I was recently in the Florida Keys and noticed a lot of what I would have called “tiki huts”–perhaps that’s what others in the Keys call them too.
Here is an NPR consideration of the history of tiki style.
And then I found this surprisingly nuanced account on the website of a thatch company:
“Tiki decor, as we know it today, was born in the restaurant industry, as it became popular to have themed dining experiences. Bars and restaurants started to feature thatched roofing, tiki masks, and Polynesian sculpture to create a real-life ‘tropical paradise’…Like all trends, tiki rose and fell, and during the 1970s, things like tiki huts and tiki bars went out of fashion. They began to be considered inauthentic and gauche.
“Today, however, Tiki is experiencing a resurgence in popularity. The irony is the lack of authenticity, which once caused Tiki’s demise, is restoring its appeal. Tiki is a throwback to the 1950’s, and so it is an authentic celebration of American pop culture.” [emphasis mine]
Delicious, the layering of cultural meaning that can happen–but only if we allow the term “American pop culture” to stand on a level with “Polynesian culture,” which may not be warranted. Also, it seems our historical memory is becoming very short.
The tiki huts I saw in Florida are not particularly trendy, just standard tourist semiotics. I think they refer to Florida itself, in a way that “tiki huts” in, say, Virginia cannot refer to Virginia. It seems that thatched-roof open-air huts in Florida are actually an indigenous phenomenon there, though they have a different name: chickee huts. One might assume they have a long history, but it seems perhaps not: Before Seminoles were pushed into the swamps in the 19th century, they lived in log cabins.
We are always appropriating something; if not, in this case, Polynesian architecture, then Seminole architecture, developed as a response to a land grab by Americans. And inside one of the tiki-hut (chickee-hut) restaurants we went to, I saw license plates and other bricabrac that was meant to evoke nostalgia for yet another place– New Orleans.
The constant yearning to be somewhere else; the selling of experiences based on that yearning; the use of sign and story to sell; and the deeper stories beneath–these are always interesting to me.