The History Behind the Iconic Peacock Chair

Peacock Chairs

Chairs are something we use as an everyday object and something we normally do not see as a form of art. However, chairs can be seen as a mark of an artist’s craftsmanship. One particular chair is known for its regality that well-known celebrities, from the entertainment industry to government officials, have owned or used. This specific chair is the iconic Peacock Chair.

 

Peacock chairs are made out of woven rattan or wicker that forms an hourglass-shaped base, while the back flares high forming a fan-like shape, hence the name peacock for its flamboyant structure. Even though these chairs are massive in size and can look heavy, they are actually lightweight—yet very sturdy. These chairs are often associated with the bohemian decor that gained popularity during the 1960s, and since then these chairs have been a part of the boho chic aesthetics we see today.

Album Covers - Photo taken from Vox
Album covers courtesy of Vox

But where did these chairs originate? And how did it gain its popularity?

 

Believe it or not, these chairs have a dark history that stems all the way back to the colonization of the Philippines. To fully understand the history behind the Peacock chair, it is important to learn about the history of where it originated.

 

Spain initially colonized the Philippines in 1521 after Ferdinand Magellan arrived on the island and claimed it as a colony for the Spanish Empire. After Spain lost during the Spanish-American War, the United States began colonizing the Philippines in 1898, after 300+ years under Spanish rule. The Philippines finally gained their independence from the United States 48 years later in 1946.

The Peacock Chair was born under American colonization in the Philippines, specifically in the confinement of the Bilibid Prison in Manila, the first penitentiary built during Spanish rule. Yes, these famous chairs were initially woven together by inmates inside the prison. According to a statement by Vincent Louie Tan, Ph.D., penal colonies such as the Philippines have rehabilitation programs “to help prisoners reintegrate into society later, by teaching them skills,” such as weaving the peacock chairs. Bilibid Prison became a tourist attraction for Americans who came to visit the island and watch prisoners weave these chairs with their own hands and later purchase them to be shipped back to America. 

Huey Newton in a Peacock Chair
Huey Newton in a Peacock Chair courtesy of Phaidon

This is one way Americans justify colonizing the Philippines by showcasing “how much change or modernization they were bringing to the colonies,” or in other terms, “American legitimation of their engagement in imperialism.” Unfortunately, the iconic Peacock Chair was not only “an exotic symbol of fictional royalty” but also “a product of American colonization” in the Philippines.

 

By the 1910s to the 1920s, the Peacock chair had become “the must-have piece of its era.” But it wasn’t until the late 1960s and 1970s that the peacock chair gained its popularity as a “favorite photography prop,” especially during the golden age of album covers. From soul artist Al Green in 1972 to country star Larry Gatlin’s 1979 album, they all have one thing in common in all their album covers: they are all seated on a Peacock chair. Not only is this a trend in America, but it can also be seen in European album covers such as the British synthpop band, Heaven 17 that came out in 1981. Even most recently, Drake’s 2017 album called More Life, has a cover of a photo of his dad sitting on a wicker chair. The reasoning behind the use of wicker chairs such as the famous Peacock Chair is because of how breathable and suitable it is for studios surrounded by hot lights. Due to its ability to withstand hot environments, it became a staple in every photograph.

Not only was it suitable for certain environments, but it also became a symbol of power. Iconic figures such as Katherine Hepburn, Elizabeth Taylor, Marilyn Monroe, and John F. Kennedy sat on these chairs. But did you know one particular photo that emerged in 1914 is considered the earliest photograph of a person sitting on the Peacock Chair? This photo is an image not taken with a celebrity, but rather a photo of a mother and her child sitting on the chair titled “Jail Bird in a Peacock Chair.” The woman in the photo was a prisoner serving life for killing her husband and possibly one of the prisoners who worked on this particular chair. What is so iconic about this photo is that she was not a famous nor a powerful figure, but because of the throne-like chair, it transformed her into an image of notoriety.

Jailbird in a Peacock Chair - Photo by EL PASO HERALD (1914) Taken from Esquire Magazine
Jailbird in a Peacock Chair - Photo by EL PASO HERALD (1914) courtesy of Esquire Magazine

Later on, another empowering photo featuring the chair emerged during the late 1960s that became a symbol of Black power. A photo of Huey P. Newton, Black Panther Party co-founder, was captured sitting on a Peacock Chair while holding a spear in one hand and a rifle in the other. When this photo was taken, the nation was at the peak of the Civil Rights Movement. The Black Panther Party was known to hold rallies as a way to strengthen Black communities and promote the Black Panther philosophy of self-love and the beauty of Blackness. According to Michelle Wilkinson, “The chair has become a powerful cultural symbol, serving as a throne of sorts… an iconic way to self-represent for African Americans.” Since then, these peacock chairs became a staple for every African-American household.

And speaking of thrones, in the movie Black Panther and Black Panther: Wakanda Forever, the throne King T’Challa and Queen Ramonda sat on is a rendition of a traditional Peacock chair. According to the production designer for both Black Panther films, Hannah Beachler, 

“the chair is very much connected to a place in time, to a revolution… it was a social revolution, as well as a community revolution,” and it is also “a glorious display of Black royalty.”

The Peacock Chair is more than just a piece of furniture, it is a unique display of craftsmanship with so much history that has been lost throughout time. Currently, we have artists who are reclaiming and retelling the history behind the iconic Peacock Chair by redesigning it into their own. For example, New-York based artist Cheyenne Concepcion redesigned the Peacock Chair as a way to tell the forgotten history behind these chairs in her Reclaim Collection, which you can find on her website at https://cheyenneconcepcion.com/.


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