It is well known among modernism aficionados that the early 1960s were a monumentally creative period for the architectural firm of Wexler & Harrison. Contractor George Alexander commissioned the duo to design all-steel homes in a North Palm Springs neighborhood, and the seven homes completed were subsequently designated Class One Historic Sites.
Other significant projects included the Spa Hotel Bath House (1958), Palm Springs Medical Clinic (1963), and the Union 76 gas station (1962). After Wexler and Harrison amicably dissolved their partnership in 1963, the former went on to create such extraordinary designs as the Dinah Shore residence and the Palm Springs International Airport (1965).
Yet, the one piece of the Wexler/Harrison oeuvre that sometimes leads to head-scratching is their Royal Hawaiian Estates (1960). Created for Jewish residents 55 and older, the 5-acre, 40-unit development, just a block from where North Palm Canyon turns into East Palm Canyon, is notable for the clean horizontal lines, optimization of light, and strong connection to exterior spaces.
What’s surprising are the tiki statues, the vaguely Polynesian shapes set between cinder blocks, and the rows of bright orange buttresses (flying-sevens). Ostensibly installed to help support patio roofs, the orange triangles are, in fact, a conscious reference to the stabilizers on outrigger canoes.
“You could also say that they resemble the tails of the 1960 Cadillac Fleetwood,” points out Sven Kirsten. A connoisseur of all things tiki, author of Tiki Pop, Tiki Modern, and The Book of Tiki, the tiki archaeologist curated a 2014 show at Paris’ Musée du quai Branly containing more than 500 objects from the decade-and-a-half-long tiki craze that gripped American recreational activities (particularly those involving fruity rum drinks) in the postwar era.
Two months ago, Kirsten and his wife, Naomi, were hanging out one morning at the Royal Hawaiian estates condo of Josh Agle (aka the artist Shag). Shag’s condo can only be described as “tikilicious;” a slightly over-the-top (as he is the first to admit) mixture of tiki and midcentury modern. From the wallpaper to the credenza to the chandelier over the tiny table, almost every nook and cranny is Shag’s own design, an interpretation of that period in ’50s and ’60s America when the obsession with the clean, sometimes stark lines of modernism provided a neutral backdrop to the riotous whimsy of primitivism.
“When we got this place, I said to my wife, ‘I want to do some things, like the interior rock wall, that are probably not going to increase the value. And she said, ‘Go as far out as you want,’” Shag laughs, with a sweep of the arm around his tiki man cave. “Tiki is a kind of exuberance and over-abundance.”
The Kirstens and Shag met in 1995 when latter had a show of his paintings (“Scenes of people in tiki bars,” he says. “They all sold. Sven got one.”). Twenty years ago, Kirsten was not the universally acknowledged tiki expert that he is today. He says that even though his fascination goes back decades, “I was still putting together the mosaic of what tiki was. I realized that not only restaurants and bars were building in that style, but also apartments and motels … like these Hawaiian estates. It proved to me that it was a style in its own right.”
Americans’ fascination and attraction to the exotica of Polynesia goes back more than 100 years to the stories of Robert Louis Stevenson, Jack London, and W. Somerset Maugham’s novel, The Moon and Sixpence, based on painter Paul Gauguin’s life in Tahiti. In his book, Tiki Pop, Kirsten ably connects the cultural dots from the Hawaiian music craze in the ’20s to Hollywood films in the ’30s such as Mutiny on the Bounty, to the appearance of the first themed restaurants and bars in Los Angeles such as Clifton’s Cafeteria, Cocoanut Grove, Trader Vic’s Lounge, Tonga Hut, and Don the Beachcomber.
According to Kirsten, the first phase of what we now think of as tiki Culture was really the fantasy of a beachcomber living in paradise, and the aesthetics of that dream involved fishing nets, diving helmets, rattan furniture, and primitive art. It wasn’t until Kon-Tiki, Norwegian Thor Heyerdahl’s memoir of his voyage from Peru to Tahiti, that tiki became the byword for all things remotely Polynesian. It could be argued that tiki’s crowning moment was Hawaii’s statehood in 1959.
Even late into the ’50s, the “cowboy” illusion was strong here. Dude ranches, horse parades down North Palm Canyon, and chuck wagon breakfasts had loyal followers. So although Palm Springs seems, at first glance, rather unfertile soil for tiki culture to sink roots, it was as common to see couples strolling about in aloha shirts as if they were on Waikiki Beach.
“This area was a vacation spot for leisure and recreation, so anything that added to the fun was great,” says Peter Moruzzi, a Palm Springs historian who founded the Palm Springs Modern Committee in 1999 and is the author of Desert Holiday, as well as his latest tome, Classic Dining: Discovering America’s Finest Mid-Century Restaurants, with photography by Sven Kirsten. “There was a Swiss Chalet (with fake snow) and an air hotel you flew to, so Polynesian-themed restaurants or hotels would not have been out of the ordinary.”
One of local tiki’s first boosters was L.A. native Walter Clarke. According to his obituary in the Los Angeles Times in 2002, Clarke graduated from USC and flipped a coin to decide where to begin his career. Hawaii won. After working for both Victor Bergeron at Trader Vic’s and Donn Beach at Don the Beachcomber in Honolulu, he became obsessed with all things Polynesian and even changed his first name to the phonetic Hawaiian spelling: Waltah. In 1952, he opened his first Hawaiian clothing store in the El Mirador Hotel. In 1956, he made the move to North Palm Canyon, where Waltah Clarke’s was the place to get fitted out, Polynesian-style, for the next 36 years.
Of course, it’s one thing to be on vacation in Palm Springs and order a Zombie in a tiki-head mug while wearing a shirt covered with hula girls … and quite another to suggest that such innovative architects as Donald Wexler or Albert Frey were influenced by Polynesia. Still, there’s no denying that Albert Frey’s Tramway Gas Station bears an uncanny resemblance to an array of South Seas structures. Was the Swiss-born student of Le Corbusier and Bauhaus making a postmodern statement about the nuclear age with his winged roof elements … or was he just having some fun and getting freaky with tikis?
In academic circles, architectural works by Le Corbusier, Walter Gropius, and Frank Lloyd Wright are sometimes compared to cubist works by Georges Braque, PabloPicasso, and Piet Mondrian. The Primitivist movement was also very influential on these artists in the 1920s, particularly Picasso, whose Les Demoiselles d’Avignon may be considered the perfect marriage of the two artistic movements. If you accept that Bauhaus designers and architects presaged the work of the midcentury modernists, is it a stretch to suggest that these modernists were influenced by the primitivism of tiki?
Moruzzi doesn’t buy it. “I think it has more to do with contrast. If you look at the sharp, clean lines of modernism in a room, you really need something to soften it. I think that’s why primitive art — whether it’s from Africa or Polynesia — was so appealing [to midcentury designers]. If you look at those Playboy stories from the early ’60s with the midcentury bachelor pads, there is always primitive art on the walls.”
For Kirsten, the startling juxtaposition of square, 1950s America with the outlandishness of tiki started him on his exploration of the culture. “There’s this famous photo taken at the Tropics Motel where these three very straight women with huge beehive hairdos are posing with one of those giant root ball tikis,” he says. “Tiki was a way for very straight, middle-class to let their hair down.”
Lounging under Shag’s bird chandelier, the Kirstens and the artist discuss tiki’s abrupt demise in the late ’60s. “Tiki culture in its heyday was actually just a brief, 10-year period. By the mid-60s [tiki] got cut off brutally by hippies and youths who declared against anything the so-called establishment thought was cool. Both generations had the same needs and were dreaming of the same thing, but the kids wanted to turn it into a reality and not in the fake, pretend way their parents had.”
Gradually, the great tiki palaces, restaurants, bars, and motels across America were demolished, covered up or simply forgotten. Although a Trader Vic’s still exists in Oakland, its famous outposts at the Beverly Hills Hilton, Chicago’s Palmer House, and New York’s Plaza Hotel are long gone. In the valley, Aloha Jhoe’s (which originally had been a William Cody-designed restaurant, Huddle Springs) quickly succumbed to changing tastes. Don the Beachcomber closed in the early ’80s.
The exotic idols had fallen.
A faithful few, however, were keeping the tiki flame alive. In the mid-90s, Shag was creating tiki-themed art, and Otto von Stroheim began publishing Tiki News. Collectors began scouring thrift stores for tiki mugs and other artifacts, and in 2001, the Caliente Tropics and Tiki News put on the first Palm Springs Tiki Fete and Modern Tour.
Shag was preceded at the Royal Hawaiian Estates by Cindra and Rod Stalk, who purchased their home three years ago and furnished it top to bottom with 20 years worth of “tiki/surf/Polynesian furnishings” that came from their beloved Huntington Beach “shack” that was bulldozed under eminent domain. Cindra says that both she and Rod had very fond memories of the original tiki restaurants when they were children, so they introduced the aesthetic to their children and grandchildren. Although they don’t believe there is any special connection between Palm Springs and tiki, “The resort vibe of Palm Springs doesn’t hurt,” Cindra says. “People embrace it the same way they would in Tucson as they would in Waikiki.”
Although the valley hasn’t been completely retikified, there are signs the South Seas aesthetic is making a serious comeback. When Chris Pardo and Jaime Kowal leased the space on the corner of North Palm Canyon and Via Lola where they planned to build Ernest Coffee (named after Ernest Beach, aka Donn Beach), Kowal says they were left with extra space on Via Lola. “It was Chris who found out that Don the Beachcomber had been there,” she recalls. “And creating Bootlegger Tiki was our way of honoring that.”
Farther down Palm Canyon and up a flight of stairs is the Palm Springs outpost of the Tonga Hut, a venerable North Hollywood tiki bar that has been in continuous operation since 1958. Ten years ago, Kevin “Murph” Murphy and his partner bought the bar, restored it to its original tiki glory, and four years ago opened their Palm Springs tiki drinking establishment.
Murph grew up in Minneapolis, where he has vivid memories of a restaurant called the Waikiki that “contained a diorama of Diamond Head.” Murph says the motivation behind the original tiki craze is not that dissimilar to what is driving retikification. “Back then, people had been through the Depression, through a war, and now they’re coming into the good times and tiki was part of that. ‘Let’s have fun, let’s escape, let’s do something goofy and giddy.’”
Murph was very conscious of the various stages of tiki design when he and his partners created the Palm Springs Tonga Hut, including the requisite fishing nets and dive helmet.
While tiki culture may never again reach the crazed status of its golden era, there is no doubt that its connection to the midcentury modern aesthetic, and Palm Springs in particular, remains strong.
“I think tiki was once an alternative for people to their stark modernist environments,” says Kirsten. “To have an organic piece of art amid all the straight lines. It created a balance. It was like The Jetsons and The Fintstones coming together.”