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America's romance with wicker. Evocative of a bygone era and carefree summers by the sea, woven furniture is enjoying a renaissance

The whole country seems to be romancing wicker this season. Or maybe it is wicker that is romancing us with its charms. At any rate, the love affair is obvious, not only on patios and porches, but in every room of the house. And not only in California and Florida, but in Minnesota and Massachusetts as well. ``We are in the biggest wicker revival I have ever seen,'' says one manufacturer. Reasons are obvious. Wicker can appear light-scaled and whimsical. Or big and bulky. It can be styled in a multitude of ways, but it remains an interesting natural material - woven, as a creative handicraft, in numerous textures and patterns, from plain to exotic.

Wicker is currently starring in many of the season's top decorator show house settings. Slick decorator magazines are featuring its informality of mood as well as its nostalgic shapes. And interior designers are lauding its versatility as a good mixer in many settings, be they traditional, contemporary, or country.

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Designer Ralph Lauren, for example, put his seal of approval on wicker in his home furnishings collection, with a neat range of pieces made by O'Asian. And Jay Spectre has added wicker - including a steamer chaise - to his 20th Century Classics collection for the Century Company.

Stores, including antique shops and secondhand emporiums, herald wicker's durability and old-fashioned appeal. Russell Carrell, a manager of many summer flea markets, says dealers will again bring an array of old wicker to all of this season's markets, including the popular Litchfield Flea Market on June 20 in Connecticut. But don't look for any bargains in authentic oldies from grandma's attics and barns, he advises, since prices are high and going up.

In ancient civilizations, wicker was woven with reeds. Wicker was woven in Europe as early as the 17th century, and a wicker cradle traveled to America on the Mayflower. In days when Yankee Clippers plied the seas, wicker chairs were found in China and brought back to home ports in New England.

Since the late 1800s, wicker has gone through cycles of popularity. Victorians loved using wicker for elaborately ornate designs. And no proper veranda of the 1920s would have been complete without its impressive display of wicker furniture. After a mid-century lull, today's enormous wicker revival began to take shape in the 1970s. Now, wicker has earned such epithets as glamorous, romantic, dressy-but-still-casual, and Yuppie-approved. It is also practical, since it can be cleaned with a feather duster, a vacuum cleaner attachment, or even a hair dryer.

Wicker was a hit at the Southern Furniture Market this spring, as literally dozens of companies introduced new wicker collections or added wicker pieces to existing groups. Many styles were curvaceously Victorian, with strong reminders of the erstwhile far-flung British Empire. Some were reminders of vintage resort hotels and Catskill lodges.

Names chosen for some of the groups help tell the tale. Venture's new group is dubbed ``Brighton,'' and Brown Jordan calls its new and exotic 15-piece collection ``Tangiers'' and acclaims its ``updated bygone look.''

Palecek calls its new collections ``Southampton'' and ``Nantucket,'' and John Wisner simply chose ``Hampton'' as the name of his new group for Ficks Reed. Typhoon International's ``MacArthur collection'' is named after Gen. Douglas MacArthur and is reminiscent of the 1930s and 1940s era.

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Ken Moore, vice-president of marketing for Venture, a division of Lane furniture company, says, ``I would say that more and more of our products express nostalgic, early 20th century looks.''

Most manufacturers claim that modern technology adds to the strength and comfort of wicker furniture that is made today. And they speak of wicker's ability to take a variety of finishes.

Especially popular this summer are washed white and driftwood gray. Splashy fabrics, made to resist stains, wear, and weather are another modern innovation.

One company, American of Martinsville, even combines pine and woven wicker in a collection called ``Remembrances'' - a group inspired by current decorating trends that mix and match wicker and pine in American traditional and country interiors.

Styles and prices vary widely, depending on quality and design. Whereas a Ficks Reed wicker sofa may sell for $1,999, several lesser-known companies are offering wicker sofas in the $595 range.

Wicker recliner chairs are being offered by Barcalounger, Burris, and Berkshire, but it is the wicker chaise that turns out to be the belle of the marketplace.

If you are wondering what the difference is between rattan and wicker, rattan furniture is constructed by joining rattan poles wrapped with the outer rattan bark or peel.

The look of wicker is strictly a textured woven effect. Some weaves are plain, others play up intricate designs. All fine wicker is still woven by hand in the Far East, in countries such as Taiwan, Indonesia, and the Philippines where natural willows are abundant.

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