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26 Apr, 2018 / by Jennifer Wong

From the Collections: Rattan Chair Attributed to Kowloon Rattan Ware Co.

Chair made out of woven rattan with four iron legs. The chair seat is shaped like a circle that curves inwards, and the dark legs are straight and thin with small pieces of plastic on the end.

Kowloon Rattan Ware Co. Rattan chair, circa 1954 (made 1950s–1960s). Rattan, plastic, and iron. M+, Hong Kong

This rattan chair attributed to Kowloon Rattan Ware Co. is in the M+ Collections, but what is it, who made it, and why did M+ acquire it? Jennifer Wong, Assistant Curator, Design & Architecture, explains.

Hi Jennifer—introduce us to this chair!

This is a child-size rattan chair attributed to a design by Chan Kin-fai of the Kowloon Rattan Ware Co. in the mid-1950s—the peak of rattan manufacturing in Hong Kong. A burgeoning industry since the late nineteenth century, the Hong Kong rattan industry produced affordable, quality woven products out of imported rattan canes from Southeast Asia for local consumption and export. This chair, along with other notable designs like the Flying Saucer chair by Kowloon Rattan, was a marked departure from the then predominant practice of manufacturing products based on designs supplied by overseas clients.

Three photos in a row, each showing different close-up views of the rattan chair. The first photo shows half of the seat with red-painted strips of rattan showing clearly, the second photo shows half of the back, and the third photo shows a more extreme close-up of the top of the strips of rattan that form the back.

Close-up views of the chair. Photo: M+, Hong Kong

While the chair's circular seat was based on existing Filipino designs, Chan replaced the typical three rattan legs with iron and turned it into a four-legged chair. More importantly, he adapted the extrusion method commonly used in producing insulated electric cords to develop PVC coated rattan, an innovation that facilitated cleaning and would later enable a wide range of woven colour and pattern combinations. These PVC coated rattan chairs were well-received abroad, whereas in Hong Kong they became signature chairs used in photo studios. It was especially ubiquitous in many children’s portraits from the 1950s onwards, as its oval, concave seat was thought to cup young seaters perfectly and keep them from falling off during a photo shoot.

Sepia-toned photograph of a small toddler sitting in a round rattan chair with a pillow behind their back. The toddler is holding a doll and wearing a striped dress.

A toddler sitting in this rattan chair model to stay still during photoshoots in the 1950s and 1960s. Photo: Courtesy of the collection of Simon Go. © All rights reserved

Who made it?

Founded in 1925 by Chan Chin Ching, Kowloon Rattan Ware Co. mainly catered to the local market before beginning its export operations in the late 1940s. Chan’s son, Chan Kan Fai, succeeded the business in the early 1950s. The company imported raw rattan and cane from Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines. It had five retail shops in Hong Kong at the height of its business, but ceased operations by 1987. Their products were distributed in North America mainly through their American client Walters Wicker, as well as through Lord & Taylor in the US and Hudson’s Bay Department Store in Canada.

Why is this in the M+ Collections?

Works by Kowloon Rattan Ware Co. are collected as part of M+'s goal to re-examine the role of design in Hong Kong's postwar industrial development. This rattan chair attests to local manufacturers’ innovative response to steep competition and international trends, revealing the company's simultaneously flexible and imitative mode of production.

This article was originally published on M+ Stories.

Jennifer Wong is Assistant Curator, Design & Architecture at M+.

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