You won't find many craftsmen whose fingers are dexterous enough to twist the supple leaves of the cattail into chair or bench seats or tabletops. In the ancient art of rushing -- which involves binding and weaving strands of Typha plants (commonly known as rush, bulrush, flag, and cattail) onto a simple frame -- touch is more important than sight. As an experienced artisan works, he "sees" the subtle variations of the leaves with his hands and bolsters them where necessary to create furniture of extraordinary strength and durability.
Rush is a grassy, marshland plant that is both beautiful and remarkably resilient when woven. Because of these qualities, rush-seated chairs have been used for millennia: The oldest known example, an Egyptian chair with a remnant of the fiber clinging to the seat, has been dated to before 4000 B.C. There are countless historical records of the use of the plant in furnishings. In medieval and Tudor England, loose rushes were a popular floor covering. Later, they were plaited into floor mats and eventually utilized as bedding. In the eighteenth century, European designers began to appreciate rush for its decorative qualities, and even the most stylish furniture makers -- Thomas Chippendale among them -- used the fibers in their work. Although rush furniture has gone in and out of fashion as styles and times have evolved, the methods used in making it have changed little.
In the United States today, most serious craftsmen work with the American cattail, a native plant that is strong enough to last up to 60 years on a finished piece. The process of making furniture with this genuine rush takes months to complete. The plant is harvested, and then it is aged for at least a half year. After soaking and breaking the rush to make it pliable, a craftsman begins the patient, often dayslong, work of weaving a chair seat, tabletop, or other shape.
There are faster methods, of course. Modern craftsmen have the option of using machine-made fiber rush, a ready-to-use paper product that can be purchased in large rolls, making it quick and easy to work with because the strands don't have to be hand-twisted. Or they can use prebound river grass, a natural product that is also more accommodating because it is twisted and rolled in advance. Either of these fibers can produce a satisfactory piece of furniture and will command a lower price than the labor-intensive American cattail rush. David Feuer, president of Yorkville Caning in New York City, recommends using cattail rush whenever possible, however, since the results will be of the highest quality. "Genuine American cattail rush has the consistency and strength to withstand just about anything," Feuer says.
The appearance of rushed furniture depends not only on the material used but also on the style of weave. All rushing is woven in a series of triangular panels: American four-triangle weave (featured on most items pictured) produces four equal-size panels; Italian weave has a wider panel in back than in front; the side triangles of French provincial weave are wider than the front and back; and Malacca weave (a style developed by the Dutch in Indonesia)forms a herringbone pattern. By selecting among these designs, you can customize furniture to suit your taste.
Although rush has long been associated with rustic furniture, it need not be confined to any particular style. Its clean, simple lines also work on more-formal traditional pieces as well as sleek modern designs. The chairs and tables on the following pages show just some of the many possible variations.
Chances are, you'll find a place for one of them in your home.