SUPER BRIEF HISTORY: The South Pacific has given the world much in the way of culture, but perhaps the most identifiable contribution has been the tiki. Since the opening of Don The Beachcomber and Trader Vic restaurants in the early 1930s, tiki culture has seen a rise, fall, and resurgence of popularity. (No surprise, right? Anything that was cool more than 20 years ago will eventually make a comeback, including the tiki.)
For about 20 years between the 1940s and 1970s, tiki culture and all that it entailed were hot. Thor Heyerdahl’s novel and documentary entitled Kon-Tiki, as well as WWII troops returning home from the South Pacific were also instrumental in elevating the tiki to pop culture status. The mystery, beauty, and serenity of the islands appealed to post-Depression and post-war America, and we embraced it all. Although there isn’t much googie tiki architecture left, tiki culture is once again flourishing. What does that mean for you, the tiki enthusiast? Whether you’re just a fan of Disney’s Enchanted Tiki Room, or a full time tiki god, you can easily find all the items you need to make the tiki bar of your dreams.
WHAT IS TIKI DECOR? As with any culture, what exactly constitutes tiki decor is open for interpretation. Much of what we see in the US is our own version of how we see Polynesian culture. We’ve integrated our own style into mix, and as a result it’s hard to say what’s “good” or “bad” when decorating with tiki in mind. Were velvet backed paintings of tropical women part of traditional Polynesian decor? Hardly, but as you can see at right, they make an excellent addition to a retro-modern tiki themed room.
Overtly homogenized imagery of any kind usually leads to generic decor, but modern interpretations of vintage tropical decor can really give your tiki room some extra sauce.
A perfect example is the tiki art of Shag, who creates modern pop art style illustrations using retro subject matter like tikis. While his work is obviously modern, it can be perfectly integrated into a more “traditionally” decorated tiki bar. For Disneyland’s 50th Anniversary in 2005, Shag created many new illustrations for use on Disneyland merchandise, including many with tiki themes. At left you can see his rendition of the Enchanted Tiki Room.
TIKI DECOR CORNERSTONES: Despite the eclectic nature of tiki decor, there are a lot of obvious symbols that can quickly transform a ho-hum den into a tropical rumpus room. If a romantic escape into idyllic island living is what you crave, you’ll want to rustle up some of the following;
Tiki Bar- Nothing says “sit down and relax with a Blue Hawaii” like a bamboo and thatched grass tiki bar (also called a tiki hut). They come in sizes to fit every budget ranging from bars to fit in your family room to big old outdoor huts for a Hawaiian luau.
All models of tiki bar above have FREE Shipping in the US
If you’re the DIY type, Tiki Kev sells plans so you can make your own tiki bar, tiki bar table and bar stools.
Tiki Lamps- Lighting is an often overlooked but crucial aspect of decorating. Don’t let the exotic beauty of your tiki bar be obscured by poor lighting! Use energy efficient, long-life bulbs with a low wattage to give a soft, cozy glow. Try a few colored bulbs in warm shades like orange, red, or yellow to illuminate and create ambiance all at once. Finally, search out desk and floor lamps with an island theme, including tikis, bamboo, hula girls, and brightly colored birds! Lamps Plus carries an exclusive line called Cabana Joe which has some fantastic tiki lamps. Also be sure to check out thrift and antique stores for authentic mid-century tiki lamps.
Flame retardant thatched grass- This can be strung around the roof of any tiki bar you may make or buy, or be used for table skirting, canopies, wall coverings, etc. Lends an instant island flare and can also be cheaply replicated using reclaimed palm fronds. Be sure to buy flame retardant thatch or have your found thatch treated, otherwise your luau can be spoiled by unwanted fire or insects.
Tiki Torches- Torches that use real flames create the best ambiance, but unless you’re outdoors you might also want to look into the electric ones that use faux flames. These range greatly in price and quality, so watch out for the overly cheap or expensive ones. The middle ground would be the propane burning, adjustable flame tiki torches since they burn cleaner and enclose the flame behind glass. They don’t look as authentic, but they burn unattended for about 10 hours so you don’t have to babysit the flame. That means more time for your luau party! HayNeedle has a really goodvariety to choose from.
Tiki Pole, Tiki Statue or Tiki Mask- If you’ve got the space and the money, opt for a tiki totem pole. The generally cheaper, yet still visually stunning, option is the tiki statue or mask. These also range greatly in price and quality, and in my opinion the only thing to absolutely avoid are the plastic and inflatable ones. Every plastic or inflatable tiki I have seen has been atrocious, and notin the fun kitschy way. Depending on your location, you can probably find a quality tiki pole at a nursery or other gardening store.
Tropical Drinks- If you don’t get anything else, scoop up a set of tiki mugs and mix up the fruitiest, most outlandish drink possible. Whether you’re just sipping on cherry Kool-Aid, or a Mai Tai cocktail, it’s the presentation that makes it special. Fill your mug and pile it high with fruit chunks, mini umbrellas and kitschy-cute drink hangers. If you’re feeling especially brave and exotic, try a flaming drink!
Tiki Signs- There are several online merchants who create personalized tiki signs, but Tiki Master has the best selection and quality. You can get a quality sign from them with your name on it, or go fully custom and commission a unique sign with your picture painted on it. Wooden signage like this really sets apart the tiki god from the tiki hobbyist, so if you have room for just one splurge in your decorating budget, this should be it.
Tropical Music- Exotica is the key word here. Tunes suitable for your tiki bar are going to be tropical sounding orchestral jazz that are heavy on tribal rhythms (and were probably created a minimum of 15 years ago). Look for albums by Martin Denny, Arthur Lyman, Robert Drasnin, Les Baxter, and Don Tiki. My top pick is the Ultra Lounge series of compilation CDs; they’re fab for conjuring up just the right exotic mood.
I’M READY TO START DECORATING! Now that you have some basic ideas and information you can start stocking up on supplies! You might also get some inspiration from tiki themed books. Starting a new decorating project can sometimes be daunting, but just remember the reason that tiki culture became popular in the first place: the desire for a laid back, worry-free environment where one could escape to for a little while…
eBay is your friend when it comes to sweet deals on Tiki Decor: