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Tiki Tacky is Back
By Betsy Streisand

Diversions 5/13/02

Tiki tacky is back From hipster bars to Pottery Barn dishes, island kitsch is king

By Betsy Streisand

Exotic fruit drinks festooned with bright paper umbrellas, petrified puffer fish dangling from the ceiling, towering wooden totems, grass mats and bamboo everywhere.

It's tiki. It's tacky. And it's back.

Many of the thatched-hut hangouts that sprang up in the 1950s and '60s disappeared long ago. But those that remain, like Trader Vic's in Beverly Hills and the Mai-Kai in Fort Lauderdale, are suddenly hot again. And from Seattle to New York, new tiki clubs tailored to urban hipsters are going up faster than fern bars in the '80s. "We were looking for something old and new; something retro, but hip," says David Fernandez, who opened the Purple Orchid Exotic Tiki Lounge last year outside Los Angeles. The Purple Orchid features grass mats and bamboo furniture, powerful sweet drinks like mai tais and scorpions, and copious island clutter including torches, glass fish floats, and, of course, giant hand-carved Tikis. But the Orchid also does a brisk business in flavored martinis, and U2 and '60s surf music are just as likely to waft through the background as island sounds.

If it all seems a little too phony, that's what makes it authentic. Although technically a Tiki is an ancient island god, what we know as "Tiki" is a man-made style invented in the United States to make Americans feel they had escaped to a tropical paradise. Or, more specifically, to cater to World War II GIs back from Bali Hai and pining for the Pacific.

Why did Polynesiana pop up again? Trend makers were angling for an old trend to exploit, and Americans were ready for vicarious getaways after 9/11. They've got a lot of options. Next month, the Royal Pacific Resort opens at Universal Orlando, complete with stone statues, rice paddies, and a grand orchid garden. In Las Vegas, the Venetian Resort now includes Taboo Cove. With carved redwood trim and giant palm-wood tiki poles, it bills itself as the "first authentic tiki bar built in the U.S. since the '70s." There are tiki Web sites, tiki books, and enough tiki kitsch on eBay to fill a flea market. And the Tommy Bahama chain has turned the notion of the well-dressed islander into a retail success story.

Bamboo abode. Perhaps nothing points up the tiki craze like Oceanic Arts, based in exotic Whittier, Calif. "We're very, very busy, almost too busy," says co-owner Leroy Schmaltz. For 42 years, Schmaltz, a Tiki carver himself, has been providing builders, the entertainment industry, and the travel industry with everything it takes to turn a blank space into a South Seas paradise. Many of his newer clients are looking for bamboo, thatching, and artifacts to create tiki rooms in private homes. Converting a spare room to a hula hangout can easily cost upwards of $10,000.

For the average suburban savage, dabbling in the fad has never been easier. Pottery Barn's $199 "Aloha" quilts, with patchwork Hawaiian prints, have been selling so quickly that customers are pulling them out of displays to buy them. They're also clamoring for tiki lamps, floor mats, and theme dishes. sells everything from tiki T-shirts to custom-carved masks. "Three years ago we couldn't give this stuff away," says Bosko. He realizes that in another three years-or three months-he may be right back in the same position, when the hip and trendy move onto something else.

Of course, serious collectors pay thousands for Tiki idols carved by the greats. And the retro-modern work of Shag, a California commercial artist turned tiki painter, now sells for thousands of dollars compared with hundreds a few years ago. But tiki's true appeal is its hokey but festive atmosphere. For that, all you really need is a copy of the Beachbum Berry's Grog Log (the island bar bible), a pupu platter, and a limbo stick.

- Edited by Marc Silver


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