Tiki Modern Style Motels in Los Angeles and Beyond

Categories Theme/Kitsch

The late 1940s and 1950s saw the rise of Tiki Modern, a wacky architecture style inspired by Polynesian culture. Tiki motels and cocktail bars spread like wildfire. Then they vanished. Where did this bizarre trend come from and why did it die? Read on to find a truth stranger than fiction.

The Rise of Tiki Modern: Los Angeles Motels and Bars Set the Trend

The whole Tiki Modern trend was really kicked off by Don the Beachcomber (born Ernest Gantt), a free-wheeling entrepreneur influenced by his travels in the Caribbean and the Pacific. What he tapped into, on a bigger scale, was postwar America’s desire for escapism, coupled with the memories of many American servicemen who served in the Pacific and overseas and looked for an exotic experience at home. He opened a restaurant named after himself in Hollywood decked out in a mish-mash of “indigenous-styled” knick-knacks. It was a smash hit with celebrities and everyone else. The winning combination of rebranded Cantonese food, crazy kitschy decor, drinks, and escapism went on to inspire an architectural and cultural trend that resulted in many, many Tiki-style motels. The crazy rum-soaked, strong, sweet, and colorful cocktails that define Tiki bar experience were also sussed out there by mixologists. Some of them went on to found Tiki-Ti cocktail lounge on Sunset Boulevard, an almost mythical institution that continues to soldier on after almost 60 years in operation. To be sure, the “Polynesian style” of Tiki was a hodgepodge that ignored the realities of the actual culture, not to mention political correctness, in favor of creating an exotic escapist fantasy. The result can only be described as – Extremely American!

CC Image Courtesy of Brian on Flickr.

The Fall of Tiki Modern: Gaudy Motels and Bars Lose Their Lustre

The Tiki dream really went down the toilet sometime in the mid to late 60s. Colonial empires were unravelling. Castro conquered Cuba, France gave up Algeria, Sub-Saharan African countries gained independence, and the Civil Rights Movement was radically changing peoples’ awareness of race in the US of A. The carefree fantasy represented by Tiki evaporated almost overnight. Garish motels, bars, and lounges were bulldozed or redecorated. Ditto for hotels and motels. But a few survived and thrived, waiting out the Tiki recession. An excellent example is the Caliente Tropics Resort, a motel in Palm Springs that has stubbornly held onto its kitschy heritage.

The Rise (Again) of Tiki Modern: Tiki Style Motels and Bars Make a Cool Comeback

In recent times, the Tiki style has been enjoying a renaissance. For the first time since their heyday decades ago, new Tiki-themed motels and bars are popping up. Taschen put out a comprehensive book about Tiki Modern design called Tiki Pop in 2014, and pats itself on the back for helping to revive the trend by getting major cultural institutions to take the trend seriously. So now, rather than just writing it off as gross kitsch, academic-y types and well-heeled sophisticated-type folks have started to eye the old exotica as something fun and vital again. Perhaps, in the “experience economy”, things have finally come full circle as millennials try to get away from the cookie-cutter chains that boomers came to love. What’s your take on Tiki? Know a good motel in the style? Let us know in the comments!

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