The Dryad® Rattan Leighton Table

Three workshops dominated European rattan production in the first half of the 20th Century; they were the Czech wickerwork school Prag-Rudniker, Bonacina in Italy and Dryad Furniture Works in the UK.   When Dryad eventually closed in 1956, Angraves, another English workshop, and the last remaining rattan weavers in the UK, absorbed the Dryad archive and continued to make many of their best known designs.

The history of Soane’s own rattan workshop is woven in with both Angraves and Dryad, not least because all three have always been based in the village of Thurmaston in Leicestershire.  In 2010, after eight years working with Angraves, Soane received news that it was going into administration. Faced with the possibility of these specialist skills vanishing from Britain altogether, and the end of over 150 years of weaving in Leicester, Lulu Lytle decided to establish Soane’s own workshop which subsequently became the proud successor to Dryad, one of the great names in British craft. 

Founded in 1907 by Harry Peach and Benjamin Fletcher, both men were heavily influenced by the Arts & Crafts movement and were committed to the idea that the preservation of craftsmanship could be a key tool for education and social reform. Setting up shop in Leicester, where the skills of wicker-weaving were well established, thanks to the historic associations of willow harvesting in the areas around the River Soar and Trent, they hired a revered local basket weaver, Charles Crampton, and began producing designs that combined a graceful Art Nouveau sensibility with the essential qualities of comfort and durability.

Dryad was an immediate success, quickly establishing a reputation for superbly made, original designs.  Dryad had set itself apart by using rattan rather than willow or bamboo as the principle raw material, establishing cane furniture as fashionable and highly desirable.  Their curvaceous designs exploited rattan’s natural malleability and resilience and by the end of its first year, the fledgling business had 30 designs in production which swiftly became a familiar sight in the stylish interiors and on the lawns of Edwardian England. In no time, it was exporting its products all over the world and by 1914 they were being sold in showrooms in both New York and Chicago, where it began to rival the dominance of the pre-eminent American wicker firm, Heywood-Wakefield.  

In the first half of the 20th century the most glamorous yachts and trains incorporated rattan in their interiors, with Dryad thriving in this market. Grand Duke Alexander of Russia, was amongst the first clients to order an Abundance armchair in Dryad’s inaugural year whilst his brother in law, Czar Nicholas II, commissioned Dryad rattan furniture for the lavishly decorated Russian Imperial yacht, Standart, which when it came into service in 1896 was the largest royal yacht in the world.

A particularly significant commission was the request to make furniture for The Titanic, most notably in the ship’s Café Parisien, which was designed to resemble a stylish sidewalk café, of which photographs still exist.

The light and shock-absorbent qualities of rattan also made it a good choice for aircraft, and after supplying pilot seats for the Sopwith Camel fighter planes during the First World War, Dryad continued to make seats for commercial aircraft as this mode of transportation quite literally took off in the 1920s.  “It has been thought inadvisable to have one of the famous Dryad chairs in the editorial offices of The Aeroplane lest visitors might be tempted to stay too long to the detriment of the daily routine” mused the editor of The Aeroplane magazine in 1916, expressing common sentiments about the extraordinary comfort of well-made rattan chairs. Within the space of two years Dryad had shifted production from complex rattan chairs, loungers and tables to items required for the war effort, including baskets for observation balloons, stretchers for wounded soldiers and shell and ammunition casings. 

The Dryad archive has been influential in the development of Soane’s own rattan collections, both the designs themselves which bear the Dryad name and the techniques used to make them, thanks to the brilliant craftsmen re-employed by Soane who had been making the Dryad pieces for decades. Lulu cites the visual balance and scale of Fletcher’s tables and chairs as a great influence as well as his insistence that the craftsmen should be guided by the material itself when designing in rattan, with endless experimentation being integral to the process.   

Soane prides itself on standing in a long tradition of British wicker manufacturing. The revival of an almost extinct British industry is at the heart of the Soane rattan story and we like to think that Peach and Fletcher’s twin ideals of excellent craftsmanship and beautiful design live on in what we do today.

From second gallery left to right: The Dryad Rattan Archive; “Three generations of one family working together in the Soane rattan workshop., Weaving The Rattan Daisy Hanging Light. Benjamin Fletcher and Harry Peach; Leicester Literary and Philosophical Society. The Dryad® Rattan Fletcher Chair is based on an antique original (pictured left). Soane’s Dryad® Rattan Fletcher Chair. Czar Nicholas II Abundance Chair as pictured in ‘RATTAN’ by Lulu Lytle. The royal couple of Russia, Tsar Nicholas ll and Tsarina Alexandra Fyodorovna aboard the royal yacht as pictured in ‘RATTAN’ by Lulu Lytle. Café Parisien aboard the Titanic c. 1912 as pictured in ‘RATTAN’ by Lulu Lytle. Passengers inside an aircraft. Ca. 1930 as pictured in ‘RATTAN’ by Lulu Lytle. The Dryad® Rattan Apis Chair is based on an antique original (pictured left). Soane’s Dryad® Rattan Apis Chair. The Dryad® Rattan Leighton Table is based on an antique original (pictured left). Soane’s Dryad® Rattan Leighton Table. Based on an original by the renowned English rattan workshop Dryad, this elegant dining chair is named for the Egyptian bull god Apis.

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