Looming on the horizon

The material world
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The Independent Culture
Lloyd Loom furniture conjures images of vicarage and conservatory, Joanna Trollope, a hint of the Raj. Strange, then, to learn that Lloyd Loom has US origins, that it is made not of rustic cane, but of twisted paper, and that it will shortly make its debut as office furniture.

It was in 1917 that Marshall Burns Lloyd, inventor, manufacturer and the mayor of Menominee, Michigan, patented kraft paper, his alternative to rattan, supplies of which were disrupted during the First World War. Kraft paper kept its strength while wet and could be twisted into strong fibres - Lloyd's friend, Thomas Edison, used it for electrical insulation.

Lloyd made the warp of his new weave from fibres of paper twisted around a steel wire. (Connoisseurs detect authentic Lloyd Loom with magnets.) Plain paper fibres fill in the weft. The appearance is much copied in cheap cane wickerwork - not as fine or as strong. Proud as he was of his new material, Lloyd took care to disguise its humble origin by calling it "woven fibre".

What else can you make out of Lloyd Loom?

During the Twenties and Thirties, sales of designs topped ten million pieces on both sides of the Atlantic. Lloyd even covered the walls of his office with it. Lusty's in Bromley-by-Bow, London, turned out 4,000 pieces a week in its heyday: mainly chairs, but also linen-baskets, tables, lamps - even a tea trolley. Lloyd Loom chairs furnished airships and ocean liners. They still adorn the royal boxes at Wimbledon.

Now, Lloyd Loom furniture is once again being made in Britain, thanks to David Breese, an antiques dealer turned entrepreneur, who last year won a Queen's Award for Export Achievement. But since the few craftspeople who knew the secrets of the loom were not about to tell them to Breese, he first had to unmake a chair to discover how it was assembled. He adapted cotton-twisting machines, bought looms, discovered how to work them, rented a factory in Lincolnshire, and went into production in 1986.

Lloyd Loom is clearly right for the caring Nineties. It looks ethnic and "green" - and it can be effortlessly refreshed for any era. An armchair that began life in white in your grandparents' conservatory might gain a lick of avocado for your parents' bathroom until you steal it and paint it again in coral or indigo. What other furniture may be placed in context with such ease?

And there's the rub. With an original chair fetching perhaps pounds 50 at auction, it's hard to persuade people to buy new for pounds 200. The same piece in Germany or Japan, meanwhile, will happily retail for pounds 400 or more. British sales are a sedentary pounds 300,000 a year. Exports rise by as much each year; they topped pounds 1.5 million in 1995.

Can Lloyd Loom compete with Ikea?

Italy and Spain make unashamedly modern designs using the Lloyd Loom process. Breese hopes Britain can follow. "This material has a traditional face, but also a contemporary one," says Geoff Hollington, the designer charged with bringing Breese's product line up-to-date.

First fruit of this is the Lloyd Loom Office Chair. "Office chairs typically have an aura of the synthetic," says Hollington, "but they get thrown out. This chair might stay with an individual for a long time. That's the tradition of Lloyd Loom. As it gets older, it will get nicer."

But foolish fogeys are not forgotten. For them, a brochure, dripping with history, shot at Wardour Castle - and the first Lloyd Loom dedicated retail store, in Spalding, Lincolnshire, which opens next week.