Tiki style with Atomic Ranch
Photo by Allison Corona. Blending styles, the carved sculptures and Witco painting look right at home next to a Florence Knoll side table and Bertoia diamond chairs.

Let’s start in the 1930s when Donn Beach (a.k.a Ernest Gantt) opened his Los Angeles bar, Don the Beachcomber. Decorated with pieces Don brought back from his travels in the South Pacific, patrons sipped on carefully crafted and beautifully presented tropical libations. Shortly after, Trader Vic’s in Oakland, California took off as another hugely successful themed bar. Moving forward, it is important to note that these bars—and what we think of today as “tiki bars”—are mostly an Americanized version of the islands, which must be differentiated from that of “Hawaiiana” and authentic Oceanic cultures. Do take some time to learn about Oceanic history and cultures. 

Tiki style Trader Vic's Atomic Ranch
Photo courtesy of tradervicsemeryville.com Along with Don the Beachcomber, the popular Trader Vic’s bar exposed America to Pacific Island theming in the mid to late 1930’s.

Understanding the Draw

Perhaps the biggest push of the movement in America was due to World War II soldiers returning from their time overseas. With the war at an end, Americans wanted to enjoy life again. Soldiers could revisit fond memories of their time on the islands as they sipped on Mai Tai’s in a dark and well themed tropical bar. Further enhancing the movement was Rodgers and Hammerstein’s hit musical, South Pacific, based on James Michener’s popular book Tales of the South Pacific.

South Pacific Atomic Ranch
Photo courtesy of amazon.com. Media helped to expose Americans to new places during the midcentury with movies like South Pacific.

Tropical Style Comes to the States

When Thor Heyerdahl published Kon-Tiki in 1948, the world became enamored with his adventurous expedition across the Pacific in a small wooden raft. The book gave people dreams of adventure across blue ocean waters. Stephen Crane, who opened the Luau restaurant in Beverly Hills, went on to create a chain of themed restaurants throughout the country in 1958, naming them Kon Tiki.

Bret Gum
Photo by Bret Gum. Neutral bamboo and rattan furniture mixes well with the vibrant atomic shapes often found in Mid Century Modern. 

Not only were tropical restaurants popping up around the US, but plane travel was becoming more accessible, allowing the average person to travel across the Pacific more easily than ever before. The late 1950’s also brought us the big screen version of South Pacific, along with James Michener’s book Hawaii(published in 1959, the same year Hawaii became the 50th U.S. state).

Bringing the Style Home

When it comes to home décor, it’s surprising just how well tropical style can work with mid mod. Pairing lighter bamboo and rattan with bright mod colors creates a fun look, while darker teak and Witco transforms the room in an entirely different way. Whether you’re creating a handmade tropical bar or just blending in a few bamboo pieces, the end goal should always be to enjoy your living space!

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