CHICAGO - Wicker furniture you can leave outside? Call it the casual furniture industry's Holy Grail. Only a few years old, wicker made from extruded plastic strands reached an important milestone at the 1995 International Casual Furniture Market in Chicago. A resin wicker chair from Cane and Reed Imports Inc. won a Design Excellence Award - the industry's highest honor for resin furniture. Retailing for $399, the chair is available in white or green, but its designer, Judy Johnson, can imagine a rainbow of colors and patterns, like something you might see in an exotic woven basket.
Whatever the future for resin wicker, which is about five years old, the venerable wicker category will never be the same.
``The product's really coming into its own now,'' Johnson said. ``We're seeing more growth, more acceptance and a few more companies offering the product.''
About half a dozen manufacturers displayed resin wicker at the show, held Sept. 14-18 at Chicago's Merchandise Mart. The Garden Manor chair by Cane and Reed is the first such chair to win the top resin award. The South San Francisco company introduced its WeatherWeave line of wicker furniture two years ago in Chicago.
Industry officials say taking a Design Excellence Award wins points with specialty shops - the Chicago market's main attendees - because innovative products help differentiate them from mass retailers. Cane and Reed beat out six other competitors to win the resin honors.
Judges liked the chair's ``classic American turn-of-the-century appearance.'' The chair features a prominent arched design that curves around from the left armrest, behind the occupant's head and to the right armrest.
Cane and Reed also sells hand-woven baskets and Johnson, vice president of design and marketing, said she studies basket designs for furniture ideas.
``Often, weave patterns, design and color start in the basketry field,'' she said in an interview at the company's booth.
Professional wicker weavers usually break in doing baskets, then move up to furniture, she said.
Before joining Cane and Reed 11 years ago, she worked with her sister Madolyn Johnson, who imported baskets from the Orient. Travel remains a big part of Judy Johnson's job today, since Cane and Reed's furniture is made in the Philippines and China. The strands are extruded in China from a polyethylene/polypropylene blend, then chair makers wrap them around a frame of aluminum or rattan. The strands have additives to protect against ultraviolet rays from the sun.
Resin wicker strands are the latest in a search for wicker that can stay outside. That search began in the early 1900s, when Marshall Lloyd, founder of Lloyd Manufacturing (today Lloyd/Flanders of Menominee, Mich.), created an automated loom to weave coated fibers and wire around a frame. Also, a few companies have made imitation wicker by wrapping resin-coated glass fibers around a frame and curing them, a process that dates to the 1970s.
Wicker lovers will watch to see what happens next.
``Using the resin wicker is just a natural extension of the wicker furniture industry. It's the perfect thing to do because people always wanted durable wicker for indoor and outdoor use,'' Johnson said while relaxing in one of her chairs. ``It's a super product, I think.''