MY LUNCH WITH SVEN
: : Sven Kirsten, perhaps more commonly known as Tiki News contributor Sven Tiki, is the author of a new book, The Book Of Tiki. Lavishly illustrated, Sven’s book provides a visual and written history of Tiki through the 50s and 60s in architecture, graphic design and pop culture. When I talked with Sven, in the back of a small restaurant in Toronto’s Little Italy, he was eager to talk about his book and the troubles he had in getting it published. He was also happy to discuss his own discovery of and involvement with Tiki, as well as telling some very interesting stories. And although The Book of Tiki is probably the most comprehensive text ever attempted on the phenomenon, Sven is quick to stress the fact that his book is first and foremost eye candy. : :
Paul : : When did you discover tikis?
Sven : : Really only in California, but I grew up in Hamburg in a port town that had really classical sailor bars with fish netting and shrunken heads. Still today there are some of those left. When I moved to Hollywood, I lived just up the street from the original Don the Beachcomber but I never went in. I drove by it for years and one day it just disappeared. I think it was that experience of loss that inspired me. This was multiplied by the fact that I found this landscaping store called Sea & Jungle. I bought my first Tiki there, and my first Tiki mug. But when I went back 3 months later, they were closed and the place was empty. I was like “How can that be? They had rooms full of great stuff!” But Oceanic Arts apparently bought up all their stuff when they moved away. So then years later, I discovered Oceanic Arts and I saw their menu collection. They were the only ones around who had kept the menus; that was in the late 80s. And I thought “Somebody should make a book of this someday.” In the early 90s, I went back there and I realized nobody was going to do it. I had the concept in my head and I made a mock-up that I started sending to Chronicle Books. But they just didn’t get it.
P : : That’s odd, considering the kind of ‘retro art’ books that Chronicle puts out.
S : : It’s strange, these people are into the nostalgic stuff that draws the line at the late 50s. When it gets into the 60s, it’s all of a sudden considered bad taste. I sent the book in 3 times over the years, supported by some of the other authors that were telling them that this was a great project. I heard about a year and a half ago they realized they should have released it before because now they thought the trend was over with. But I’m glad that they did such a cool book like Pad, I think that’s commendable. But I’m also glad I’m with Taschen because nobody else could publish such a high quality book for $30! To me that means that people are going to pick it up that are not into it, and that was my main goal. I had earlier offers from Amok and RE/Search books that would have been black and white with a minority hipster distribution, and I just didn’t want to do it. Pop culture is supposed to be for the masses and I just wanted this to go out there. A few people had suggested Taschen to me several years ago but then they were still doing European and German books at the time. And I thought this thing has to be rediscovered in America first for Europe and Japan to pick up on it.
P : : When I heard that Taschen was putting out the book, I originally envisioned those small paperback art books of pin-ups that they put out but when I saw it, it was five times the size of what I thought.
S : : In the beginning, the art director balked at having pages with more than one or two images on them because they are used to doing the books fast, with large, full-page illustrations. But this has serious layout. I convinced them that to present it as art you need these full-page illustrations but I wanted quantity as well as quality to show how pervasive it was. I convinced them to pack 600 images into it. I originally selected 1000 and had to edit out 400.
P : : Would you say that doing this book was a learning experience for you, or was it a simply a matter of pulling together what you already knew?
S : : When I began, I really didn’t know anything about it. But just by getting all these pieces of the puzzle, I started to makes sense out of it and develop my own theories behind it. As you can see in the ‘Evolution of Polynesian Pop’ chart in my book, it was a complex phenomenon. It was the World War 2 veterans returning from the Pacific yes, but it was also Kon-Tiki, the tourist trade, and Hawaii becoming a state. These were all socio-economic influences but since I’m talking about a style, I used the restaurant styles as a spine to the whole development.
P : : The surfing chapter was great for me because I find people don’t talk about the connection there. They talk about the connection with lounge music but often ignore the connection with the surf culture.
S : : Some of the appeal of Tiki, what touched the older generation was mirrored by the hip-ness of the monster culture in the 60s. Big Daddy Roth, Rat Fink, all the monster magazines, records, all that stuff. There was some parallel there. The kids got into monsters and their parents got into Tiki.
P : : Being a director of photography, are you interested in Tikis in film at all?
S : : I can really recommend a movie called ‘A Moon & Sixpence’ (1943). It’s for South Seas artists what ‘The Fountain Head’ is for modern architects. Total melodrama but great. But I would say the best movie to capture the spirit of the Tiki lounge is ‘I Am Cuba’, a Russian propaganda movie shot in Cuba right after the revolution. It was done by a Russian director and a Russian cinematographer. They did this amazing wide-angle hand held camera move that starts with a bikini fashion show on the rooftop at the Havana Hilton. There’s all these girls, and this crazy band, and the camera moves into a glass elevator, goes down to the pool deck, follows a waiter with a drink until another girl takes the drink and dives into the pool. And the camera follows her underwater, all in one move. Paul Anderson copied that for his movie on the porno industry...
P : : The patio party in ‘Boogie Nights’.
S : : Yeah, he stole that. But what’s really great are the night club scenes. It’s an episodic film and it deals with the plight of the students, the plight of the farmers, and the plight of the poor girls who work in the night clubs and have to go to bed with bad American business men (Laughs). It’s really so true the way these loud businessmen are portrayed in the night club. When my grand-father’s shipping line when bankrupt in the 60s, my father switched to the record business, and he was hired by this American businessman named George Miller, who was the inventor and the recorder of the 101 Strings series. They started a budget record label in Germany. George Miller was the quintessential cigar smoking, whiskey drinking, 50s businessman. The photographs you see on the covers of the 101 Strings albums were shot at the Hamburg Music Hall. I remember as a little boy I used to sit in one of the booths watching them record covers of 60s hits. After the war, German orchestras were extremely cheap, so they recorded all that stuff over there. But back to ‘I Am Cuba’. It’s ingenious the way the camera moves through the crowds from one space to another. They have bamboo poles that hang from the ceiling like curtains, but they’re poles. So they give the thing a 3-dimensionality, but you can still move through it with the camera. And there are Tikis and birdcage lamps from the Trader Vic’s Hilton in Havana. Hipper video stores should have it; it was just redistributed by Francis Ford Coppola.
P : : I have been reading recently that Yma Sumac was in several movies. I’m assuming they’re all ‘lost to the ages’, since I’ve never seen any around. One of my favourite scenes I’ve found is from Stanley Kramer’s ‘It’s A Mad Mad Mad World’, where they’re dancing...
S : : Yeah, the beatnik guy...(Laughs) That is so cool.
P : : I think his bar only really has one Tiki in it though.
S : : Starting in the early 90s, I held what I call Tiki Symposiums, for a group of friends that got together – just like the Montreal Tiki Appreciation Society – and each had a theme. One was ‘Tiki TV’ where I actually cut a tape together of all these scenes from all these movies. That was another thing about my book, I had 2 more chapters for it: Tiki TV and Exotica. But my editor called me and said the translations were taking up too many pages. Rather than go into each chapter and weed out more images from already condensed material, I just said “Lop off Tiki TV and Exotica.” I had all kinds of stuff in there, the Tiki from Gilligan’s Island, some great stills from Hawaiian Eye, a comic book cover from Hawaiian Eye with a Tiki on it.
P : : So, what was going to be in the other chapter, music?
S : : Yeah. Benedict Taschen is talking about doing a CD book about exotica and drink recipes. It’s more like the fun book that people might have expected. I thought about putting a CD in the back of my book, and I actually talked to Capitol about getting all the different rights for the songs I had selected. But the material was so precious to me, and I wanted to keep the book in the $30 range, so we took out the CD. And am I glad, because this is supposed to be like the Bible of Tiki. It’s not to be taken seriously, certainly not, but with a CD in it, it would have not been a ‘book book’.
P : : More like “Let’s put on this CD and look at some wacky pictures.” You mentioned at the end of the book that you’re working on a Witco book?
S : : Yes. I’m in touch with him, and he just has tons of catalogs with these great colour illustrations of his furniture. His wall paintings alone are just great stuff.
P : : Why do you think there is such a renewed interest in Tikis?
S : : I think people are thirsty for new old things, and it’s just a facet of American pop culture that hasn’t been exploited or rehashed yet. In it’s own time it wasn’t recognized as what it was. Everyone was confused and thought it was “from the islands”, but hopefully what I’m making clear with this book is that, yes it was inspired by the exotic, but this was a whole thing on it’s own. For me as a cameraman, I like the visual extremes of Tiki. The contrast of primitive idols with these 50s old ladies and businessmen sitting there and having a drink, it’s just so absurd! Really the best pictures in the book are those with Tikis and people together.
P : : How did you got involved with Otto Von Stroheim and Tiki News?
S : : Well, a couple of friends in L.A. were throwing these Tiki mug parties, and asked me about the idea of making a fanzine. And I said sure, it’s a great idea. Some of the things I had written for Tiki News actually ended up in the book, like the Surfin’ Tiki chapter. Recently, I really got into the exotica/erotica issue, there were so many interesting aspects of it that I ended up writing several articles.
P : : Yeah, I noticed you had a picture of a Tiki Massage parlor in the book...
S : : That’s still there, on Santa Monica Boulevard. There was a guy in Berkeley who kept trying to talk to them and they kept slamming the phone down (laughs). Some people are so bitter it seems about the whole thing. When you approach these old-timers, they just look at you with total mistrust. “What does he want? Why is he interested in that?”
P : : Most of the pictures in the book are from the US, but I noticed you had Montreal’s Kon Tiki and a Tiki matchbook from Niagara Falls, Ontario!
S : : Yeah, I snuck a couple of Canadian references in there. But I tried to limit myself to the US. Until the work of the MTAS, I wasn’t aware of the extent of it in Canada. I mean, I’d heard tales but this book was really about the American part in it. I think it would be great if someone would do a Canadian version of a Tiki book – it’s all about recreating it for yourself. To get back to your question about the appeal of Tiki today, there will always be a need for people to create their own little paradise for themselves. Of course, you can’t do that seriously anymore, so you kind of do it tongue-in-cheek. I think there’s an archetypal need for it; it’s just fun.
Paul Corupe © 2001