Why this chair is on so many album covers


This is Drake’s dad pictured on the cover
of his 2017 album More Life. This is French comedian Jacques Bodoin in
1969. This is country star Larry Gatlin in 1979
and soul artist Al Green in 1972. This is the British synthpop band, Heaven
17, in 1981. These artists work span decades, genres, and
continents, but their album art had one thing in common. They were all sitting in the same exact chair. And it wasn’t just them, this chair popped
up on album covers everywhere. Now, you could easily chalk this up to being
one of many weird album cover trends over the years. But in the 1970s, when these album covers
were pretty much unavoidable, they were actually following a photography
trope that was 100 years in the making. Let’s start with this photograph of Charles
Darwin, the famed naturalist, relaxing in his old age at his English home in 1880. On this wicker chair. At the turn of the 20th century, wicker furniture
was all the rage. Its success was driven by the fact that breezy
open air spaces, like verandas and porches, were in high demand. This was long before homes were air conditioned,
and when the summer came around, no one in their right mind – and with a decent amount
of money – wanted to overheat. This June 1914 guide on “How to have a cool
house” suggests replacing walls with curtains, building sleeping
porches, and filling the entire living space with wicker
furniture. In short, “bring summer into the house.” Outside of the home, wicker was used in resort
hotels. At the beach
and on ocean liners and passenger planes. And it wasn’t just furniture,
there were wicker baby carriages and wheelchairs
and this….thing. but perhaps its most lasting function
well, besides baskets was its use in portrait photography. Wicker was light and easy to move around,
and it was breathable, great for when hot lights warmed the studio. More importantly it could be woven into countless
eye-catching decorative forms. Many of these designs – particularly this
ornate asymmetrical one – were actually called photographer’s chairs,
or posing chairs. From the late 1800s well into the 20th century,
no portrait was complete without a trusty wicker chair. Now these were everyday people – a young woman
a mother and child A handy man and shoe polisher. But just as often you’d see portraits of
powerful, influential people photographed in wicker chairs – often in seemingly candid
positions. Mark Twain
William K. Vanderbilt Countless presidents… Hanging out on their porches
The wicker chair, it seemed, was the superficial equalizer. It dressed up your average citizen
and made powerful figures seem approachable. And the styles changed along with trends. While many were designed in the US and Europe,
a few incredibly popular models came from Asia. Those pieces were recognizable by their hour-glass
shaped bottom. And if you opened a magazine or newspaper
by 1920, one particular style captured people’s attention – the peacock chair. Its hour-glass shape morphed into a large
throne like back. It was often described as “picturesque”
“elegant” and “majestic” By the 1920s, the peacock chair took center
stage in ads for summer home furniture, And when the burgeoning film industry was
producing it’s first crop of movie stars, it was a natural fit for portrait photography. But let’s backtrack for a second
to one of the earliest photographs of the chair I could find – it’s not of a movie
star. It’s a portrait of a mother with her child,
published around 1914. It’s titled “Jailbird in a peacock chair.” This woman was a prisoner – serving life for
killing her husband. And it was likely taken at Bilibid Prison
in the Philippines. At the time the photo was taken, the Philippines
were under US rule, and American tourists were visiting the islands by the boatloads. Bilibid Prison was an unlikely attraction
– not only did it serve as a jail — it was also a manufacturing facility. Equipped with its own sales department for
shoppers to pursue. This 1913 write up from an American tourist
describes the place and mentions the infamous chair: “We are familiar with the queer shaped
chair made of rattan called by some “Peacock chair”… it is made at Bilibid Prison.” And a 1916 Vogue article about “Shopping
in the Far East” says a stop at the prison is a must. This nameless prisoner likely took part in
making those chairs. She wasn’t famous or a powerful figure — but
sitting in the chair transformed her into something regal. By the 1960s dozens of iconic figures had
posed with that same chair. Poets, writers, presidents,
Famed actresses. The chair appeared in television and film
Like in My Fair Lady, which was set during the turn of the 20th century. Cecil Beaton, the set designer for the film,
was obsessed with wicker furniture. This picture of Marilyn Monroe? He took it. In the 1960s, album cover designers picked
up on the trend. And over the next two decades, portraits of
artists in the peacock chair peristed. These covers can be broken up into a few categories. One I like to call the casual leg. There’s the close up. And the group shot. For this one, the person is just randomly
in an open field. And finally, there’s this one. Best represented by Funkadelic’s 1979 album
“Uncle Jam Wants You” which references two specific things. The “Uncle Sam Wants” you Army recruitment
poster And this photo of Black Panther Party co-founder
and leader, Huey Newton sitting in the peacock chair. In 1967 when that photo was taken – it immediately
became a visual representation of the Black Power movement. And the chair took on a whole new meaning. It showed up at Black Panther meetings and
rallies, even when Newton couldn’t. It took up residence, in all it’s glory
at the center of the stage. While most album covers with the peacock chair
drew their inspiration from the casual glamour of mid-century celebrity portraits
Some artists saw it as an assertion of their cultural power — even today that’s one
of this chair’s most lasting legacies. The peacock chair album cover petered out
in the 1980s and was replaced by more minimalist and intimate portraits of people. But it remains one of the most referenced
chairs in photography – perhaps because it makes everyone sitting in it look really cool.

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Reader Comments

  1. theNeathBoy

    Opening statement factually and obviously incorrect, it is not the “exact same chair”. The chair in the Heaven 17 album cover is wide enough for two people for Christ’s sake.

    Edit: I see I’m not the first, but one of many who has been irked enough to point it out.

  2. Diamond Evans

    All of my black family members that have pictures from the 70s 80s and 90s have pictures with that chair, it's mostly the same as the Drake picture

  3. Laura Strobel

    I loved the Addams Family as a kid and kept begging my parents for "the chair" everytime my birthday came around but for some reason they refused Years later when my mom got ill someone gave her a small teddy bear in a peacock chair as a gift and I commented on it She said "Y'know, we should have given you one of those chairs" It took her almost dying to acknowledge the power of the chair! ( btw I never even knew it was called a peacock chair til this vid) Thank you I learned a lot and enjoyed the old album covers☺

  4. Tito

    My grandma’s neighbor, a Filipino lady, gave her one of those 70’s rattan chairs, and my uncle still has it in his living room. I love that chair.

  5. Robert B

    The fact you pick up on these things is amazing, for creatives going through the past help understand the symbols of communicating a status or symbol of power.

  6. Michael Stillwell

    Question;: Why do a lot of album covers feature wicker chairs? Answer: Wicker chairs were popular at that time. Next question< How misleading does the title have to be to get people to watch this? Answer: Very misleading.

  7. Angela GenX

    This chair was in every 70’s and 80’s photo studio from coast to coast. It was as trendy as macrame flower pot holders that hung in the dining room window.

  8. MITCHELL WIGGS

    Wicker is light and easy to move around. It was a cheap way to make someone sitting in the peacock style look fancy for a photo. Saved you 7 minutes.

  9. Elektric Skeptic Johaniskraut Bernstein Or'Cheard

    My mum got portraits done of my bruv & I on that type of chair (when we were really little).
    I also babysit for a fam who's whole house had loads of peacock chairs.
    The first furniture I could afford was a wicker outdoor set…
    Cool doc. about this bizarre thing💞

  10. Zi Quan

    I have a feeling that Lana Del Rey can use a peacock chair in full white color as her photography shoot for her upcoming album White Hot Forvever next year!

  11. Lovepeaceandsoulfull right on

    I HAD ONE AS A15 YEAR OLD AND I DID’T ASK FOR IT!!! I didn’t like it really, but my folks got it for me and yes… I’m in several pictures looking awkward

  12. Dogmo Satchmo

    They are distinctively different than one another. Wicker was popular. It would be like "Hey, we all have the same microwave." Nope. Vox is grabbing at straws, yet again.

  13. Hipsters & Hippies

    I knew a man with 2 of them wicker chairs. I used to sit in it as a kid. Then again most of my parents Freind’s were hippies. I consider myself a lucky man. ✌🏻

  14. Lucy W

    Now I wanna know more about the jailbird woman and her story. Killing a romantic partner is a very dramatic the thing. And what happened to the poor child? A prison isn't a place to grow up in, I hope she had someone to care for her

  15. tankboy444

    We never called it a 'Peacock chair'. It was known to us, in the 60s and 70s, as a King chair and, because it was moderately priced yet grand, evoked the image of a royal throne. Anyone photographed in the chair was instantly raised to a person of command and importance.

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