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Tiki collectors escape winter in their basement paradise

Say aloha to David and Amy Carter’s Tabu Tiki Room.

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If you've ever toured a well-preserved American home built from the mid-1940s to the 1960s, you may have stumbled on a tiki bar, or the remnants thereof, tucked into a basement nook. Though "tiki" technically refers to a wooden or stone carving in humanoid form—often used in Oceanic cultures to represent deified ancestors and mark sites of sacred significance—in the Western world, it has come to be applied to just about anything Polynesian themed. Home tiki bars began popping up in the U.S. during the prosperous postwar period, evocative of leisurely times and warmer climes.

Midcentury-modern furniture collectors David and Amy Carter, of Munster, Indiana, are also passionate about all things tiki. - KERRI PANG
  • Kerri Pang
  • Midcentury-modern furniture collectors David and Amy Carter, of Munster, Indiana, are also passionate about all things tiki.

"It was common for people to have luau parties," says tiki fanatic David Carter, who with his wife Amy deals midcentury-modern furniture under the name Pegboard Modern. "We go to estate sales and period homes all the time, and they're often tiki to some degree or another. Some are just a rec room with a fake palm tree in the corner."

The Carters take the concept of a home tiki bar to another extreme. The entire lower level of their California modern-style home in Munster, Indiana, is a South Seas fantasy: thatched walls, bamboo wainscoting, bamboo furniture, hula girl lamps, framed Polynesian prints, tikis large and small, and a massive vintage mug collection, much of which is featured in their book, Tiki Quest: Collecting the Exotic Past (published in 2003 under David's tiki-collector pseudonym, Duke Carter). They call the basement the Tabu Tiki Room, the result of a long-shared obsession with tiki culture, especially its visually rich architecture and graphic design.

A selection of the Carters' extensive tiki mug collection. - KERRI PANG
  • Kerri Pang
  • A selection of the Carters' extensive tiki mug collection.

David met Amy on some enchanted evening in 1996, shortly after he moved to Chicago. "We were hanging out at her friend's art opening, and she said, 'Do you like tiki bars?' And I said, 'Yes!' "

For their first date, Amy brought him to Hala Kahiki, the storied lounge in River Grove.

"Later when I saw her apartment, she had the exact same stuff I did," David recalls. "She had a tiki collection, a modest one—so did I. And a small collection of midcentury-modern furniture—so did I. We knew it was meant to be. The collecting just kind of snowballed from there."

A neon sign marks the Tabu Tiki Room, the Carters' basement bar. - KERRI PANG
  • Kerri Pang
  • A neon sign marks the Tabu Tiki Room, the Carters' basement bar.

"We spent a lot of time going to thrift stores and flea markets," Amy says. "Back in the day, it was pretty easy to find good tiki." Every menu, matchbook, postcard, and ceramic mug—among the cheapest and easiest ephemera to collect—tells a story of some Polynesian-themed establishment past or present: Kona Kai at the Marriott O'Hare (where the couple was married), Aku-Tiki in Kewanee, Illinois, formerly located inside a remote farm restaurant, and many others.

"You kind of turn into an urban archaeologist, looking for remnants or evidence of places" that no longer exist, David says.

A pufferfish lamp lights the way. - KERRI PANG
  • Kerri Pang
  • A pufferfish lamp lights the way.

When it comes to actual tikis, not every idol or totem in the Carters' basement is carved from wood; some are woodlike but in fact made of urethane foam by a former Chicago company called Universal Statuary, which churned out tikis as a marketing premium for clients like United Airlines (once one of the only airlines that offered flights to Hawaii). Others were sourced from auctions or a California company called Oceanic Arts, which outfitted many of the original tiki bars and restaurants.

For the couple and their two sons, the Tabu Tiki Room is a low-key spot to hang out.

A view of the Carters' living room. "We have a few tikis that are too big to fit downstairs," David says. - KERRI PANG
  • Kerri Pang
  • A view of the Carters' living room. "We have a few tikis that are too big to fit downstairs," David says.

"It's also the warmest room in our house," Amy says. "So we spend a lot of time down there in the winter."

It's not just the aesthetic that draws them, but the escapist element as well. "In the midwest," David says, "we deserve tiki and need tiki more than other places in other parts of the country."   v

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