Mel and I are new to the Witco scene, but we have had a few of the smaller pieces. Our friend Tracy at m.a.r.k. Vintage reached out to us to see if we were interested in this tiki end table she picked up. Mel and I hopped in the car and shot over the next day.
We love this little table and need to restore it. It will look great in one of the Tiki areas of our home. At the time, we didn’t know who produced this piece.
I then remembered that our friend Dennis had a tiki table that would go well with the one we got from Tracy. The next day Mel and I met Dennis at his shop and we picked this piece up. Dennis said he thought it might be Witco. That got Mel and I thinking maybe the other table was Witco too!
Upon researching this table we were able to identify it as a Witco end table. It is always important to know who produced a piece but to be honest, I liked it regardless.
This other table has been harder to substantiate who the maker is. It appears to be in the same style of Witco, but I was unable to locate anything online to compare it with. I reallly dig the tiki faces on this piece.
As you can see, the tops on both of these pieces will need to be refinished. The one on the left will be an easier repair, but the table on the right will need a lot of work.
If anyone out there has a matching table to either of these and want to give it a new home let us know. Also, if any of you Witco experts out there can confirm the one on the right is also Witco, I’d appreciate it.
In The Beginning…
By the late 50s, Tiki-fever was in full swing and Americans couldn’t get enough of it.
Tiki temples and Polynesian-themed bowling alleys, golf courses, television shows and pop music saturated the land from coast-to-coast.
But strangely enough, Tiki’s presence was still largely missing from the ultimate mid-century sanctuary: the American home.
That would soon change with the mass production of primitive décor and home furnishings that made it possible for Americans to finally bring Polynesia right into their own living rooms.
Here is an ad out of a 1940’s magazine selling Tiki bars. This was the first step in introducing the Polynesian themed rooms into homes of that era.
William/Bill Westenhaver, founder of Western International Trading Company (WITCO).
Tiki’s ultimate triumph was due largely to cartoonist and artisan William Westenhaver. William Westenhaver, a would-be graphic designer and painter, Westenhaver studied at the Art Center School of Design in Los Angeles during the late 40s. His early works showed the large influence of Picasso and early-century European impressionists and expressionists, who themselves often used imported Polynesian primitiva as sources of inspiration.
Westenhaver was no stranger to it either, having visited Melanesia during his time in the Navy. It was here in the Admiralty Islands that he witnessed the natives carving their ancestral deities into everyday utensils and furnishings.
Yet it wasn’t until the late 50s that Westenhaver would finally be able to fuse his own modernist artistry with the native kinds he had observed.
In 1957, his cousin Bob Post called and asked if he could help design some of the primitive artifacts his Western International Trading Company (WITCO) was importing from Mexico. Still eking out a living as a cartoonist, Westenhaver jumped at the chance and moved with his family to Mt. Vernon, WA.
Here, he and the other WITCO artisans began carving and chain-sawing an array of unusual tribal designs into bedposts, tables, chairs and any other home furnishing you could think of, often accenting them with striking leopard-skin prints. Island décor such as masks, spears, statues and even home tiki bars followed.
This “Pop Primitivism”, or Modern Primitive, was a perfect complement to the clinical, steel-and-glass minimalism of American architecture at the time, giving homes the aura of a worldly and exotic whimsy.
And it wasn’t just the fancy of Middle American eccentrics, either.
Elvis Presley’s Graceland Mansion had a special “Jungle Room” (click here to see a 360 view of Jungle Room) outfitted with nothing but WITCO furnishings.
Popular icons Hugh Hefner and Roy Orbison also decorated their abodes with them, too.
Here we have a pic of Hugh and his bunnies by the pool. There appears to be 3 Witco tiki masks on the wall and a Witco bench they are sitting on.
By the late 60s, with WITCO having showrooms in most major American cities, Tiki had finally conquered the final American frontier. Yet, with nowhere else to go, the end was inevitable.
After the cultural cataclysm of the late 60s and early 70s, WITCO’s fortunes began to decline, and in 1977, it closed it doors. Although Westenhaver went back to work as a freelance artist, the story doesn’t end there.
As the Tiki revival bloomed in the 90s, Westenhaver’s grandson-in-law, Ken Pleasant, picked up the torch and now carves his own WITCO-style furniture, much to his grandfather’s delight.