If tiki had a Michelangelo, it might just be designer William John Westenhaver.
And if he had a Sistine Chapel, it could be the Hala Kahiki lounge in River Grove.
Mr. Westenhaver was one of the foremost makers of all things tiki — carved chairs, tables, totems, idols, light fixtures, candle and menu-holders. His pieces — produced by Witco, the company he co-founded in Mount Vernon, Washington — once graced Polynesian-style clubs, hotels and restaurants across the country, built in a wave of post-war escapism redolent of rum, coconut and bamboo.
By 1979, when Mr. Westenhaver’s company ceased production, people weren’t as freaky for tiki. A lot of the clubs were shutting down, their trade-wind trappings sold or discarded.
Now, tiki’s been rediscovered. New generations sip umbrella drinks at Chicago’s Lost Lake and Three Dots and a Dash. Tiki fans gather at national conventions. Witco pieces sell for thousands on eBay.
The 52-year-old Hala Kahiki is one of the last of the original beachcombers still standing, a Witco-filled lounge on River Road.
“Hala Kahiki is the best place in Chicago to see Witco carvings, and they may have the largest collection of Witco under one roof anywhere,” said Chicago’s James Teitelbaum, author of “Big Stone Head: Easter Island and Pop Culture” and “Destination: Cocktails.” “Witco fans come to Chicago just to visit Hala Kahiki.”
“That place is living Witco,” said Sven A. Kirsten, Los-Angeles based author of “Tiki Modern (and the Wild World of Witco).”
Mr. Westenhaver, 91, a resident of Coupeville on Washington’s Whidbey Island, died Dec. 14 after a fall, said his son Kim.
At the Hala Kahiki, his Witco furniture and decorations are highly sought after.
“People try to take it right off the wall,” said owner-manager Jim Oppedisano, whose grandparents started the club after getting out of the funeral business, taking the name from a Dennis the Menace comic about a trip to Hawaii.
Oppedisano said he fields about a dozen offers a year to buy the furnishings.
“Hala Kahiki has more Witco than any other public space that I know of,” said Humuhumu Trott, a tiki historian and creator of the website Critiki, a guide to tiki locations worldwide. “It’s an incredible showcase of his work.”
Mr. Westenhaver’s granddaughter, Heather Pleasant, said the Hala Kahiki remains “one of the few little centers” of Witco. Her husband Ken learned carving and design from her grandfather and carries on his tiki-making tradition.
Some theorize Chicago became a tiki town because the decor offered a mental vacation from the cold.
“Californians can go to the Pacific Ocean whenever they want to,” said Teitelbaum. “Chicago natives need to sequester ourselves in the cozy confines of a faux tropical paradise in order to deal with our long winters. . . .Chicago had something like 15 tropical bars during tiki’s mid-century heyday.”
“Chicago was one of the first major towns in the U.S. to see tropicalism appear in its nightlife culture in a big way, especially in bamboo-clad nightclubs like Honolulu Harry’s Waikiki on Broadway and Shangri-La downtown on State Street,” said Trott. “In the heyday of tiki in the ’60s, there were many large, elaborately themed, upscale Polynesian restaurants in Chicago, like Trader Vic’s in the Palmer House Hilton, Don the Beachcomber on Walton Place, the Kona Kai at the O’Hare Marriott and Kon-Tiki Ports on Michigan Avenue.
“Chicago remains a major center of tiki, with Lost Lake and Three Dots and a Dash in particular getting international attention,” Trott said, and, along with the Hala Kahiki, “continuing the tiki traditions.”
In the ’60s, Trott said, Hugh Hefner had large Witco carvings around his indoor swimming pool at Chicago’s Playboy Mansion.
Mr. Westenhaver’s family and tiki experts say Elvis filled his Jungle Room with Witco. Graceland officials say they can’t say for sure because the receipts are long gone, but an archivist at The King’s Memphis mansion says the room’s funky decor appears identical to old Witco pieces seen online.
Mr. Westenhaver’s love of tiki might have stemmed from his World War II service, said his son Kim. A Navy electrician, he spent time on islands on the fringe of New Guinea. While he didn’t have access to wood for carving, “He did have a lot of time to do artwork,” Kim Westenhaver said. “He was always drawing.”
He later attended art school in Los Angeles on the GI bill.
His muscular, rough-cut carvings are “bold and expressive,” Trott said, “simultaneously sinister and friendly.”
A “founding father” of the tiki movement, his designs influenced modern artists including Bosko and Danny Gallardo, aka Tiki Diablo, said Otto von Stroheim, a founder of San Diego’s Tiki Oasis convention.
Kirsten said Mr. Westenhaver “was equally bemused and bewildered that Witco became so popular again.”
Mr. Westenhaver’s wife Patricia died in 2006. He is also survived by his companion Lillian Reggiatore, sons Jerry and Ty, five grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren. A memorial is being planned.