Tiki Pop: America Imagines its Polynesian Paradise — opening today in Paris — 24 pics

TIki Pop show poster
© musée du quai Branly

Tiki-TuesdayNow that Pam and I are even more tiki-crazed via The Hukilau, we are launching a new feature, Tiki Tuesday. First up, giant news in tiki land: A new exhibit — Tiki Pop: America Imagines its Polynesian Paradise — opens in Paris today. We believe this is the first and largest exhibit of its kind, and we bet it will be awesome because it has been curated by the estimable Sven Kirsten, the world’s #1 researcher of Polynesian Pop and author of the two tiki revival bibles, Tiki Modern and The Book of Tiki (affiliate links). The exhibit will feature nearly 450 tiki-related artifacts from the 17th century  to the 1960s. And, our new friends from CheekyTiki — Anjy Cameron and Jamie Wilson, in London — have even built a tiki bar inside the exhibit!

Tiki Pop Exhibition
View of the exhibition. © musée du quai Branly, photo Gautier Deblonde

This exhibit news release from the Quai Branley Museum tells a wonderful, detailed story about the genesis of Polynesian Pop aka Tiki Pop:

America imagines its Polynesian paradise

June 24 – Sept. 28, 2014
Curator: Sven Kirsten, author and expert in Tiki culture

An iconic style of American popular culture in the 50s and 60s, Tiki style presents a fantasy image of the southern seas. This culture began with the fanciful depictions of the South Pacific conveyed by the tales of 18th-century explorer. Adventure novels, and later the cinema, followed in the footsteps of this trend, propagating a reinvented vision of Polynesian cultures.

South Seas movie vintage
Press release of King Island with typical imaging the sales pitch for a movie in the South Seas.
© D. R.

In the 1930s, Polynesian-themed bars and restaurants began to appear in America while the stereotypes of the beachcomber and the sexy vahine were popularised in literature and on the big screen. With the appearance of the Tiki in the 1950s, this style became a genuine way of life. A very liberal adaptation of the original Polynesian idols, Tiki imagery was produced in traditional and modernist forms and pervaded everyday life.

Tiki Pop exhibition
View of the exhibition. © musée du quai Branly, photo Gautier Deblonde

Nearly 450 works, photographs, films, musical recordings and archive documents bear witness to this infatuation become a lifestyle. A selection of astonishing objects – whether commonplace (glasses, matchboxes, ashtrays etc.), pop accessories (perfume or ketchup bottles), elements of interior decoration etc. – is presented alongside authentic works (Maori Tekoteko sculpture, Tongan Kava bowl etc.). While the Tiki style has seen a recent revival in the United States (with the reopening of cocktail bars, for example), the exhibition TIKI POP America imagines its Polynesian paradise explores the rise of this unique phenomenon in American culture, its peak in the 1950s, its decline in the late 1960s and its neglect in the 1980s.

vintage tiki mugs
2 coffee cocktail designed by Florian Gabriel. © Jennifer Patrick

“Throughout the history of art, certain periods have stood out for their use of sculpture in architecture and the decorative arts. The idealized realism of the Greek statuary or sensual cherubs of the Renaissance have each in turn become the icons of a certain period’s style. This exhibition will present a relatively unknown style from the mid-20th century, a style inspired by an art form considered to be the antithesis of classical art: the “primitive” sculptures of the Oceanic island people who were universally labeled as “Tiki” by America in the mid-20th century.

In this imaginary world of Tiki pop culture, Americans produced their own Hollywood vision of the South Seas, with themselves as stars, complete with fake palm trees and an exotic soundtrack. Visitors are invited to travel along a chronological route that will relate the movement’s origins, its rise and the subsequent fall of this phenomenon unique to American culture.” — Sven Kirsten

Waikiki Room vintage tiki
Waikiki room. A diorama enchanting landscape gives illusion dinner on a tropical beach at Waikiki Room Minneapolis, Minnesota. © D. R. , Collection Mimi Payne
Gauguin Tahitian journal
Noa Noa, Gauguin Tahitian journal. © D. R.

Section 1: PRE-TIKI (from the 17th to the mid-20th century)

The golden age of American Tiki style in the mid-1950s was preceded by an assortment of fanciful ideas about life in the South Seas. By the time the Tiki made its entry onto the American stage, it was already set with various Western interpretations of Oceanic culture. The travel logs of Bougainville and Cook, followed by Pierre Loti, Melville and Paul Gauguin, coupled with the popularity of Hawaiian music in the 1920s, all played an initial role in the formation of myths linked to the South Seas. These references were fed by numerous accepted ideas on Polynesian culture and the related extrapolations in the popular imagination.

Kon Tiki movie poster
Movie Poster The Kon-Tiki. 1951. © D. R.

Thus founded, this myth of an Oceanic paradise developed throughout the 20th century in a fashion substantially identical to the development of popular entertainment. Up until the start of the century, the imagination of the public at large had mainly been influenced by the reading of novels. From the 1920s onwards, books gave way to music and then films as the source of inspiration for South Sea dreams. Hollywood films became the new media through which the popular myth of Polynesia saw itself perpetuated.

Don the Beachcomber
Don The Beachcomber at the entrance of the bar (Frank Brajevic collection) and literary history. © DR

Across America, Polynesian-themed bars and restaurants drew inspiration from these films in which invented characters were developed in a romantic atmosphere. The public at large quickly took to this atmosphere, which had first attracted numerous Hollywood celebrities. Don’s Beachcomber Cafe in Hollywood became the benchmark for all Tiki bars in the 20th century. The idea for the famous Hollywood Walk of Fame was directly inspired by a menu for tropical cocktails.

hollywood tropics
Set of paper table of Hollywood Tropics 1940. Private Collection © D.R.

During World War II, scores of young Americans were sent to the Pacific. In spite of the violence of the Pacific conflict, the notion of a Polynesian paradise gained ground over the reality that the soldiers were facing there. With the newly-found post-war prosperity, the need for entertainment grew greater than ever before. The challenges faced during combat gave way to a fantasized view of the enchanted South Sea islands. The singer and actress Frances Langford followed the same route as the Polynesian pop wave in America. Moving from radio to cinema and then on to entertaining troops during World War II, she married John Hall, an actor in South Sea films, and ended up opening her own Polynesian restaurant, The Outrigger. James Michener, a former GI, recounted his war experience in Tales of the South Pacific, which was later adapted into a musical and film. The romantic elements were embellished and soon the whole of America was humming the show tune of Bali Hai

Giant tiki
Original postcard of a tiki garden. © D. R.

Section 2: Tiki – The American God of Leisure (from the mid-1950s to the end of the 1960s)

Until then, Tiki was one of the numerous icons populating the visual universe associated with the fantasy of the South Sea. However, from the mid-1950s, a taste for the so-called “primitive arts” became a mark of refinement.

Illustration of tiki. On the front, the two arms are folded and pressed against the chest. Both hands are opposite, flat. On the back of the head, another face is carved tiki.
Dimensions: 4.5 x 3 x 2.5 cm, 19 g. Country: Marquesas (Islands)
Province State: Oceania. © musée du quai Branly, photo Claude Germain

Artwork sourced from Oceania was exhibited in museums and also in the lobbies of buildings and private individuals’ living rooms. Being a connoisseur of the “indigenous arts” conferred an aura of distinction and culture. Tiki then became the ambassador of the Polynesian paradise; its image appearing on menus and being sculpted into posts and cocktail mugs.

Kon-Tiki Polynesian restaurant
Kon-Tiki Polynesian restaurant, Montreal, 1958. Collection JP Balak. © D.R.

Restaurants and bars became “Tiki temples”, their elaborate interiors giving the impression of being on a tropical island. After the end of Prohibition, the art of the cocktail became an integral part of this culture. Complex tropical drink creations were a large reason for the success of these spaces. The new mass media, the television, brought Tiki to the homes of the middle classes. Programs such as “Hawaiian Eye” or series such as “Adventures in Paradise” grew very popular. At the same time, Hawaii become the 50th American state and turned into America’s “playground”. The luau, the traditional Hawaiian festival, made its way into American cities and homes. At its peak, American Tiki style constituted its own unique pop art genre.


Polynesian cocktails
Map of Polynesian cocktails and coffee. Early 1960s. © D. R.

Section 3: Rise, expansion and fall of Tiki style

Tiki became its own style once it branched out beyond the decoration of restaurants and began to influence the style of apartments, motels and bowling lanes. Theme parks and holiday resorts also surfed the Tiki wave to its break. Tiki architecture developed modern buildings with a pointed peak resembling the native huts and communal houses of the Pacific while incarnating the “Jet Age style”.

Kon Tiki Hotel
Kon Tiki Hotel, Phoenix, Arizona, 1961. Collection Scott Schell. © D.R.

Tiki style in architectural applications was ubiquitous, inventive and also complex.

vintage tiki mug
Hawaiian Ku-style mug from the Aloha Hut. Collection Martijn Veltman. © D. R., Jennifer Patrick
tiki Soap vintage
Set of soap. Tiki Amway brand mid-1960s (collection Kate Simmons). © Jennifer Patrick

Tiki also made its way into the domestic realm: Tiki-shaped kitchen utensils, garden tools, DIY kits, complete home bar furniture sets (like in Elvis Presley’s Jungle Room)… Despite this growth, the generation that created and appreciated the Tiki wave grew older and, with the great social upheaval at the end of the 1960s, their children categorically stated that their parent’s leisure activities were passé and out-of-touch.

Mai Kai Girls
The Mai-Kai girls await you on their suburban island. Collection Tim Glazner. © D.R.

The awareness about the crimes of colonization, sexism and racism put an end to the South Sea fantasy. By the 1980s, Tiki was completely forgotten.

Mutiny on the Bounty
Mutiny on the Bounty Nordhoff and Hall. © D. R., Jennifer Patrick

Marlon Brando, the star of the 1962 film version of Mutiny on the Bounty, stands out as a metaphor for American Tiki pop. The story of the mutiny gave form to the dream of the average citizen to rebel against his boss, quit his job and live a carefree live on a South Sea island.

Brando stood out as a god among men. He had the power to realize what the rest of the (masculine) population could only dream: as Fletcher Christian, he took a young Tahitian girl as wife and then bought his own island. He could not, however, prevent his family from succumbing to the curse of the Pitcairn mutineers. It seems that, in the end, the dream of the South Sea was destined to remain a chimera that should never be realized.

Tropical tiki hut
Snapshot of a beach in the tropics. © D. R.
Menu Trader Dick's, Reno, Nevada © D. R. Author of the work: Jennifer Patrick
Menu Trader Dick’s, Reno, Nevada. © D. R., Jennifer Patrick


After having been completely forgotten in the 1970s and 1980s, Tiki style reappeared thanks to the careful work of urban archaeologists and hunters and collectors of pop objects. Their work and the books they published eventually led to an artistic Tiki renewal that once again turned into a pop culture phenomenon.

Tiki Pop exhibition Tiki bar
View of the exhibition. © musée du quai Branly, photo Gautier Deblonde
Tiki Pop exhibition Tiki bar
View of the exhibition. © musée du quai Branly, photo Gautier Deblonde
Tiki Pop exhibition Tiki bar
View of the exhibition. © musée du quai Branly, photo Gautier Deblonde

In connection with the exhibition
27/06/2014 – 29/06/2014
Alongside the exhibition, the Festival of Hawaiian Arts honors the Hawaiian arts at the musée du quai Branly. On the programme: traditional dance performances and workshops, contemporary music concert with guitarist Slack key Makana, workshops to make Lei (leaf and flower necklaces), Hawaiian stories told by Kilohana Silve, and Ouli by Anne-Laure Rouxel, an event for young visitors.

BEFORE TIKI POP, America imagines a Polynesian Paradise.
Friday 11/07/2014, from 7:00 pm to 23:00 pm
This festive night combines a visit to the exhibition and artist performances in order to provide a different view of the musée du quai Branly. This meeting is particularly geared to visitors aged 18-30 and offers a privileged glimpse of the exhibition accompanied by tour guides as well as a plunge into a universe brought back and reinterpreted by artist performances.

This show looks to be a fascinating trip through the history of the tiki. Are there any readers living or currently visiting France that plan to attend? We’d love to hear all about it.

Are you a tiki collector? Pam adores Sven’s book and has his new one associated with this exhibit on order. The description says it includes hundreds of previously unpublished images. Sounds like a must-have for the discerning tikiphile:

*affiliate link

Mega thanks to musée du quai Branly and Laurence Vaugeois from Pierre Laporte Communication for providing us with the information and photos for this article.

Tips to view slide show: Click on first image… it will enlarge and you can also read my captions… move forward or back via arrows below the photo… you can start or stop at any image:

Categoriestiki and bars
  1. nina462 says:

    Tiki culture is listed in the latest issue of Reminisce magazine.
    Three dots and a Dash is a new Chicago Tiki bar!

  2. Jen says:

    Good post! I surely came to love tiki thanks to my grandfather. During WWII he served in the South Pacific, and once his children were old enough, he & my grandmother visited Hawaii every year (believe me, the man earned it) until she passed away. He had a bar in his basement, and a lot of tiki influence was there, too; goodness, once he even took us to an Asian restaurant in the suburbs of Detroit that had a whole lot of tiki to it (unfortunately, I was quite young and don’t remember which restaurant it was, but there was even a waterfall).

    I’m so happy to see it making a comeback—ultimately, there’s a lot of good cheer at the bottom of it (nothing is perfect, no, but we all must confess that the exotic escapism of tiki is just fun!). We have a tiki bar for our deck, there is a popular tiki restaurant here in Columbus, and it all makes me smile. 🙂

    Looking forward to more Tiki Tuesdays!

    1. pam kueber says:

      The Kahiki? Very famous — but recently torn down, alas!

      Thanks so much for sharing the stories about your grandfather — so sweet!

  3. Bunni says:

    We have a new Tiki lounge in Chicago. Tiki decor, tiki drinks, tiki glasses/mugs, etc. Name is “Three Dots and a Dash”. Very popular. See the pictures on the web site.

    Link: http://www.threedotschicago.com

    Not sure if this web address will turn out to be a link when I post this.

  4. Nancy says:


    Awesome post! I am a Rabid TiKiPhiLe – going back to the late 60’s/early 70’s. My dad worked for United Airlines and we vacationed, quite frequently, in Hawaii.

    We even got to fly First Class – back when flying was glamorous (and First Class air-travel to Hawaii was practically a vacation – in itself!).

    Many times, we stayed at the Waikikian Hotel – with it’s lush, meandering tiki gardens – loved it! (sadly, it’s was demolished in the 90’s – a crying shame!). Amazing place with a soaring parabolic roof and – the kid in me mainly remembers the parrots in the lobby!

    I am thrilled to see that Tiki is making a comeback! There’s an awesome Tiki bar, Forbidden Island, up in Alameda, CA (we go there once a year). I’ve been to Mai Kai (loved it!), Trader Vics (a long time ago). Ooh – and Oceanic Arts in Whittier (So-Cal) is a Tikiphile’s wet dream (got a ton of patio decor from them!). Hey – there are some “leads” for you – in your quest for Tiki Content!

    I am anxiously looking forward to more Tiki Tuesdays! Thanks!

    …Back into the shadows now (til next Tuesday!)…

  5. Steve H says:

    I love the picture of the old Waikiki Room in my hometown. Of course, anyone familiar with Minneapolis is aware of the astonishing similarities it shares with the Hawaiian Islands.

      1. Robin, NV says:

        Thanks for the link. Sadly I see that Trader Dick’s in Sparks has been replaced by a country/western bar. Wow. I feel like I just died a little inside. Trader Dick’s at the Nugget was a local institution. Where am I going to get crazy fruity drinks with umbrellas now?

  6. Robin, NV says:

    Great post, very interesting stuff. So glad to see Trader Dick’s in Sparks, Nevada mentioned. I have several Tiki mugs from there. As a teenager in the 1980s, they were a highly desirable item.

    It’s interesting that the popularity of Tiki started in the 1930s – it would have followed the craze for all things Egyptian in the 1920s. Check out this: http://egyptiantheatreoregon.com/tour-of-the-theatre/

  7. midmichigan says:

    Great post, Kate. Back in the 60’s we had a local Tiki Bar located in the Frandor shopping center in Lansing, Michigan (one of the first strip malls in the country but that’s another story) called “The Boom-Boom Room”. It was big fun and their signature drink was called “The Orgy”. It was served in a huge bowl-like glass with three or more straws.
    I found a link with pictures and text:


    On far too many occasions we should have never left there in a car.

    1. Kate says:

      Very cool Midmichigan! They had a large drink like that at the Mai-kai too… wasn’t called the orgy though. Too funny! 🙂

      1. nina462 says:

        we had the Tur Mai Kai in Kalamazoo, MI….with a bridge that you had to cross to get to the dining room. (Sadly, now it’s a Red Robin).

        And I remember one year my brother made a Tiki Man (God of Leisure) instead of a snow man…..I’ll have to find that picture, as Tiki Man was huge! Maybe we can start a trend next winter –

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