We interview owner Bob — yes, sellin’ the tiki for 57 years!
If you are looking for tiki decor — we have discovered the motherlode of all tiki suppliers: Oceanic Arts — via catalog and live in Whittier, Calif. — which has been sellin’ the tiki for 57 years. Wow — what an amazing story — the real-deal, authentic mid century way to do tiki — from the team there right from the start.
Reader LarsErik gets the props for this tip. He saw the three tiki bar mood boards that Eartha Kitsch, Pam and I recently worked on, and pointed us to Oceanic Arts. LarsErik’s wrote:
Kate, if you happen to live in Southern California, the absolute BEST place in the world to find Polynesian treasures of every variety is Oceanic Arts in Whittier. These are the guys who have done the decor for many of the beloved tiki restaurants/bars back in the day, and their carvings can be seen in Disneyland in and around The Enchanted Tiki Room. They carry mugs, party supplies, lighting, fantastic carvings, thatching, bamboo… you name it. And it is old-school great stuff. Their website doesn’t really show anything at all, but it does have the info where to find their shop. It is worth the drive!
Unfortunately, I don’t happen to live in Southern California — and it is quite a drive from Wisconsin — so I contacted Oceanic Arts to learn more about this source for Tiki decor. Bob — one of the company’s owners — quickly replied with a history of the company:
How Oceanic Arts got its start
Myself (Bob) and business partner LeRoy and I met in Junior College and LeRoy said he had been carving some Palm Frond Masks. I visited him and the masks were wonderful and we talked about selling them. We did some mosaics which had the masks mounted on them and they sold well. We began working in our garage and we met a Robert Carter who was doing some minor importing from the South Pacific and sold to Vic Bergeron of Trader Vic’s and to Donn Beach of the Don the Beachcombers fame. We began carving Tiki Posts for Carter while going to college in the days. We decided a trip to the South Seas was in order so we could learn of their ways and do sourcing of materials. We got a loan on my Corvette and borrowed some from Carter and left for the South Seas. Traveled 37,000 miles and spent 3-1/2 months in the islands.
At this point we started on our own and began carving and selling to restaurant/bars with tropical themes. We have outgrown 3 buildings and now have 17,000 sq. ft. in 3 buildings. 57 years in the Tropical Decor field — all possible with our great employee team and the best customers in the World!
An interview with Robert Van Oosting of Oceanic Arts, Whittier, Calif.
Bob has been in the “tiki” business for 57 years now — an undoubted expert — and agreed to answer my questions:
I see you have been open since 1956 — that makes you an authentic retro business! Have you supplied tiki decor to any of the “famous” mid century tiki bars that opened in the 50s and 60s and are still around today?
Perhaps the most famous ones from the mid 1960’s are the Tonga Room at the Fairmont Hotel in San Francisco, several Trader Vic’s and the famous Mai Kai in Ft. Lauderdale.
Since opening in 1956, have you noticed that tiki decor for both commercial and residential purposes has remained steady in popularity, or has it fluctuated throughout the years?
Tiki Decor was slow in 1980’s, although we supplied 8 Tiki Tiki Restaurant/Bars in Japan. The home tiki bar business really took off when the The Book of Tiki (affiliate link) was written by Sven Kirsten. The book showed many tropical installations. We sold 150 copies of the book in less than 2 months to tiki fans. We have supplied many bars in Europe over the years.
Tell me about some of the items you carry that might be of interest to someone who is trying to construct their own at home tiki bar. Or better yet — if you were making your own at home tiki room, what would be your top five “must have” recommendations for tiki decor?
We import most of the materials required for a home tiki bar. Lauhala Matting from the Phillipines is a time tested material for the wainscotor lower wall area. Trim it out with half round bamboo poles, then contact cement above the Lauhala other varied mattings, apply a Fijian Tapa Cloth and a few South Seas artifacts such a war clubs, and carved wood masks. Put over the bar area a canopy of Woven Raincape Thatch, plus in a few colored Glass Fish Net Floats with lights and amust have is a Lighted Pufferfish or two. Add a few carved wood tiki’son the floor and one has a very relaxing tiki bar room.
What percentage of your products are made by you in house? Do you do a lot of custom work or is most of it made to order from your catalog?
We make about 15% of decor in our shop — mostly custom for commercial jobs. Tiki customers do order special carvings from time to time and some special tropical lights. We make up lighted Puffer fish and keep many in stock. We have 3 warehouses in Whittier, CA to store imported items such as Raincape thatch, thatch Palapa Umbrella Covers in 4 diameters. Bamboo Fencings and about 20 different Mattings from the South Pacific.
Can you list a few current day restaurants/hotels/etc. or film/TV productions that you have supplied decor to?
Restaurants & bars: Foundation Bar/Milwaukee, Adrift/Denver, Trader Vic’s/Chicago, Don theBeachcomber/Huntington Beach, Bali Hai remodel/San Diego, Canoe House/S.Pasadena, Tiki Iniki/Kauai, Tiki No/N.Hollywood, Tiki Beat Bar/Perth,Australia, Tiki Inn/Lithuania, Hale Pele/Portland and at Disneyland: Trader Sams Bar and the Tangaroa Terrace.
A few TV and Movie Productions supplied: All four Pirates of the Caribbean, Storage Wars, Last Resort, Weeds Season 8, How I met your Mother, Revenge, Big Brother 14, Austin & Ally, It’s a Laugh and many more.
Bob and I had one of those “it’s a small world” moments when he mentioned suppling decor to the owner of Foundation Bar in Milwaukee — where not long ago I sat enjoying my tropical drink and marveling at the puffer fish lights hanging over the bar. Wouldn’t you know it — the owner of Foundation found his puffer fish lights during a trip to visit Oceanic Arts.
For those of you who are close enough to plan a day trip to Oceanic Arts — I envy you. For all of the rest of us — Oceanic Arts puts out a catalog which can be purchased for $10 by simply calling, faxing or emailing the shop. The website does say, “Full website coming soon,” but Bob says it has been that way for years. He did mention that they hope to have a more complete website in the next year or so — but are unsure if they will include e-commerce — but they are currently working on an improved, full color catalog.
In the meantime visit OceanicArts.com to see a list of products and services they offer. Mega thanks to Bob for sending the great pictures and information for this story, and to reader LarsEric for the invaluable tiki tip!