If you've set foot in a tiki bar between Southern California and the Bay Area, there's a good chance Ben Bassham, better known as "Bamboo Ben," had a hand in its design.
By his count, Bassham has worked on more than 20 commercial tiki bars across the world since the late '90s, from NoHo hideout Tiki No to Downtown's Pacific Seas. He has a bar in the works that he describes as "more of a fantasy, weird pirate-y feel" while he's also converting the top floor of the Ruby’s Diner on the Huntington Beach Pier into a full-on tiki bar.
Photograph: Courtesy Jared Sislin
The SoCal native might not be the only person to work with thatch and bamboo, but Bassham has certainly made a name for himself—literally—as the go-to guy for all things tiki. He once designed a bar on Kauai called Tiki Iniki for Todd Rundgren, whose wife Michele called Bassham "the premiere tiki guy in the world" in an interview with Fast Company. Aside from working on actual tiki bars, he’s rethemed a guest room for Pixar director Lee Unkrich and has worked on commissions for Walt Disney Animation Studios head John Lasseter.
Even before he started designing and building bars, tiki was a part of Bassham's life. His grandfather, Eli Hedley, lived in the Midwest during the Dust Bowl before moving West and singlehandedly hatched the "beachcomber" aesthetic that's come to permeate tiki culture. Bassham had the chance to step back into one of his grandfather's projects, Kon Tiki in Tuscon, Arizona, when he was called in to fix it up and redo the bars and lamps.
We had the chance to chat with Bassham about his handiwork and his thoughts on all things tiki, which we've highlighted below.