What is Rattan? Get to Know the On-Trend Boho Design Element

A living room with a fireplace, a wooden table, and two rattan chairs

Julian Porcino

Many of us have heard the word “rattan” without fully understanding what it means. (Let’s be real—many of us have used the word “rattan” without fully understanding what it means.) We have some sense that rattan tends to be beige or light brown. And we know the word is often used to describe woven furniture. But we also know that some rattan furniture isn’t woven—and that some woven furniture isn’t called “rattan.” What gives?

Thankfully, the truth is pretty simple: Rattan is a material. Specifically, it’s a long-stemmed vine that looks a little like bamboo. Because rattan is often used in wicker furniture, we tend to confuse the two terms. But they’re not actually interchangeable. While “rattan” describes a material, “wicker” describes a technique (specifically, a technique of weaving plant-based materials together). Some wicker furniture is made of rattan, and some aren’t. And some rattan furniture is made using the wicker technique, while some aren’t. That’s really all there is to it.

What Is Rattan?

We’ve already established that rattan is a material. But what, exactly, is it? The word “rattan” describes a family of lianas or long-stemmed vines. (Just like there are many different kinds of shrubs and trees, there are many different kinds of lianas—and rattan is one of them.) 

Different rattans grow in different places, but most of them have a few things in common. For one thing, most rattans have long, slender stems. They also typically grow like vines (though a few grow more like shrubby palms). Finally, most rattans boast solid stems. This sets them apart from bamboo, which looks similar but grows hollow. 

You can find rattan in a few different places, but most of the world’s supply comes from Indonesia, Sri Lanka, Malaysia, Bangladesh, and the Philippines. If you spot rattan in the wild, it’ll likely look like a long, thin vine. But most of the time, you’ll see rattan in more contemporary settings—like when it’s been transformed into a piece of trendy, bohemian furniture

What Is Wicker?

Wicker is a weaving technique. And it specifically describes the process of weaving plant-based materials together. A wicker piece can be made from rattan—but it can also be made from willows, reeds, or bamboo. 

These days, it’s not uncommon to see wicker pieces made from synthetic fibers, either. While these aren’t technically “plant materials,” the style of furniture looks so much like classic wicker that the two get grouped together. (We know—it’s a little annoying. But wicker furniture is a popular pick for porches and backyards, and synthetic fibers can handle more wear and tear than the natural stuff.)

The wicker technique tends to produce pieces that are both sturdy and lightweight. So it’s little surprise that humans have appreciated its appeal for ages. (Some estimates date wicker back to Ancient Egypt. Yup, the technique has been around that long.) But functionality isn’t the only thing wicker has to offer. The technique also lends itself to an array of stunning pieces. Think: bohemian chandeliers, beachy patio sets, and striking peacock chairs. 

Are Rattan and Wicker the Same Thing?

So to recap: No, rattan and wicker are not the same thing. Rattan is a plant, which can be used to make furniture. And wicker is a weaving technique, which can also be used to make furniture. 

Some wicker furniture is made of rattan, but a lot of it isn’t. You might also see wicker furniture made of bamboo, reeds, or synthetic fibers. So while some of the time, it’s fair to use the words “rattan” and “wicker” to describe the same piece of furniture. A lot of the time, it isn’t.

Also interesting? Not all rattan furniture is made using the wicker technique. Some rattan pieces—like chairs and benches—are made using the “caning” technique. In caning, you use strips of rattan cane or rattan peel to create a woven seat or chair back. The resulting weave tends to be much thinner than a wicker weave, leaving the piece a little more delicate. 

Rattan furniture can also be steamed, bent, and shaped. This technique produces more sculptural, open-weave rattan pieces—and it can produce some seriously pretty tables, benches, and chairs.

Are Rattan and Bamboo the Same Thing?

Because rattan and bamboo look a little similar, it can be easy to confuse them. But these are actually two entirely different plants. Rattan is a liana that grows a long, solid stem. And bamboo is grass that grows a hard, hollow stem. That said, both plants are incredibly pretty, and both can produce some seriously striking furniture. 

Rattan may also get confused with raffia, a plant that primarily grows in Africa and South America. This is likely because raffia fibers can be used in woven hats, bags, and decorative accents. (And let’s be honest—the words “raffia” and “rattan” sound a little similar. It wouldn’t be hard to get them confused.) That said, while raffias and rattans are related (they belong to the same subfamily), they’re still two different plants. They may look similar (and sound similar), but they’re two totally different materials.

Where Can I Buy Rattan Furniture?

Since rattan furniture is trendy, it’s pretty easy to find. Stores like Target and World Market tend to have it on offer consistently. And sometimes, you can find rattan pieces at Anthropologie and CB2, too.