Stainless-steel appliances, granite countertops, Italian leather upholstery and other high-end appointments may be all the rage, but rich, warm koa wood has maintained its coveted stature in island homes over the years.
Koa wood furniture is more popular than ever, according to Michael Tam, chief executive officer of Martin & MacArthur, a furniture maker and retailer known for its exotic wood products.
The company debuted in 1961, selling pieces made primarily out of teak, walnut and cherry, with koa introduced in the early ’70s. Since then, Martin & MacArthur — the only local mass producer of solid koa furniture — has opened seven stores across the state, its latest in December in Waikiki. The factory is located in Kalihi.
Tam said the company’s best-seller is its slat-back rocking chair, priced at $4,190. Beds and tables are also popular, and Martin & MacArthur has introduced new lines intended to accommodate modern lifestyles.
"The furniture is lighter, the design is simpler and it’s created for smaller-sized homes," he explained.
Prices range from $1,990 for a credenza bookcase; $3,100 for a dining table; $1,180 for a dining room chair; $3,320 for a desk with a hutch; and $990 for a lighthouse-style floor lamp.
Still in demand is more traditional "heritage" furniture inspired by pieces owned by Hawaiian royalty and plantation-style designs from the 19th century and early 20th century.
No matter what the style or price, Martin & MacArthur furniture is made to be lived in and not just admired, Tam said. Back supports offer comfortable seating, and the wood is carefully finished to protect against water stains.
Although mass-produced at the company’s Kalihi factory, each piece of Martin & MacArthur furniture is individually made, with a single craftsman working on it from start to finish, Tam said. "We do lots of custom work, working with the homeowner and interior designers," he added. "The furniture pieces are guaranteed for life and can be passed down from generation to generation. We want to create something that is beautiful and lasting."
» Martin & MacArthur furniture showroom and factory, 1815 Kahai St., Kalihi; call 845-6688 or visit www.martinandmacarthur.com for other retail locations.
» Pictures Plus Home, Kahala Mall; call 368-6173 or visit www.picturesplus.com.
» Wilkinson Koa Furniture, 96-1276 Waihona St., Suite 115, Pearl City Industrial Park; call 456-1006 or visit www.wilkinsonkoafurniture.com.
CARING FOR KOA FURNITURE
Once every two to three months, furniture can be lightly wiped with a soft cotton cloth and some Milsek oil to restore its natural luster. Do not use silicon-based furniture cleaners, which can affect the wood’s natural finish. Do not place koa furniture in direct sunlight, which can diminish the wood’s color over time.
Source: Michael Tam, Martin & MacArthur
ALTHOUGH ONLY about 10 percent of Hawaii’s original koa forests remain today, koa (scientific name acacia koa) is not considered an endangered or threatened species. Most of the state’s koa forests are located on the windward sides of Maui and the Big Island.
Martin & MacArthur uses wood only from dead or fallen trees, Tam said. The company has partnered with Hawaiian Legacy Hardwoods on a reforesting program whereby a new koa tree is planted on a 2,700-acre plantation in Hamakua on the Big Island with each furniture purchase. Customers can also pay $59 to have a tree planted in their name.
"Koa is endemic to Hawaii and does not grow naturally anywhere else," said James Friday, extension forester with the University of Hawaii at Manoa’s College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources.
Koa is a lot more expensive and appealing than other acacia species, according to Friday. "More importantly, (other species do) not say ‘Hawaii’ to consumers," he said.
"Usually the darker the color and the more figure (texture and grain), the higher the price," he said. Curly koa, with its wavy, three-dimensional and almost translucent grain is the most desirable grade. Friday said recent koa lumber prices vary from $8 per board foot for common stock (1 cubic foot of wood equals 12 board feet) to more than $100 per board foot for curly koa.
To keep prices within range of more consumers, some furniture makers use koa veneer instead of solid wood.
Pictures Plus Home features furniture made with both solid koa and veneer. The company’s best-seller is a koa veneer entertainment center priced at $2,195, said Devin Sasai, operations manager at the company’s new Kahala showroom.
It takes six to 10 weeks for the factory in the Campbell Industrial Park to complete a custom-made piece made from Big Island koa. "We only use the top two grades of koa," Sasai said. "This ensures that we have the most curls and best colors."
Lower-priced, mass-produced, imported items such as accent tables, bookcases and television stands are also available at the Kahala showroom. Consumers must choose whether to buy pricier locally made pieces or less expensive prefabricated furniture, Sasai said.
Master furniture maker Alan Wilkinson, whose workshop is in Pearl City, also uses koa veneer over solid wood. "The veneer helps save wood and gives design freedom …; you can go in any direction with the wood …," he said.
"The disadvantage is selling to the public. If it’s not solid wood, they think it’s inferior or bad."
Early in his career, Wilkinson did a lot of restaurant interiors. "I wasn’t using a lot of koa … mostly oak, walnut and teak," he said. "Nowadays, 95 percent of furniture made in Hawaii is koa. The locals want it and the visitors want it because they can’t get it back home," he said.
In fact, koa’s reputation as a luxury timber is far-ranging. Wilkinson recalls that nearly 30 years ago he was commissioned to build a "high chair for a little prince."
"Later on, I found out it was for Prince William," he said. The high chair is now displayed in the permanent collection of the British royal family.
IF YOU’RE planning to invest in a piece of koa furniture, look for good craftsmanship: the selection of wood components, solid construction and a good finish, said Doug Gordon, a Martin & MacArthur furniture designer.
"Good craftsmanship has nothing to do with aesthetic design or the choice of wood species, but rather with the overall execution," he said.
"Any great piece of furniture starts with the proper selection of wood lumber that has been milled and dried properly. The grain and color should be well-matched and aligned in a manner that will be appropriate for the piece of furniture to be built."
Since wood expands and contracts with air moisture levels, Gordon advises close examination of joinery techniques — the method by which two pieces of wood are connected. The joints should be tight and strong, but still allow the components to move without warping or tearing.
"The lines and edges of the furniture elements should be crisp and well-defined and not muddled by sanding," he said.
Table tops should be absolutely flat with no dip or falloff around the edges. Glued joints should be tight if not almost invisible, he added. "The choice of what glue to use should also be carefully considered to ensure longevity of the piece of furniture," he said.
Finish is perhaps the most important step in furniture making, according to Gordon. "The finish is applied to protect and magnify the beauty of the wood. It should be even and without runs or sags and free of any foreign particles captured in the finish while it is still wet," he said. "The last coat of finish should leave the piece of furniture feeling pleasantly smooth."