Hawai‘i by Design

From signature stores to sophisticated hotels to ancient tattoo techniques, design is everywhere in Hawai‘i, challenging who we think we are.


The Honolulu Design Center shows off its building at a grand opening this month. photos: Olivier Koning

If you’re heading down Kapi‘olani Boulevard, it’s impossible not to notice. It’s big and swoopy, it’s got acres of glass curtain walls—most of all, it’s a bright, metallic orange that almost glows in the daylight. The Honolulu Design Center, which officially opens this month, has become the city’s most ambitious piece of modern architecture.

Architect Matt Gilbertson, of RIM Architects, says: “I’ve had people call me up as they’re going past the building, saying, Matt! I just drove by your building—my god!”

The 80,000-square-foot center is the brainchild of Thomas Sorensen, the man behind Scan Design and Inspiration Furniture. With three huge floors of showrooms, plus a coffee shop, an automated wine bar, a restaurant and an events theater, he’s hoping the Design Center will become the be-all-and-end-all destination for furniture shoppers in Hawai‘i.

And the avant garde exterior is the perfect advertisement. Sorensen says he was deliberately aiming for something that would make people look twice. “I think it makes a real statement, because what else do you see in Honolulu like this?”

He thinks it’s time for Honolulu’s architecture to catch up with the city itself. “Honolulu has really become a cosmopolitan, urban center,” Sorensen says. “I think people underestimate the level of sophistication here. People are more aware of design these days.”

Still, it takes effort to change things up. Design and architecture help define who we are, and not everyone is eager to jump into a new identity. Sorensen says he had to sell the Hawai‘i Community Development Authority (HCDA) on his big, wacky, orange monster. “The HCDA initially wanted us to do something more ‘Hawaiian,’” he recalls. “That’s just their natural preference. But after we showed them our plans, they definitely came around, and were willing to help us push the boundaries.”

Dan Dinell, executive director of the HCDA, helped Sorensen and RIM Architects through a few variance permits for things such as the parts of the building that come right up to the road. And now that the Design Center is completed and open, he’s a big fan. “I think the edgy urban design of the Design Center has added to the fabric of Kaka‘ako,” Dinell says. “It brings life and energy to the neighborhood. Will everyone love it? Absolutely not. But at least it’s interesting, and that’s a good thing.”

Of course, Sorensen didn’t build a $50 million Design Center just to get people excited by the concept of design. He’s selling furniture, everything from modestly priced Corbusier-style chairs to ultra-exclusive white leather sofas that cost as much as a luxury car. And the way he’s planning to do it is by creating a gathering place for the neighborhood. “I see this as a community center. To attract people, you’ve got to wine and dine them, give them a reason to be there,” he says.

Kalehua Krug’s hand-done, Hawaiian tattoos are part of a centuries-old tradition. They’re also technically illegal to perform in Hawai‘i.

Thus the wine bar, the restaurant, the theater. If people stop by for dinner, and happen to find the perfect sofa while they’re waiting for a table, great. “People question whether someone will actually come and buy a $42,000 sectional,” Sorensen says. “Yes, they will. They just need to be exposed to it.”

While Sorensen is selling us on a new and modern vision of Honolulu, others are beginning to sell a similar vision to visitors. Hotel Renew, a new boutique hotel scheduled to open this summer, throws out the bright colors and floral patterns that have typified Waikiki for decades in favor of a monochromatic, minimalist, Asian-inspired look.

Hotel Renew’s owners are shooting for the discriminating world traveler, offering high-tech audiovisual goodies, customizable everything (there’s a pillow menu) and an understated room design that feels almost like a cocoon. What Island touches there are have been limited to almost subliminal levels, such as abstracted wave forms on the bedspread.

Designer Jiun Ho, who custom designed everything from the hotel’s furniture to the stationery, says he doesn’t have anything against the familiar tropical sensibilities of other Hawai‘i resorts—as long as they’re authentic. “If you have a 200-acre resort right on the ocean, you can have a beautiful private villa, open air, and the exterior can flow right into the rooms. But when you’re in a high-rise right in the middle of Waikiki, why fight that? Why force the building to look like something else? I can go outside if I want to see flowers.”

Of course, while it’s exciting to see sleek and sophisticated architecture popping up around town, we don’t really want Honolulu to become New York City, or Barcelona. Hawai‘i’s got its own design traditions, after all, well worth celebrating and preserving. The centuries-old art of Hawaiian tattooing, for example, is being revived by a handful of practitioners, who have given up electric tattoo machines for traditional bone and wood tools.

Keone Nunes spends up to a month handcrafting a set of tools out of hippopotamus tusk ivory (a substitute for the traditional albatross humerus), and even longer than that working with a client to create a meaningful tattoo design. “People ask me, Why don’t you just use modern tools? The reality is that there’s a whole different feeling to it,” he says. “Tattooing is something that transports you back in time, because it’s the same experience that people had hundreds of years ago throughout the Pacific basin. It’s not just about the finished tattoo, it’s about the process itself.”

Tattoo artist Keone Nunes hand-taps his work into people’s skin, keeping alive a centuries-old tradition.

One small problem: Technically, the traditional process of Hawaiian tattooing is illegal in Hawai‘i. The use of bone moli (needles), which cannot be sterilized in an autoclave, violates health codes, as do numerous other aspects of the process. Practitioners have had to remain underground, tattooing in people’s homes and garages.

State Rep. Angus McKelvey and a number of other legislators tried to remedy the situation this spring, introducing a bill that would have legalized and regulated traditional Hawaiian tattooing. “It bothered me that such a noble practice was illegal,” McKelvey says. “A lot of the laws that led to the Department of Health regulations were enacted back in the 1960s, when the government was ignorant of the Native Hawaiian community.”

As written, the bill would have empowered a board of Native Hawaiian tattoo practitioners to oversee and regulate practices. But the mixed reaction to the well-intentioned bill has highlighted the difficulties of balancing cultural practices with modern safety regulations. Nunes himself objected to a provision in the bill that prohibited using the bone needles more than once, a condition he says is onerous, given the time it takes to make new ones.

The legislators were willing to listen, and have tabled the bill for this session. McKelvey says they’ll be consulting with tattoo artists to come up with something that makes sense for everyone involved, and reintroducing the legislation next year. Until then, traditional Hawaiian tattooing remains illegal.

Nunes, though, has no plans to give up his craft. “It’s so important to educate people about the wide expanse of cultural practices that were done traditionally. It’s not just about hula and singing songs. It’s about tattooing, it’s about thatched roofs. If we’re not careful, these kinds of expertise are going to be lost.”

By perpetuating the tradition of tattooing, Nunes is fighting for Hawai‘i’s identity. In their own way, so are Sorensen and Ho. Whether it’s a deeply personal tattoo, a perfectly designed lounge chair, or a refined hotel stay, our aesthetic experiences and choices help define us, tell us who we are as individuals, as a city, as a state.


BERNARD UY When Bernard Uy moved back to Hawai‘i two years ago, after spending years in Pittsburg establishing his design career, he wasn’t sure he’d be able to create a full-fledged second practice in Honolulu’s smaller media market. But, his Wall-to-Wall Studios has been flooded with work, everything from hotel branding and package design to television commercials and Web sites. He’s been impressed by his clientele, too. “I really see a shift toward progressive thinking, being willing to take more risks in design and branding,” Uy says. “Honolulu’s really at an exciting point right now.”

BEN AIPA, BOARD SHAPER In his 42 years of shaping surfboards, Ben Aipa become one of the surf world’s most influential designers. His innovations include a stinger rail shape that makes turning on a wave easier and faster, the iconic notched swallow tail, and a lighter, more maneuverable version of the classic longboard. For Aipa, it’s all about making surfing easier and more fun; he says he gets his inspiration not from professional surfers, but the regular Joes he sees out surfing every day. “I watch someone on a wave, and he’s not really using the board to make the most of that wave. Why can’t we tweak the board so that he can?”