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Paradise down the street

Time was, you wanted some Tiki in your life, you went to a bar. But a fresher strand of the enduring Tiki `style' is the home version: a hut of one's own, right down to the grass mats.

February 16, 2006|John Balzar | Times Staff Writer

NOT so long ago, just a few years in fact, America seemed determined to rid itself of all remaining traces of one of its most extravagant lapses in taste. But those who were out to cleanse the landscape of the last of "Tiki" style didn't count on the likes of Sven Kirsten, "Bamboo Ben," Kevin Bullat or Jeff "Biff" Butler.

Paradise, you see, doesn't always answer to fashion. Sometimes, our earthly fantasies of paradise lead in another direction entirely.

So you stand in the mood-lit living room of Butler's suburban tract home and behold a molded concrete Tiki that bulges out of his fireplace like a colossal potbellied stove almost as tall as you are. With glowing red eyes the size of taillights, the Tiki breathes fire from its mouth. Intermittently, gouts of steam snort from its nose.

The centerpiece of a fanciful room in which Atomic lounge meets Universal Studios, this, you say to yourself, is why Tiki style survived after all.

It's a worldly matter: establishing a world apart from the world outside.

Mr. Butler, a mai tai, if you please.

Escapist to the extreme, Polynesian pop caught on in California and spread across the country more than half a century ago as a mild, rum-and-luau rebellion against conformity. Then, people sobered up. Tiki bars, Tiki bowling alleys and Tiki motels fell to the wrecking ball. Backyards were cleaned of those old fishing nets with cork floats and bamboo torches. Few people gave a nostalgic thought to the lacquered puffer-fish lamp that used to decorate the den or the abalone-shell ashtrays that Grandpa used to snuff out his unfiltered Pall Malls.

But tropical dreams have proved more durable than other flights of stylistic fancy. Today, perhaps to the surprise of people who don't accept Picasso's maxim that "taste is the enemy of creativeness," the Tiki bar, the Tiki totem, the Tiki mug and Tiki decor have staged an exuberant comeback. Evidence of rising interest in things Tiki can be found in most states, but California remains, as one might expect, the center of mainland energy.

THREE close-by houses in different Orange County neighborhoods offer a glimpse at the stylistic possibilities that occur when people decide to stay home and let their imaginations do the long-distance traveling.

At a bend on a stolid suburban street in Westminster, a low-slung rancher looks something like Grandma's house. In fact, this was Butler's grandparents' home -- a gently aging house distinguished from all the others only by a lime-green Tiki face painted over the garage door.

But cross the threshold and Grandma no longer comes to mind.

"It's like a sanctuary to me. It puts my mind at ease. It's my escape from normality," says Butler of his wildly rendered retro-lounge Tiki decor.

The overlapping spirit of post-War Modernism and tropical primitive remains a distinct offshoot of Tiki style. A graphic artist, Butler's rendition blends bold animal-print chairs with a red leather streamliner sofa and a vintage tucked-Naugahyde cocktail bar, along with Tiki stools and decorative art including primitive carvings and vivid midcentury lounge prints by artist Josh Agle, better known as Shag.

To effectively seal Butler's domain from the elsewhere, sliding glass doors have been replaced with wood and painted, like the rest of the room, to resemble a fortress of red stone. Noon could be midnight, or the other way around, in this far-out realm beyond the comprehension of Mapquest and out of reach of Google's satellite imagery.

Through the sliding doors lays Butler's bedroom in which a pair of 8-foot tall, illuminated faux-stone Tikis loom as if on sentry duty for "Raiders of the Lost Ark." A Murphy bed is tucked out of sight, opening up the visual space and highlighting the mysterious warmth of Polynesian thatch walls, crown molding of bamboo poles and a skylight filtered by tropical matting.

Butler's father scrounged many of the furnishings at swap meets. Friends helped with the work. A one-time roommate, an unemployed artist, paid the rent with a knowing paintbrush.

Butler reaches for words. "Tiki is used in art as a reminder of our primitive side. Hot rodders use it symbolically. For surfers, it reminds them of Hawaii. There's mysticism to it, and it's theme park-ish.... The Tiki Room was always my favorite place at Disneyland. I guess I was looking for a place that would blow your mind, where I could entertain my friends. I'm also an artist, so I just let it go."

Most expressions of residential decor pass in and out of style without need for social introspection. Who, for instance, will challenge your taste for stainless-steel minimalism? Or your doily Victorian furniture? Tiki proves the exception. It seems to demand questions. Why Tiki? Why now? A culture with Calvinist leanings, it seems, must answer for its frolics.

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