A Brief History of Tiki

Vintage Postcard of Don the Beachcomber's

Summer is in full swing around here (you’re ignoring those “back to school” commercials right? Good). The tropical climate always makes me think of the bamboo bars and Polynesian themed decor of Tiki. Tiki today is sometimes confused with inflatable palm trees and plastic coconuts, but this is not real Tiki. Real Tiki isn’t plastic, and real Tiki is vintage. Technically a sub-set of the Modernest movement (lasting from the 1930s to the 1970s), Tiki was more than a style – it was a uniquely American pop culture form. It can be found in food, clothing, music and architecture of the mid 20th century. Tiki has a history, and it can be serious stuff for the vintage collector.

Tiki culture as we know it began in 1934 with the opening of Don the Beachcomber, a Polynesian-themed bar and restaurant in Hollywood (that’s a postcard image of the dining room above). A world traveller, Don took elements of real South Pacific locations – Tiki statues, lush tropical vegetation, bamboo furniture – and created a fantasy of simplified tropical splendour. It was not authentic of any one place or society, so it became known as “Tiki”. Three years later, Victor Bergeron, better known as Trader Vic, adopted a similar Tiki theme for his restaurant in Oakland California. Born of the restaurant industry, Tiki was originally symbolized by dark wood toned decor, Asian (usually Cantonese) inspired food and an escalating competition for extravagant rum based drinks.

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Tiki culture spread inland from California and was fuelled by an interest in travel. When soldiers returned home from WW II, they brought stories and souvenirs from the South Pacific. In the 1940s and 1950s, the expanding middle class could afford trips to far away destinations. For the first time, suburbanites were looking at places like Tahiti and planning their next vacation under the sun. Popular books and movies of the time featured exotic beaches and locations. Even the possibility of Hawaiian statehood drove interest in the tropical lifestyle, and Americans fell in love with their romanticized version of a “Tiki” culture.

Thus Tiki was more than masks and rattan furniture; it was a byproduct of American wealth and growth in the mid twentieth century. At its height of popularity, Tiki architectural form (A line roofs, wood panelling, interior gardens) cropped up on all types of buildings – churches, shops, hotels, even tract row housing. Is it any wonder that once Hawaii did finally become a state in 1959 Tiki had begun to wear out its welcome? As is always the case, kids didn’t appreciate the same “square” things their parents enjoyed. Tiki began to be seen as a symbol of decadence and cultural ignorance. As the 1960s progressed the younger generation rejected Tiki and by the 1980s almost all the biggest and best examples of Tiki style had been replaced.

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We are currently experiencing a resurgence of Tiki culture, thanks in part to our interest (finally!) in fancy cocktails, but it begs the question: What does Tiki mean now? Tiki was always a form of cultural appropriation. A real “tiki” for instance, is a type of wooden carving representing the first man. The Maori used tiki statues to mark sacred land. Tiki culture used those same forms to hold fruity drinks. Tiki was an invention to bring in business, without deep understanding of the societies it represented. On the other hand, Tiki was also always a fantasy. It was a hodge-podge of influences, put together to resemble a tropical dream. I’m not an expert (I wasn’t even born until after Tiki stopped being cool) but it’s easy to believe that in the confines of 1950s America people wanted an escape. Not everyone could afford to travel, but most could afford a Singapore Sling in a bamboo covered bar. It was a version of paradise everyone could reach, and it still is today. It’s up to you, but I prefer to remember and enjoy Tiki in this context.

I’m new to collecting, but here are some of the pieces in my vintage Tiki barware:

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If you want to put a little Tiki into your home, you can easily start small. Vintage tiki barware, artwork and postcards can be found online and in shops. Tiki mugs (ceramic and sometimes branded like mine from the “Hawaiin Inn”) were often sold as souvenirs and are probably the most popular type of Tiki collectible. If you want to enjoy the full Tiki experience, Tiki bars are popping up once again in urban centres, including here in Toronto. While some complain that the modern revival of Tiki isn’t “primitive” enough, I personally don’t mind a little glamour with my Mai Tais. For me, Tiki is about being in a fantasy tropical paradise, even if it’s the middle of winter and there’s no beach in sight. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to play some Yma Sumac, mix up something with rum, and pretend my backyard is a white sand beach.

As an amateur fan of Tiki, I found the following sites really helpful:

Tiki Central – Forums with everything Tiki. These people know A LOT about tiki culture.
Modernist Architecture: Tiki Modern
– Amazing photographs of Tiki architecture.
Tiki Culture – Well written dissection of Tiki culture in the past and today. Also has a handy “this is NOT Tiki” list.
Behind the Scenes at the Enchanted Tiki Room (youtube video) – A short behind the scenes look at the room of computers needed to make those audio-animatronic birds sing, shot when the attraction first opened. One guy in the comments section calls the Tiki Room an “insidious early 60s nightmare”, so there’s also that.

Vintage Vernonware – “Gingham” and “Tam O’Shanter” Dishes

I last wrote about why antiques and vintage are good value for your money, and today I would like to introduce my extremely durable and lovely plaid Vernonware dishes. These beauties are hand painted heavy pottery, American made, and dishwasher friendly. Although they are around 60 years old, they are still used every day in our house and they are our only set of dishes. I have never cracked or broken one, and they have a fantastic cheerful vintage style. How’s that for great bang for your buck?

Vernonware was a popular pottery line produced by the Vernon Kilns company from Vernon, California in the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s. Over the years the Vernonware line included a variety of designs including solids, plaids, and florals. Vernon Kilns went out of business in 1958 and its molds and patterns were acquired by Metlox Pottery. Metlox produced some of the Vernon Kilns patterns as well as new patterns under a “Vernonware by Metlox” mark until Metlox went out of business in the 1970s.

Between 1937 – 1958, Vernon Kilns produced six lines of plaid dinnerware. The original pattern, “Organdie” was designed by artist Gale Turnbull and the other patterns were inspired by his original design. I collect two of these subsequent designs – “Gingham” and the very similar “Tam O’Shanter”. You can see the difference in these patterns, as well as their individual marks, below:

“Gingham” design on left, “Tam O’Shanter” on right

Vernonware “Gingham” mark

Vernonware “Tam O’Shanter” mark

I found a quote from a vintage advertisement that enthusiastically called the Tam O’Shanter design “fresh as Highland Heather …and warm as a Scottish brogue!” Who wouldn’t want dishes that charming serving up their cornflakes in the morning?

The “Tam O’Shanter” design in all its Scottish majesty.

Vernonware was advertised as durable and versatile. They boasted a 25 year warranty against fading or cracking. They even suggested you could bake your meal directly in their dishes – taking dinner from oven to table in one step. I’ve never baked using my Vernonware dishes (nor do I use them in the microwave). ** UPDATE** : One reader did warn that her Vernonware plate did not survive her toaster oven. Use caution with oven heat! Also, for about two years I put my Vernonware in the dishwasher and thought they were fully dishwasher safe. HOWEVER, I recently noticed that the glaze on some of my pieces is getting a bit dull. Thankfully the damage is minimal but I now hand wash my Vernonware. The little extra time and effort to hand wash will keep any vintage dishes looking shiny and new.

This vintage ad suggests you can fill a giant serving cup with chunky stew. Yum? Image from The Vernon Kilns’ Plaid Dinnerware Website

My generous and stylish mom got me started on these dishes years ago when I was in University. She began by buying a few pieces here and there off eBay. A few pieces turned into a few more, and soon we were delighted to see we had a full set of the plates and bowls. Eventually we were able to add cups, saucers, bread and butter plates and a few platters to the mix. I’m still adding to the collection, and finding new and unusual pieces is a big part of the fun. My dishes are a growing collection and a continuous source of  joy for me. I know that sounds crazy but it’s true! Often the best place to inject a little beauty is in those “mundane” items you use everyday.

Cupboard full of vintage Vernonware

Much like my vintage McCoy planters, vintage plaid Vernonware is a great thing to collect on a budget. The individual pieces can range from around $5 for a small plate to $50 or more for an unusual serving dish or coffee carafe.  I would suggest that if you decide to collect Vernonware, you should snap up the really funky dishes when you see them. Regular shapes like the plates and bowls are somewhat common, but you can wait a long time before you see that two tiered cake stand again. As with many lovely vintage items, Vernonware rewards the vigilant and patient collector.

The plaid stripes and the rims were hand painted.

Pretty, cheerful, full of mid-century modern charm, durable, versatile and high quality. Is there anything my vintage Vernonware can’t do? If you’re interested in adding some of these lovely pieces to your home, start by seeing what’s available on eBay and keeping an eye out at your local antique, vintage and second-hand shops. You can also find some good information online, including the following websites:

The Vernon Kilns’ Plaid Dinnerware Website

Vernonware FAQ

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California and Las Vegas Trip

Hey it’s me! I’m back from two weeks in sunny beautiful Southern California. I had a lovely vacation with my husband’s family. We stayed for a week right next to the ocean in Solana Beach, and then drove across the Nevada desert to Las Vegas. For a Canadian girl, the palm trees and tropical gardens of California seemed very glamorous. I was also happy to see I could eat my weight in fresh local avocados. California is really just a great place to relax, shop, and get those omega 3 levels up.

Anyway, while travelling around the area I kept an eye out for antiques. I found a charming store, House Vintage, one day with my mother in law. Unfortunately I didn’t have much time to look around with family in tow, and the next time I got to that part of town it was Easter and the shop was closed. Nonetheless, I enjoyed my brief look inside and the outside of the shop was fantastic. Here’s a photo:

House Vintage in Solana Beach, California

House Vintage is Solana Beach, California

Check out the purple sign. This is a message every antique shop owner can appreciate:

If you’re here to just pick up random stuff and say “I threw out of dozen of these when I cleaned out the attic” then keep walking looky-loo! I wasn’t able to meet the owner, but I tracked down her blog The Mermaid’s Mercantile and I would definitely recommend a visit to her shop if you’re in the Solana Beach area.

Along the same street (known as the Cedros Design District) you can find lots of great group shops including SoLo where new funky stuff is mixed with mid-century vintage smalls and furniture:

The Cedros Design district also has a large Antique Warehouse, and a huge marketplace called Leaping Lotus. If you’re in that part of California and you like shopping, I would give the whole Cedros Avenue a visit.

So do you like vacation pics? Sure you do! Here’s some other cool stuff I saw:

The mermaid door at House Vintage

Hippy transportation in Venice Beach

Building in LA

Grauman's Chinese Theatre

He was great in Rocky, but for me he'll always be the Penguin.

Balboa Park, San Diego

And in case you thought the cool vintage stopped in California, check out this window display I found in the heart of Las Vegas for the All Saints Spitalfields store :

Can you see what's in the window?

How bout now?

Sewing machines!

Antique sewing machines are perfect for a trendy clothing boutique. They’re graphically interesting (especially all lined up) and they give a strong industrial vibe that is also very au courant in vintage. If I’m judging this store by its cover, I would have found plenty to buy inside. Alas, sometimes on vacation you get distracted, and in this case the family wanted to keep moving to dinner. So much to look at and so little time. Next time Vegas and California! Next time!