20 Years of The Book of Tiki – Reflections With Author Sven Kirsten (Part 1)

It’s hard to have a conversation about Tiki without bringing up Sven Kirsten. An integral figure in the modern Tiki revival, Sven helped bring an artistic style to the forefront that hadn’t really been given a name or even a place in American pop culture history. Through years of immersing himself in urban archaeology, Sven carefully documented Tiki in the mid-20th century and laid out his findings in the now-famous tome, The Book of Tiki, released 20 years ago this month.

The Book of Tiki with the 20th anniversary mug designed by SHAG

Sure, we all love the cocktails and have all likely enjoyed a Mai Tai or two (or three) from time to time, but the cocktails are only one small part of Tiki. Escapism wasn’t achieved through the drinks alone. There was art, architecture, advertising, media, music, and so much more that captured the American imagination. During a time when air travel wasn’t accessible to everyone, Tiki allowed people to travel to a faraway land without having to go very far at all. 

Sven at the Tiki Apartments, 2013 (photo courtesy of Sven Kirsten)

Tiki nearly disappeared completely during the 80s, with many Polynesian Pop destinations meeting with either all-out closure or the wrecking ball. Others were renovated by proprietors eager to distance themselves from the style. But diehard fans unearthed it through underground meetups and urban archaeology. Thanks to the work of Kirsten and notables such as Jeff “Beachbum” Berry and Otto von Stroheim, Tiki slowly began to re-emerge. And in September of 2000, The Book of Tiki was published.

Sven Kirsten and Martin Denny with The Book of Tiki
Sven and Martin Denny, the King of Exotica, 2003 (photo courtesy of Sven Kirsten)

I sat down with Sven recently to talk a little bit about how the book came to be, and ask a few burning questions of my own in a two-part series. Enjoy!

RM: In previous interviews, you’ve mentioned you shopped The Book of Tiki to various publishers and were turned down left and right. Taschen eventually took you up on it — do you know or can you speculate as to why they bit when no one else would? 

SK: Well, my attempts to find a publisher came in waves. I have this quote-unquote famous rejection letter from Chronicle Books from 1992. At that time, Chronicle Books did a lot of cool things on Americana. 

I think they were the first to publish Jim Heimann’s California Crazy and they did Googie [by Alan Hess]. These are books that were influential to my generation of urban archaeologists and mid-century modernism lovers. So I tried Chronicle, and they turned me down. Then I tried Abrams and several other – at the time – happening art book publishers on the East Coast, and there we go. 

At that point in time, the whole publishing business and world was really concentrated around New York. And again, we had the problem that people in New York had Trader Vic’s, they had the Hawaii Kai stuff, but it was not like on the west coast — they didn’t get it. They didn’t get that it was a whole culture. Actually, Chronicle, I remember — the editor that rejected it said there was too much on too small of a subject. They just didn’t see how pervasive it had been even though I think I showed that in my proposal. The proposal, by the way, had the complete lineup of chapters very much the same way that it actually was published in the Book of Tiki years later. So, you know, I had it all together in my mind. 

Beginning in the late nineties, Taschen books were in stores all over Germany already. And I really liked their stuff, and my friends started telling me, “Why don’t you try Taschen Books?” But in the late 90s, they still were a European publisher — they hadn’t come to the United States. And I always felt like, I want this pop culture to be rediscovered in America first, and then it will, like all other kinds of pop trends, spread out to Europe and to Japan and stuff. So I said, “No, yeah, Taschen does great books, but…” And then when I heard that Benedikt Taschen [Taschen’s founder] was moving to Los Angeles, that’s when I decided maybe I should try it. 

It just so happened that Pete Moruzzi knew the Swiss architect Frank Escher, who was renovating the Chemosphere for Benedikt Taschen. So it was a shoo-in. I gave Pete my proposal, he gave it to Frank Escher, and Frank gave it to Benedikt, and you know, it was the beginning phase of Taschen in America. They were actually looking for material, so it was just the right time and the right place. 

I always tell the story of how Benedikt came over just to show what a workaholic he is. He actually called me and said, “I want to come over and look at some more of your stuff on January 1st.” I mean, who’s working on January 1st? [Laughs] I said, “Of course, yes, that’s no problem,” and I pulled out all my files and all my slides and I had stacks of them, and he actually leafs through everything. 

Chicago expedition for The Book of Tiki (photo courtesy of Sven Kirsten)

You could tell that he was scanning everything and he was not only looking for quality; what he was looking for was quantity, because that really is a mark of his books — they’re not only beautiful books, but they’re so full of stuff…they’re so thick. So he was basically checking [to see] if I had enough material to make a book. And then he said, “Yeah, I think we can do this.”

RM: Part of understanding and identifying certain elements of Tiki style depends on having knowledge of the art of regions that inspired it. Where have you traveled in the Pacific Islands that helped you gain some of that knowledge?

SK: I have to backpedal from that, because people used to ask me that about when I wrote for Tiki News before the book came out. Like, “Where in Polynesia have you been?” The whole point I was trying to make is, “I haven’t been to Polynesia.” Actually, until the 90s, when I was deep into the whole subject matter, I had not been to Hawaii yet.

So I was saying as kind of a joke that you don’t need to go to Polynesia, because it’s all here. And that’s what I’ve tried to explain to people, because during the heyday of Tiki there was complete confusion about it. It wasn’t recognized as an American art form. People were left in the belief that these Tikis actually came from the islands, and carvers like Milan Guanko, because he was Filipino as you know, were from the islands.

Of course, it was all make-believe – supposed to be a Hawaiian or a Polynesian paradise, but confusion persisted even when I was collecting Tiki in swap meets or flea markets. Dealers did that to try to talk up the value of their Tikis – kept on saying they’re from the islands. [Laughs] I didn’t correct them because nobody had realized that this was an art form in its own right. 

In the late 90s and early 2000s, I went to Hawaii for a while almost every year. It was just mind-blowing, and I did go to existing temple sites, but I also noticed that there was very little American Tiki culture left in Hawaii, and what I could find was often very authentic, because in the birthplace of the culture, people had to be more careful about how they produced carvings and stuff.

Here on the mainland, people were freer and not so chained to the originals, and that’s what made it interesting to me. I have no interest in seeing exact copies of ancient art. That’s not creative. What was creative to me was how Americans on the mainland reinterpreted the culture, and that’s where I saw the artistic genius.

Sven Kirsten beside a Tiki at Oceanic Arts
Sven discovers Oceanic Arts, 1989 (photo courtesy of Sven Kirsten)

One of the greatest rewards of my publishing of the Book of Tiki was in 2001, I think, or 2002. I got a job as a lecturer on the freighter Aranui that went from Tahiti to the Marquesas Islands. I put together five lectures on Gauguin, Marquesan culture. At the time, to get back to your original question, I started studying the different Tiki styles, and one of my best guides was the Covarrubias map of the art styles of the Pacific. And that made me realize that each island group had their own style, and they were not necessarily all called Tikis – only in the Marquesas and in New Zealand. 

But in America, they all got sort of thrown together into this happy family of the Tikis, being from any island.

Art Forms of the Pacific by Jose Miguel Covarrubias

Keep an eye out for Part 2 of my interview with Sven Kirsten, which will go up later this week. Thanks so much for reading!