ALL ABOUT THE ILLUSTRIOUS PEACOCK CHAIR
Few chairs pack as much fanfare as the peacock chair. A regal rattan perch that has seated everyone from Elizabeth Taylor to Al Green, the peacock chair has earned its keep as one of design’s most sought-after seats. Ebbs and flows in popularity—plus an unfortunate stint in which it was perhaps best-known as the “Morticia Adams chair”—have failed to permanently dismiss the peacock chair. New generations continue to discover the vintage peacock’s chairs knack for haloing occupants’ heads to curate the ultimate, photo-flattering effect.
For a lightweight seat, the peacock chair carries a backstory with serious weight. The iconic chair, sometimes dubbed the “Fan,” Manila,” or “Philippine” chair is believed to have originated in East Asia in the 1870s. Despite its throne-like appearance, the peacock chair forgoes any ties to actual royalty. Rather, popular legend has it that chair originated with the inmates housed in the Bilibid Prison in Muntinlupa City, Philippines, who constructed peacock chairs as a commodity to sell. The chairs were such a draw that the jail even maintained a sales floor which was heralded by a 1916 Vogue article entitled “Shopping in the Far East.” According to the editors, a stop at the Bilibid Prison shop was a must for procuring the mesmerizing wicker peacock chair.
In a coming-out party of sorts, a derivative of the peacock chair was showcased at the 1876 Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition. With its wide radial back, intricate rattan work, and hourglass base, the peacock chair channeled the noble charm of Rococo but introduced a refreshing exuberance that perfectly suited Victorian sensibilities. As rattan peacock chairs landed in England and the United States, Victorians snapped them up, enlisting them as ornamental flourishes for al fresco arrangements. Peacock chairs’ intricate fretwork also enticed designers to render the concept in ultra-malleable wrought iron.
Still, peacock chairs may have assumed the status of a passing trend, if not for the fact that the western world’s discovery of the vintage peacock chair coincided with the dawn of photography. Portrait photography demanded photoshoot sets that could be set up and broken down with all of the efficiency of a traveling circus. Wicker and rattan, lightweight alternatives to wood, became the favored medium for photographers’ chairs, and the rattan peacock chair with its eye-catching curves and radial back that attractively framed the face, shot straight to the top of photographers’ stalwart assets.
Following the emergence of more straight-lined design trends like Art Deco, wicker peacock chairs laid dormant for a time, earning occasional gigs on Hollywood photoshoot sets—Marilyn Monroe and Katharine Hepburn were both famously photographed in a rattan peacock chair at this time—but otherwise awaiting a redux. When bohemia blew onto the scene in the 1970s, the peacock chair was again resurrected, functioning as a pseudo-throne for both mainstream and counterculture icons. Stevie Nicks, Diana Ross—and unlikely enough—Huey Newton, co-founder of the Black Panther party, all notoriously posed in a wicker peacock chair.
Today, vintage peacock chairs’ popularity continues to fan out, as designers use them to riff on a multitude of different characters, from billowy bohemia to laid-back island luxury. Renowned for their mutability that makes them as effortless-looking indoors as out, peacock chairs are the ultimate anomaly—a high-wattage statement piece that doesn’t require that a room be built around it. An antique peacock chair thrown in at the eleventh hour can look just as seamless as one used as a founding inspiration piece.
Designers who have paraded out peacock chairs on the regular are fond of not just its decorative splendor and obvious cocooning qualities, but its loose rattan weave which is perfect for allowing snippets of bold wall colors, wallpapers, printed curtains—or outdoors, verdant foliage—to show through. Peacock chair’s au natural color is easy-to-pair, but that hasn’t stopped designers from cloaking it in spunky hues to better complement other elements in a room. White paint can transform a vintage peacock chair into something truly palatial-feeling, especially when placed among accents that mimic its top-heavy shape, such as ginger jars or spray-headed palms. Tackling peacock chairs’ fretwork may seem tedious, at first, but in-the-know designers stand by the fact that a can of spray paint can work magic on these woven wonders.
It’s common to find designers maximizing an underutilized corner with a wicker peacock chair, but don’t take that as an order to play down their exhibitionist nature. A pair of wicker peacock chairs standing guard at either end of a dining table can lend a palatial air that’s also palpably playful—a win-win combo that can seem intangible to pull off at times. Small or narrow rooms, especially those with a feature wall like a fireplace or window can also make smart use of a rattan peacock chair. Whereas a bergere or wingback chair can visually block a fireplace or window, a peacock chair will allow both features to peek-a-boo through, thereby making it possible to layer one in front of the other. Peacock chairs also showcase a particularly upright silhouette which gives them a much more compact footprint than other chairs.