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The origin story of the ‘Black Panther’ throne

Pop culture’s new favorite chair has one of the most mysterious histories

A 1960s poster of Black Panther Party founder Huey P. Newton (left) inspired a promotion poster for Marvel’s Black Panther movie (right).
Poster via Smithsonian (left); photo courtesy Disney/Marvel Studios (right)

From its production design to costumes and visual effects, Marvel’s Black Panther is one of the most rewarding movies for design buffs, but there was one object that kept lingering in my mind: the Wakandan throne.

Many of Black Panther’s visual references are proudly Pan-African and Afrofuturist. Hannah Beachler, the movie’s production designer, references the work of famous modern architects who created buildings on the continent—like Zaha Hadid—as well as local architects who’ve developed their own distinct styles.

But the throne? It has a more mysterious origin story—one with a cast of characters that includes a prisoner in the Philippines, a midcentury importer, and radical black activists.

An early promo poster for Marvel’s Black Panther shows T’Challa seated on a throne with a tall, rounded back. He firmly grips the armrests, plants both his feet on the ground, and expresses his power with an authoritative direct-to-camera gaze.

For many, myself included, the image bore an uncanny resemblance to a 1960s poster of Black Panther party founder Huey P. Newton seated in a rattan peacock chair, clutching a spear in one fist and rifle in the other. This symbol of black power—and royalty—has been repeated, remixed, and riffed-on for years. And it revolves around one prop: the rattan peacock chair.

The peacock chair is one of those designerless designs that occupies a fascinating place in visual culture. It’s both a potent political symbol and Instagram bait. Beyoncé brought one on her Formation world tour. It’s appeared on album covers from Al Green, Funkadelic, Outkast, and the emerging Oakland rapper Kamaiyah, and countless other artists.

In the 1960s and ’70s, it was everywhere: Morticia Addams, Elizabeth Taylor, Diana Ross, Dolly Parton, and John Waters all sat in one. Today, some vintage peacock chairs fetch thousands of dollars, others just a couple hundred bucks. You can buy new ones at mainstream stores like Pier 1 and Anthropologie. The Wall Street Journal called it a “hippie embarrassment.”

Unlike other chairs associated with the visual culture of the ’60s—like Eero Aarnio’s Ball chair, the Eames lounge, or the Panton chair—the wicker peacock chair’s origins date far earlier than the era of midcentury modernism and embrace history rather than a forward looking perspective.

Though no one knows exactly who designed the peacock chair, Emily A. Morris explains in her thesis about the 20th-century wicker furniture revival that artisans in Southeast Asia were the first to weave furniture out of rattan. As early as the 1600s, colonial Europeans brought the furniture style to the west. Over the centuries, European craftspeople used the technique to design pieces that matched the dominant styles of the time.

The rattan peacock chair
Patricia Chang

The distinctive peacock form—an hourglass shape with a tall, wide back like a peacock’s tail—comes from a combination of Asian and European influences and first became popular in the early 1900s. At the time, furniture importers described the design—which was known as the “Manila” or “Philippine” chair—in terms that capitalized on the west’s exoticizing fascination with East Asian design and culture. One 1914 magazine floridly wrote: “Like a throne chair, one imagines a chieftain sitting here in all his regal splendor of painted skin and beads under palm trees.”

However, a 1913 article about a Philippine prison tells a darker tale, one that Morris argues is more plausible. According to the story, the chair originated at Bilibid prison, in Manila. There, prisoners spent their time weaving furniture, silverware, and baskets out of materials like reed, willow, grass, and wood. A German prisoner wove the “Manila” chair, which was on display inside Bilibid until at least 1913.

The classic peacock chair likely originated in the Philippines and was known at the turn of the 19th century as the “Manila” chair.
Shutterstock

The “Manila” chair as a product for the masses debuted in the U.S. during the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition, where it earned accolades. Through the 1920s, the chair became popular with celebrity photographers, who often used it as a prop for portraits. Rattan furniture has a long history in photography studios (they allow for ventilation, which helps subjects stay comfortable under hot studio lights) and it was a natural progression that this iteration would make its way in front of the camera.

The peacock chair’s popularity ebbed and flowed. It dipped in the 1930s and during the Great Depression. The Tiki craze in the 1950s reignited its popularity, and in the 1960s it reached a fever pitch.

Though interior design magazines published photographs of peacock chairs, the more influential force, according to Morris’s thesis, wasn’t high society decorators; it was youth counterculture. They shopped at Cost Plus—a retailer established in 1958 that was the first to bring the rattan Papasan chair to market—and at second-hand stores. They were drawn to eastern philosophy and culture—particularly from Asia and India—and embraced eclectic personal style.

San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury neighborhood was the center of ’60s counterculture in the U.S.; the iconic portrait of Huey Newton in the peacock chair—attributed to photographer Blair Stapp—was taken in 1967 in a house in the area. The Black Panther Party—which was especially adept at visual communication and propaganda—knew the power of imagery. Eldridge Cleaver, a Black Panther Party leader, staged the photograph to look like the throne of an African warrior. Newton is surrounded by weapons, traditional masks, and a zebra rug. While the peacock chair is technically Asian, the rattan looks a lot like raffia, a material traditionally used in African basketry.

The Black Panther Party used Newton’s portrait in its newspaper, and it appeared in national news as well. When Newton couldn’t attend rallies, the party would place an empty peacock chair on stage to represent him.

The peacock chair became synonymous with Newton’s version of black power. Within the same year that the portrait circulated, a civil rights group in Kansas expressed concern about it, saying that to mainstream the movement, they needed to downplay Newton, guns, and “the wicker chairs.” In her thesis, Morris writes:

”The inclusion of ‘the wicker chairs’ in the description revealed that, even in predominantly white Kansas communities, peacock chairs in the late 1960s could symbolize the Black Panther party. Newton’s image added a political slant to the form which resonated among black artists as an emblem of black power and expression into the twenty-first century.”

Poster via Smithsonian (left); photo courtesy Disney/Marvel Studios (right)

Which brings us to 2018, Marvel, and the throne of Wakanda. Look closely and all you see is the peacock chair. True, T’Challa’s throne is much roomier and more massive than a typical peacock chair. It looks like it’s made from wood and, likely, vibranium, not lightweight and flexible rattan. It’s inscribed with Wakandan glyphs and features a back that looks like two razor-sharp claws. But its silhouette, and how it frames T’Challa, is pure peacock.

The peacock chair as we know it today is the product of colonial forces, in both how it has become a beloved home decor statement piece and and how it symbolizes a fight against oppression wrought by colonial forces. And it couldn’t be a more perfect design reference in a movie rich with them.