Make that reborn. This year, Andy Hackman, a dealer and expert on outdoor furniture at California Living in Los Angeles, convinced Miller Fong that the moment was right to reissue the Lotus and other Tropi-Cal designs, this time with stainless steel frames and Hularo, an all-weather synthetic wicker.
Tropi-California, shorthand for the tropical California style of home décor, is finally receiving its due as a made-in-L.A. design genre as distinctive as Hollywood Glam. The look, however, has been with us ever since turn-of-the-century Californians outfitted sleeping porches with wicker furniture, and the style has evolved alongside the century's major design movements, from Arts and Crafts to Millennium Modern.
The current incarnation — a blend of worldly inspirations that includes Asian minimalism, South Seas handicrafts and streamlined L.A. casual — is fast becoming a national trend. From bamboo floors to sea-grass rugs, formal dining chairs wrapped in woven banana bark to throw pillows studded with coconut beads, the most visible manifestation is in the furniture and accessories industry. Whether it exudes the retro funkiness of a surf shack or has the sleek silhouettes of L.A. designer Barbara Barry's dark rattan line for McGuire, it is high-style, low-maintenance furniture that says, "Kick back and smell the jasmine."
Doubt it? Look around you. The exuberant 1941 banana leaf print used by couturier-decorator Don Loper on the walls of the Beverly Hills Hotel is now available as wallpaper and upholstery fabric from http://www.martiniquewallpaper .com. The current issues of House Beautiful and Travel + Leisure feature valentines to the California cabana. The cover of the June Sunset magazine trumpets instructions on creating a tropical look "no matter where you live." The advertising industry has gone similarly bananas. Gucci's ready-to-wear campaigns are shot in tropical settings regardless of the season. Even the current Corona billboards on Sunset Boulevard show a glistening beer bottle casting a giant shadow shaped like a royal palm.
The appeal of Tropi-California is more than emotional. "It's not just the mythical, romantic idea of living in a island paradise," Hackman says. "What people embrace is that sense of casualness and lightness that defines Los Angeles. Stressed-out two-income families love to have a little California in their lives."
Now they can. Namesake lifestyle brands like Tommy Bahama and Cabana Joe are volcano-hot. For the latter, a line of furniture developed by Joe O'Brien in his Venice Beach storefront, growth has been explosive. "It's about 20% of our business," says Gary McCray of Lane-Venture, the furniture manufacturer that licensed the line in 2001. "People are now decorating from the front door to the pool," he adds. "We expect this to be a long run."
Don't call it a comeback. In Los Angeles, tropical style is not about revivals but about ongoing refinements. A consequence of our geographic, demographic and psychological makeup, Tropi-California is a lifestyle that is wedded to Los Angeles. It is design philosophy that is so innate to Southern California that it has become trend-resistant, morphing with the times and co-existing with whatever décor fad washes ashore. Although contemporary Tropi-California has recognizable signatures — an informal mix of decorative genres, citrus colors, organic shapes and woven surfaces — the look is as individual as the people who take it home.
Landscape architect and interior decorator Judy Marchyn embodies the Tropi-California spirit with striking use of color. Transforming a post-war L-shaped ranch into a personal Eden, she combined vibrant ruby grapefruit walls with lemon yellow trim on the oversized crown moldings. Outside, Marchyn painted the exterior of her Venice home "the color of the wild green parrots that roost in my yard." To cut the strong sunlight from the southern exposure on a small patio, she fabricated draperies out of black plastic window screen mesh, adding a contemporary woven element to the outdoor room. Marchyn curls up with a book under a palm-frond ceiling fan on a daybed of her own design, she says, "as often as I can."
Marchyn's retreat is not the only way to achieve an exalted aloha state. As Jimmy Buffett, Tommy Bahama and the latter day Beach Boys have proved, many Americans gravitate to the more traditional form of Tropi-California.
"I think there's a huge number of people that are like, 'Hey, I'm in Iowa, but you know what? I want to live like I live at the beach!' " "Cabana Joe" O'Brien explains. "And what's the first thing you would do? You surround yourself with bamboo and rattan furniture and surfboard lamps."
That is exactly what O'Brien has done. Lounging in his rattan version of a 1940s club chair in the décor-by-Moondoggie apartment in Beverly Hills where he designs his lines, O'Brien, 41, looks every inch the successful surf bum in a Hawaiian shirt and bare feet. He grew up riding waves in Florida until he moved to Los Angeles in his early 20s (to act, naturally). When that wiped out, he learned to be an upholsterer and practiced interior design, working with high-profile Hollywood types who wanted the "Ralph Lauren English antique thing."
"I've always lived like this," he says, pointing to a dining room tented in striped raw silk with an gate-leg table from his line, done in wicker. "I always had bamboo and rattan furniture and surfboards hanging around. I thought I was an odd duck because I didn't desire a strong, contemporary, minimalist look or a traditional English country look. I wanted furniture that made you feel like you were on a vacation."
In 1995 he opened an antiques store on Abbot Kinney Boulevard in Venice; it soon became Cabana Joe's, an outlet for his true calling. "I would surf and then I would go to flea markets and then I'd go into that store and sit around in my shorts and sell the lifestyle." Within five years, the man became a brand, with licensing agreements to design lamps, rugs and ceiling fans as well as plans to develop tableware and clothing.
"Say 'tropical' and you think palm trees and pineapples, big prints," says O'Brien, who tends to eschew such obvious effects. "Yes, this is a pineapple," he continues, picking up a print pillow of his design, "but this is made from $300-a-yard Asian silk by Scalamandré."
As a design ideal, Tropi-California is for every budget. At the high end, there are furniture collections by such esteemed designers as San Francisco-based Orlando Diaz-Azcuy, who reinterprets neoclassical designs in tropical materials, and San Diego's Kreiss Collection, which decorates rattan and cane dressers with lion-head pulls.
For the cost-conscious, Pier 1 Imports mounts woven seats on midcentury hairpin-shaped metal legs for less than $100. Shoppers at Target can get give their tabletops a low-cost Hawaiian punch — glasses from $1.49 — from a line of melamine goods called Aloha Summer.
Those who crave a piece of history should brace themselves for sticker shock. California Living's reissue of Tropi-Cal founder Danny Ho Fong's classic Wave chaise, which is in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art, is tagged at $1,600. The new version of the Lotus chair by Fong's son Miller, featured in the prestigious 1968 California Design exhibition at the Pasadena Museum of Art, is a cool $3,000. Vintage tropical furniture from the postwar era is also skyrocketing in price. "Back then, you could buy a whole roomful of rattan — a three-stranded pretzel-arm couch and two chairs, a couple of end tables and a coffee table with upholstery — for $229," says Harvey Schwartz, author of "Rattan" (Schiffer). "Today, you'd be lucky to find one piece at that price."
For collectors, rattan is a religion. The holy grail? A piece by Paul Frankl, the architect of the Skyscraper style, a subgenre of Art Deco, who was known for dramatically over-scaled rattan furniture. Few documented examples of Frankl's work exist, though his style was widely imitated and many copies can still be found in vintage stores or EBay, largely because rattan is so durable.