Polynesian hot trend in home decor

Tropical: `Tiki style' proves the Big Kahuna of design fads.

August 22, 2004|By C. Varkonyi Schaub | C. Varkonyi Schaub,SOUTH FLORIDA SUN-SENTINEL

Paradise lost has been found.

Tiki torches are burning in back yards across America. Thatched-roof bars are serving mai tais, rumrunners and pina coladas. The hula girl has become the motif du jour - on everything from kitschy lamps to dinnerware.

After a 30-year disappearance, it's tiki time once again. We have seen some indications of the trend for the past few years, but now the Polynesian drums are beating so loud they can't be ignored.

Until recently, most folks who wanted a tiki motif had to search yard sales, thrift stores and the Internet. But these days you can find "Polynesian Pop" everywhere - from specialty stores to discounters.

Tommy Bahama, which typically focused on a more upscale tropical look, has added tableware with hula girl chic.

The always-on-trend Target recently featured a variety of tiki-themed items for back-to-dorm as well as tiki string lights, tiki mugs and serving trays for at-home entertaining.

San Francisco publisher Chronicle Books has a "Hula Honeys" series of vintage postcards, coasters, address books, photo albums, stationary and a journal. If that weren't enough, VH1 is billing this as the "Big Kahuna" summer.

"There is no question [the tiki style] is back; for how long remains to be seen," says Warren Shoulberg, editor in chief of the trade newspaper HFN.

A tropical-palm subset

Shoulberg sees the tiki style as a subset of the popular tropical-palm style.

"Tropical has become a real staple," he says. "It used to be something that was just popular in Florida and maybe for an hour-and-one-half up north in July. Now, it's a year-round seller all around the country. It's not a novelty anymore, so we have to go further to look for novelty, and that's the role tiki is taking now."

In South Florida, some residents get their fix going to see the Islanders Revue at the Mai-Kai, which has been operating since 1956, and take home tiki mugs and hula lamps from the gift shop. (Last year, nearly 500 self-proclaimed "tikiphiles" went to the Oakland Park, Fla., restaurant for their annual Hukilau, a celebration of pop culture of the 1950s and 1960s. They're coming back Sept. 23-25.)

Others have been known to hire the Seminoles or one of the other myriad tiki-hut makers to add a bit of laid-back island life to their back yards.

But true tikiphiles like Kern Mattei, manager of the Mai-Kai, have taken the tiki look inside the house. The half-Tahitian Mattei comes by his love of everything tiki naturally. His mother was a Mai-Kai dancer, and his father was the former general manager. Mattei, who was born in 1966, grew up playing at the Polynesian restaurant.

"I used to climb up on the rocks and stand on the tikis," he says. "The Mai-Kai was like home to me."

It's no surprise that Mattei would decorate the dining room in tiki style in the Fort Lauderdale house that he, his wife, Elke, and two boys moved into two years ago.

Last November, he painted the walls American Traditions' Pompeii Orange and added 2-inch bamboo molding painted with American Traditions' Putty.

The walls are decorated with a hand-painted reproduction of a Gauguin, Polynesian artifacts, a tiki mug collection and photos from the Mai-Kai's children's show that feature his children Cheyne, 7, and Nicholas, 4. Sliding glass doors are covered with a bamboo curtain. The tropical furniture comes from Pier 1 Imports.

"Everyone who walks into the room goes, `Wow,' and that really makes me feel good," Mattei says, pointing out it's a contrast to the all-white walls in the rest of the house.

Urban movement

The tiki trend has spread from small-town America to urban sophisticates. Mark Mayfield, editor in chief of House Beautiful magazine, says he has been to two or three luaus recently in Westchester County, the New York suburb where he lives. Guests swirled tropical drinks with umbrellas, danced the limbo and listened to Polynesian music. Children wore grass skirts.

"It's a relaxed formality that combines a vacation home with their main home," Mayfield says. "All that translates into a lifestyle that looks like you are off to the islands. It's a nostalgia thing, a vacation-at-home thing and an off-the-wall stress reliever."

Tikiphiles say the two major sources of tiki decor are Safari Thatch in Wilton Manors, Fla., and Oceanic Arts in Whittier, Calif.

Safari Thatch's 40,000- square-foot retail store and warehouse has everything to create the basics of tropical decor - from Mexican rain cape umbrellas to thatched reed ceilings, tropical tiki bars and carvings.

Although Safari Thatch has been in business 20 years, the home decorating business didn't take off until recently. The company's main clients were commercial - hotels, restaurants, resorts, theme parks such as Walt Disney World and Universal Studios in Orlando, Fla., and zoos in cities such as Miami, Cincinnati, Los Angeles and Dallas.

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