Modern Matters Object Culture Network

publish date: March 26|2002   



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Pop Culture

Roadside America will take a look at the impact that American Pop culture has played in shaping the architectural landscape along our roads and highways.

Roadside America -
Tiki & Polynesian Pop

Tiki & the American Polynesian Pop Phenomenon: Where did it come from and where did it go?

Tiki ImageWe can still see remnants of a peculiar culture that existed in the not so distant past, in most parts of the United States. You may see a mysterious carved god-like figure that may still stand duty near a torn down nightspot, and then there's that weird cocktail glass that was in with your parent's garage sale stuff. What was this all about and where did it go?

If you were alive in the '50s & '60s in the US you may remember a different time, a time when Tiki roamed all urban areas and was our god of hedonism. A time when America took a trip to paradise without leaving the mainland!

In the mid 20th century when U.S. citizens first started to hear about Hawaii and the South Sea Isles it all seemed like heaven on earth. Tropical beaches, lush vegetation, and beautiful seemed as if all of this natural beauty must be literally a Heaven on earth. A name was given to this place, this feeling, this idea, and that was Polynesia!

California, the closest thing to Exotica here in the United States, was the first to embrace this notion of Paradise on earth. Some thought it possible to bring this feeling and way of life here to the mainland, at least for a night at a time! Soon, entrepreneurs began to build structures in homage to Polynesian primitivism and native culture, it became the modern thing to do. All around California, restaurants and motels began to be built with outrigger beams; waterfalls and the paths to them were illuminated with Tiki torches. Even places as mundane as bowling alleys and shopping centers, soon had frenzied architects designing sweeping outrigger like roofs that cut jagged edges into the landscape.

California in that day was a place that many Americans looked to for future trends in many avenues of culture and lifestyle. So it came as no surprise that in almost every urban area in the U.S., a monument to the Polynesian way of life was soon erected.

Tiki ImageBut who was this "Tiki"? It seems Tiki was an amalgam of many different primitive icons that was "Americanized". In the ancient lore of the Islands, Tiki represented many things including a sexual figure, a god of the artists. This aesthetic lent itself quite comfortably to the "modern" trend of thought, design, art, music, etc. of the times. Those who were "in the know", or considered themselves "modern", embraced this bohemian primitivism completely. Quite simply stated, Tiki was cool. Middle class Americans soon picked on the new "cool". In many homes a wooden or stone Tiki could be seen standing by while guests sipped decadent Polynesian intoxicants. This was a time when America was truly cocktail crazy. Tiki meant sophistication and FUN all at the same time.

Alas, it was not to last.

By the mid-sixties, Tiki culture began to fade from the landscape. The children of those who indulged themselves in Polynesia-mania did not follow in their parent's footsteps. Partying in the sixties moved from alcohol to other substances. Other distant and exotic locales, Europe and the UK, captured the younger generation's curiosity.

Sadly, Tiki architecture and its motifs fell out of favor as a design choice and were viewed as some peculiar fad that was now very over at the time of the early to mid-seventies. For the most part these once proud primitive temples of hedonism fell into decline, modified beyond recognition or just demolished. The '70s yielded a new modern aesthetic and a new concept of what "tropical" meant to the masses, Tiki got homogenized. By the '80s, the mysterious civilization called Tiki was virtually extinct from our urban areas. The God had returned to the heavens, and we as a civilization are missing a link.


David JohnsonDavid Johnson is new to freelance writing for the web but not new to loving and collecting kitsch from the '50s to the '70s. David's home features a different decade's decor for every room of the house including many items inspired by the god of leisure, Tiki!


The Book of Tiki


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