America's love affair with traditional wicker and rattan furniture is in full bloom. According to a recent survey Louise Harris & Associates, 44 percent of 30- to 49-year-olds decorate their homes with wicker furnishings and one-third of people who have used an interior designer have casual or wicker decors.

Given the diversity of choices, smart shoppers should know how to select pieces that are beautiful as well as sturdy. Here are some shopping "how tos" plus pointers on maintenance.Know your terms. "Wicker" is a general term used for all types of woven furniture. The word wicker refers to the process used to make the furniture . . . not the fibers used. Wicker furniture, therefore, may be made of willow, buri, rattan or any pliable material. Wicker furnishings are made by weaving coarse fibers loosely together around a frame.

Many of today's popularly priced wicker furnishings are made of rattan. Rattan is a climbing palm native to Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines and other tropic locales.

Marvin Girouard, senior vice president over merchandising for Pier 1 Imports, suggests you use this checklist when buying wicker furniture:

1. Decide the "look" you are striving for. Today's wicker furniture is available in classic white or richly stained Victorian stylings; tropical inspired washed rattan cane, deep lacquered colors and all natural looks.

2. Check if the piece has been handmade. Connoisseurs know that handmade wicker from the Far East gets high marks for durability.

3. Check the weave on the piece - the tighter the weave, the better and more long lasting the piece.

4. If the furniture you are considering has been painted, inspect it; two coats of (semigloss latex enamel) paint are considered best to stand up to weather and wear.

5. If the item you select is "natural," verify if a lacquer finish has been applied to the surface.

6. Different styles of wicker are better suited for different uses. If the piece you seek will be given hard use, consider a solid weave style rattan.

7. If the piece is made of rattan, it should have been dipped into a sealer before it was painted.

8. Sit on chairs/settees and see how comfortably the seat meets the chair back.

9. As most people prefer to add seat cushions that work with their decor, shop for these at the same time you are buying your chairs and settees to ensure a proper fit.

One of the joys of wicker furniture is that it is easy to maintain. With a few simple pointers, wicker and rattan will stay young-looking for many years.

- Prevent buildup of dust by using a feather duster or a soft brush attachment of a vacuum.

- Wipe the piece down occasionally with a cloth dampened with water and a mild household cleaner.

- Bentwood-style rattan can take a good furniture polish, while rattan - especially the darker shades - takes well to lemon oil cleaning.

- Glossy-finished walnut-colored rattan, which might pick up nicks and small scratches, can be touched up with Old English Scratch Cover.

- Light-colored washed finishes can be touched up with diluted white or Ivory paint, then a clear oil or lacquer finish.

- Buri pieces - the Philippine palm prolifically found at reasonable prices - should not be polished or waxed under normal conditions.

- Unlacquered pieces - those left in the natural state - that will receive heavy use can be sprayed with a clear varnish to seal the surface.

- Cushion care - If the pads and pillows you buy need extra surface protection, spray with a soil repellent such as Scotchgard. If a pad or pillow should become soiled or stained, clean with a mild foaming fabric cleanser.

- To touch up paint on white wicker, make sure that the area to be painted is dry and dust-free. Also, prime the bare spots.

Following these few basic tips, you should be able to enjoy many carefree hours of living with your wicker furniture.