Art and Hawaiiana collector Michael Horikawa takes us through history via his rare selection of wooden furniture and calabashes.
Many of us eye an antique piece of wood furniture with an appreciation for craftsmanship, style and patina, but our examination usually ends there. Few of us ever get to know the tales they tell about their creators, and how closely those stories parallel the history of immigration in Hawai`i, with each wave injecting its own style and taste in designs that continue to grace island homes.
Michael Horikawa has been a collector of art and Hawaiiana for more than 30 years, and among his collections are some 120 Hawaiian calabashes dating to the 18th century and Western-style furnishings dating to monarchial times.
The story of woodwork in Hawai`i began with the first Polynesian settlers, versed in creating canoes, surfboards, totems of their gods and calabashes. Commoners used bowls shaped from gourds of the la`amia tree, while those shaped from hardwood such as kou, milo and kamani were reserved for tables of chiefs and ali`i. Platters were shaped from wood of `ohia and `ulu trees.
“Contrary to popular belief, they were not made of koa, which leached tannic acids,” says Horikawa. “You couldn’t put food in a koa bowl; poi would have turned sour right away.”
Kou was used until the early 1900s, when a pest infestation wiped out the trees. “Today, I can count on two hands how many 100-year-old kou trees exist. They’re so rare,” he says. He planted one tree in the 1970s, and at more than 40 years old, the hardwood from one of its branches is barely two inches thick.
“To produce a calabash, a tree needs to be at least 100 years old, so it’s not going to happen in my lifetime.”
The first company of missionaries arrived in March 1820 aboard the Thaddeus, from Boston, and found the Hawaiian hale regarded as a sleeping house. Pili grass and dried leaves were spread on the floors, and woven mats were placed over this natural cushion to serve as beds. With no Western furnishing available, “tables and chairs were the earliest pieces of furniture made out of necessity by the missionaries,” Horikawa says.
“They instilled their values on the Hawaiians so that two years later, furniture started appearing in homes of the ali`i.”
Word of work needed in the islands crossed oceans, so by 1830, he says, “came a wave of itinerant carpenters, and by 1840 came a wave of professional cabinet makers. I call it the German wave.”
One of these carpenters, Henry Weeks, married a Hawaiian woman, and his son, Henry Weeks Jr., became known for his designs incorporating the clean lines and minimalism of the German Biedermeier style. One of Horikawa’s prized possessions is a cleft bench created by Henry Weeks Jr.
Another of the Germans, Frank Otremba, arrived in Hawai’i in 1883, and has been hailed as the finest wood carver who ever lived in Hawai`i. He was referred to in newspapers of the day as “the genius Otremba.”
His work was sought by the elite, and he was commissioned to create several pieces as gifts for Mark Twain during his stay in the islands, including a chair and mantelpiece bearing an ulu design.
A couple of Otremba’s ornamental koa fruit plaques featuring guava and mango fruit and foliage, measuring about 23-by-16 inches each, were appraised for $17,000 to $23,000 on Antiques Roadshow in 2006.
Among Horikawa’s treasures from this Victorian period is a four-tier display cabinet deaccessioned from Hilo’s Lyman Museum, that he uses to house about 50 calabashes. The cabinet, made of koa with milo details, once belonged to the Bond family, who arrived in Kohala in the 1830s. He believes the cabinet was built in the 1870s.
“Display cabinets from this time are pretty rare because few people would have been able to afford them,” he shares.
Following the Germans, came Chinese woodworkers, who dominated the business from the late 1880s through the 1920s, a few of whom were the favorites of King Kalakaua. Among them were Chun Moke (pronouced mo-kee) and Yuen Kwock, who founded the Fong Inn Co., in 1898. Fong Inn was the largest manufacturer of koa furniture in the islands, and the company lasted until the 1960s.
Horikawa owns a Kalakaua table, so named because it matches koa tables at `Iolani Palace that were commissioned by the king. They were constructed by Chinese woodworkers around 1881.
“Rumor has it there were four used in the `Iolani Palace card room, and the one I have is exactly like the ones in the palace, except that the top is not inlaid,” he explains.
During the Chinese period, you could get a four-poster koa bed or a four-poster pine bed, in the same style, with the same construction, the same look and the same finish, by the same makers, and the koa bed would cost 10 times as much. The pine bed was used and discarded so only a few exist today.
Koa was always treasured. Even in ancient times, it was reserved for the powerful, and these were the pieces that survived because these were the ones handed down through the generations.
At that time, a koa bed might have cost $80 (about $2,000 in 2016 dollars), a fortune when plantation workers were earning about 12 cents a day.
Also handed down over time were furnishings made by Ulrich Thompson. “There were three pieces that survived,” says Horikawa. One is a kamani bench now at Kamehameha Schools. A grandfather clock is in the home of the Punahou School president, and the third is a kamani and koa bench that belonged to the dean of women at Kamehameha Schools, who took it with her when she moved to the mainland. When she passed away, she left it to a woman from Hawai`i who felt the bench should return to Hawai`i and sold it to a kama`aina family in the 1960s.
“They had it for 20 years, and when they moved away, they called me,” Horikawa says of how he came to possess the bench, with the carved imagery of two French dolphins.
Following the Chinese wave, came Japanese woodworkers. One of the key guys was S. Sasaki, who arrived around 1900 and worked for sugar mill manager August Ahrens. After Ahrens died, Sasaki opened a business building Mission-style furniture. He became known for his inlay work because he did really unique designs of the Hawaiian coat of arms and the Hawaiian flag.
Horikawa owns a koa bench and chest of drawers created by Sasaki. Although wood is subject to swelling and contracting with the elements, Horikawa says antique wood furniture doesn’t require museum conditions.
“What’s most important is that they are kept in a consistent environment,” he adds. “You don’t want to go from dry to humid conditions. A lot of times, a family might have something that’s kept on the mainland for 50 to 100 years, then they ship it to Hawai`i and the humidity causes it to swell, or they have it here and they ship it to the mainland, and it shrinks. Then you have problems.”
He says it’s still possible to find smaller Mission-style pieces such as rocking chairs and plant stands that would have been most common and accessible to people.
“They’re difficult to find, but they become available when the owner’s children or grandchildren aren’t interested in them because it’s something they’ve seen all their lives. It’s all a matter of personal taste.”