to 100% biodegradable when disposed of. In addition, the transport distances from Portugal, the world’s biggest cork exporter, are relatively short for companies manufacturing in Europe.

The reeds of the rattan palms have a longer way to travel – from Malaysia and Indonesia. However, some varieties of the plant can be harvested after only two years. This speed makes rattan an interesting alternative to wood. Of the 600+ varieties that exist, around 40 are used in furniture making. Longevity is another advantage: furniture woven from rattan can often be easily repaired, giving it a sustainable second life.

Rattan "Rattan weave

The reeds of the rattan palms can be harvested after only two years. (Photo: Frantisek Krejci on Pixabay)

The versatility of cork and rattan furniture

The two flexible materials are currently making waves in a furnishing industry that is increasingly focusing on sustainability . Manufacturers can rely on a growing network of producers while they switch parts of their collections to the fast-growing wood alternative. The two natural materials are exceptionally flexible, placing very few limits on creative minds working in furniture design.

Companies such as GENCORK from Portugal are even developing new, promising technologies that produce a highly flexible base material from cork granulate without artificial additives – sustainable and with 95% energy self-sufficiency. The wall panelling made from it boasts all the advantages of cork, and add a new dimension of unique geometric patterns to every room.

All of this makes rattan and cork natural materials with excellent prospects for the future. You can find out more about innovative materials and discover sustainable companies at imm cologne 2022. Buy your ticket now!