Hawaiian Furniture And Cabinetmakers Of The Victorian Era
Aloha. Eh, howzit braddahs. Da kine. Wot, you neva kno Hawaii get planny Victorian furnicha over dis side of da kai? You tink we all jus set one okole on grass mats or wot? Den wop yo jaw cuz we get choke. An da best kine all made out o da mos primo kine wood eva, Koa. So I goin foa giv you da scoops.
What you just read is written in pidgin as provided to me by my brother, currently residing in Hawai’i. Pidgin is a simplified language designed to facilitate trade when the involved parties do not have a language in common. In Hawai’i it evolved for the Japanese, Chinese, Portuguese, Filipinos, Hawaiians and the Americans to all be able to communicate.
Translation: Hello, so you didn’t think Hawaii had Victorian furniture all the way across the ocean? you think we just sit our butts down on grass mats? Well you’re wrong, we’ve got a lot of furniture and some is made out of one of the finest woods, koa and I’m going to introduce you to some of it.
Royal Hawaiian Furniture
The masterpiece above was made by Chun Moke, a Chinese immigrant, for David Kalakaua, the last reigning king in the kingdom of Hawai’i who served from 1874 to 1891. I was impressed by the length of David’s birth name:
David Laʻamea Kamanakapuʻu Mahinulani Nalaiaehuokalani Lumialani Kalākaua
The cabinet above may have been the one displayed at the Exposition Universelle in Paris in 1889. The exposition catalog described the cabinet as “1 Koa Wardrobe, made for His Majesty the King from Koa trees grown in Iolani Palace Grounds.”
The drawer pull is signed in both the carver’s Hawaiianized name, “Chun Moke” and in Chinese, as “Made by Chen Mu, Frangrant City”. Fragrant City is the Chinese name for Honolulu, while the Chinese name for Hawaii is “Sandalwood Mountains”.
A publication at the time, The Pacific Commercial Advertiser, made note of how people at the exposition were not readily believing that such a masterpiece could be made in a country they looked upon as “still the home of savages”. I thought I’d do a blog post about the Victorian furniture of Hawai’i since I felt that even today many of us would not have known such skilled cabinetmakers produced such beautiful furniture on the islands in that era.
I believe that the best cabinetmakers of Hawai’i were as capable as the best in the world at the time. The materials they had to work with were as exemplary as the makers themselves. One of the most prized native woods, koa, rivals or exceeds the beauty of much of the woods that we take as the best in our mainland antique furniture.
I asked for and received permission from the Daugters of Hawaii whose book, “Hawaiian Furniture And Hawaii’s Cabinetmakers” supplied the history and images included in this post. I highly recommend the book as it is beautifully illustrated and complete in it’s compilation of Hawaiian furniture history.
I hope to show you a few more pieces of furniture, all done in koa, from the Victorian era in the posts ahead.
Thanks again to the Daughters of Hawai’i.
(Clicking on the image above will provide an enlarged image for a view of the detail).