story by Michael Shapiro
photos by Dana Edmunds
Perhaps you’re thinking: I need a chest of drawers with real style, maybe something made of silky oak with a little Art Deco flair, bowed at the middle and reminiscent of an eggplant on legs. Or an end table veneered with flowing waves of koa wood, custom-made to liven up that corner of the living room where plants always die. Or a serious upgrade of my old plastic salad bowl, maybe of rich milo wood with a natural bark edge. And who wouldn’t want a jewelry box of koa so dramatically curled that one hesitates to sully it with actual jewelry? Forget eBay. You need a woodcrafter.
You’re in luck. Small and isolated as it is, Hawai‘i’s a little Mecca for wood and the people who love it. Scattered throughout the Islands is a vibrant community of artists and craftspeople, many with international reputations as masters, others who are up-and-comers. Since the advent of This Old House and shows on Home & Garden TV, woodcraft is enjoying a nationwide revival. But in this as in so many other ways, Hawai‘i is special. What makes woodcraft here distinctive is not only the concentration of so much talent but also the unique blend of Eastern and Western aesthetics, the rich and unusual palette of tropical wood and the commitment to protecting and restoring the forests that are its source.
Other than stone and coral, wood was the only durable material available to ancient Hawaiians. They were skilled at using it, crafting some of the finest canoes ever made by human hands and bowls and calabashes that became cherished heirlooms. Furniture-making arrived with the missionaries in the early nineteenth century; craftsmen from Europe soon followed. Drawn by the beauty of native woods, particularly koa, they developed a style with an Old World sensibility that was also distinctly Hawaiian. For a time, furniture made in Hawai‘i attracted international attention, and today in the halls of ‘Iolani Palace you can still see koa pieces commissioned from German artisans by the Hawaiian royal family. After mechanization and mass production entered the scene, the demand for custom-made pieces declined. “But,” says Alan Wilkinson, “people got tired of crappy stuff that fell apart.” Over the more than thirty years that he’s been making fine furniture, he says he’s seen a rebirth in the craft throughout the English-speaking world. Indeed, he was one of the pioneers of that rebirth here in the Islands.
When Wilkinson arrived in Hawai‘i in 1963 at the age of nineteen, there wasn’t much of a fine woodcraft scene. And he had no intention of helping to start one: He’d come to surf. But between sessions on the North Shore, he worked at the Pier 41 shipyard, building wooden boats, and studied sculpture at the University of Hawai‘i. Realizing quickly that sculptors lag just behind poets and philosophers on the pay scale, he started doing the interiors of bars and restaurants for Outrigger Hotels. “They wanted a nautical feel,” he recalls. “There were a lot of things I learned at the shipyard that I could disguise as ‘nautical.’” His first pieces, a desk and chair, were commissioned by Roy Kelley, the founder of Outrigger. For Wilkinson, the 1971 California Design Show, where early furniture makers were showing their work, was a revelation. “There were a lot of people like myself doing all kinds of weird stuff,” he says. “There were a lot of psychedelic drugs then, a lot of sculptural pieces…there was nothing like it. It was inspiring, so I came back and attempted to do something similar.” But it wasn’t easy. There were only a couple of other furniture makers and no market.