Unraveling the Peacock Chairs’ Mysteries
Much like the peacock bird that rattles its train or feathers, creating one nature’s great wonders, the peacock chair is unique in its expansive wide back with a throne-like appearance fit for royalty. This popular chair can be described as dignified, refined, and a source of pride for its owner—much like attributes of the bird it's named for. Nest Casa examines the provenance of this grand and mystical chair with humble beginnings.
What is a Peacock Chair?
Generally, a peacock chair is an ornate wicker and rattan chair with an hourglass base, sloped armrests, and a large circular back that fans out behind the person sitting in it. Often these chairs were referred to as Manila or Philippine chairs due to their construction in the former US territory or a photographer’s chair due to their prevalence in portrait photographs.
While this more common notion of the chair can be dated to the early 1900s, there is another 20th-century design that claims this moniker. In fact, The Peacock Chair, as it was dubbed, was designed in 1947 by Danish designer Hans J Wegner. Produced by Johannes Hansen under model number PP550, the designer was influenced by typical English Windsor chair stylings for this oak armchair. Upon seeing the chair’s characteristic flat spindle backrest, fellow designer Finn Juhl found its likeness to that of a peacock’s tail and christened it ‘the Peacock Chair.’
The Origin of the Peacock Chair
To understand its beginnings, one first needs to understand the advent of wicker furniture. To explain, the veranda lifestyle was booming in the 1800s as a way to beat the heat. One suggestion involved the airy wicker furniture as opposed to heavy upholstered styles. Wicker furniture was also popular in the burgeoning photography movement as they added detail and interest to the image.
At roughly the same time, the US took control of the Philippines. Tourism began to attract Americans to the tropical islands and it was here that wicker and rattan were joined together to create the infamous Peacock chair.
Interestingly, the grandiose yet humble chairs were produced at Bilibid Prison, then located in Manila. Prisoners manufactured them and ran the sales floor from within the prison. While it would seem visiting a store inside a prison was undesirable, it became a mandatory stop on the island, even touted by Vogue magazine in a 1916 article. Given that a female prisoner and her baby were first photographed sitting in the chair in 1914, it gave the chair an unknown and disenfranchised member of society a regal air. The chairs sold like mad and were imported to the United States and beyond.
Famous Peacock Chairs
Once the chairs hit stateside, their fame took off. The chairs became the photographer’s chair. Everyone—from politicians such as Franklin D. Roosevelt and Harry Truman to Marilyn Monroe to everyday people—were snapped in these chairs constructed from dead plants such as bamboo and palm leaves.
While John F. Kennedy and the first family posed in white wicker peacock chairs in Hyannisport, Maine, one political figure in a wicker chair topped them all. After Huey Newton, the founder of the Black Panthers, sat in the chair, holding a spear and rifle, surrounded by African shields with a fierce and intent gaze, it became a symbol for the movement and party. At subsequent Black Panther events that Newton was unable to attend, a peacock chair was placed near the podium.
Pop Culture and Peacock Chairs
While politics can prove notorious, so can erotic literature. Across the Atlantic in France, the chair took on another meaning thanks to a steamy paperback book turned sexy film, Emmanuelle. Since the book was written in French in 1967 and explicitly chronicled the ‘sexploits’ of the main character from a bird’s eye view, it was considered scandalous. But not so much that it wasn’t translated into English and more languages with films to follow in the 1970s. Peacock chairs were always a part of the imaging on those book covers, movie posters, and, of course, in the movie itself.
Recording artists of the day also used the chairs in their imagery, notably album art. Superstars like Dolly Parton, Cher, and Donna Summer were captured seated in the wicker thrones. Male superstars Al Green, Julio Iglesias, and Larry Gatlin each chose the chair for album covers. Parliament Funkadelic’s George Clinton even recreated Newton’s pose for the band’s 1979 album “Uncle Jam Wants You.”
The Evolution of the Chair
While the chair’s popularity has waxed and waned over the years, it has also evolved into versions of the original. Take, for instance, the chair featured in Beyoncé’s Formation World Tour in 2016. At a MetLife Stadium performance in New Jersey, Knowles reinterpreted Newton’s iconic peacock chair image with an oversized metal version of the infamous seat. Similarly, there are styles available today updated in the wrought iron too.
Modern designers have continued to evolve the peacock chair concept in its original wicker and rattan material. Parisian designer Anthony Guerrée is making quite a stir with his new chair collection, Les Assises du Temps Perdu or The Seated of Lost Time, playing upon the concept of chairs and Proust’s famous mega novel, In Search of Lost Time. Guerrée created an eight-piece chair collection comparing each style to a character from the book. His ‘Albertine’ chair recalls the famous Emmanuelle chair, and the idea of a bicycle wheel as Albertine is the narrator’s young lover, and the two met while she was riding a bike near the sea. Hence, sea straw from Orkney Island is also used in the chair.
What to Consider When Shopping for a Peacock Chair?
First, consider the size of the space that you wish to put it in. A peacock chair needs space to spread its proverbial feathers. And the height involved requires open, airy ceiling space; otherwise, it may look dwarfed. While a living room and especially bedroom are good spots, so is an entryway alcove where the seat could have its own stage without competing with other furniture.
As these chairs are possible to use inside and outside, you should consider maintenance. It’s difficult to clean wicker and rattan so getting them wet should be avoided. Take a cue from your ancestors and if you take them out to the porch, make sure it is a covered one.