The past few years have seen a Tiki revival of sorts, as Mad Men has brought all things '50s and '60s new attention. And now a new exhibition at the Musée du quai Branly in Paris and a companion book Tiki Pop: America imagines Its Own Polynesian Paradise by Sven Kirsten are casting a new light on the artificial jungles and faux Easter Island decor that are Tiki's signatures.
Tiki, named for the Maori mythological "first man," is a romantic vision of tropicalism that traces its roots in Western culture as far back as the first Pacific Island expeditions of James Cook. Hollywood brought hibiscus flowered exoticism to the United States in the '30s with the popularity of nightspot Don the Beachcomber (credited as the first Tiki bar in the US) and a series of island themed films starring saronged actress Dorothy Lamour with titles like The Hurricane, Her Jungle Love and Tropic Holiday.
San Francisco's own Golden Gate International Exposition in 1939 was one of the first official mainland celebrations of authentic Polynesian culture and even included an 81 foot tall statue of "Pacifica: Goddess of the Pacific" as a kind of Tiki Statue of Liberty (since destroyed).
The returning GI's of WWII's South Seas conflict brought back with them not only an appreciation for the look of the islands but also a sort of mixed nostalgia for their time there. James Michener's Pultizer Prize winning Tales of the South Pacific and its Pulitzer Prize winning musical adaptation, South Pacific, are perhaps the greatest examples of mid-century high art Tiki.
Then, there's the so-called "low" Tiki art that took hold post WWII: restaurants, themed motels, dinner plates, living room furniture...Gillian's Island. Once the castaways were stranded after their three-hour tour, Tiki hit a kind of pop pinnacle that meant it could only go down from there. Once plentiful, Tiki destinations have been de-jungled for the most part, but here in the Bay Area, a few classics manage to hold out.