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Editorial | Island Voices

Column: Design should reflect Hawaii’s culture

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  • Michelle Jaime

    Michelle Jaime

The last time I’d surfed Queen’s beach was nearly 15 years ago; it was a break I grew up surfing. And as teenagers, my friends and I worked at the surf shop across the street. It’s the neighborhood that my mom grew up in and has many fond memories of. But gradually, the congested beaches, and pandering to the mass of tourists, made Waikiki a place I felt I no longer belonged in.

During these last few months Waikiki became still. The hotel lights turned off, restaurant doors closed, and the trolley bells stopped ringing. The coast was clear, and I found myself surfing Queen’s once again. I forgot what a fun wave it was. I forgot how idyllic Waikiki can be. I forgot how important this place was to me and my family. It took this awful pandemic to stop time so I could start remembering again.

But for years, I’ve avoided Waikiki. I would make the journey for work, but rarely stayed for any other reason. I submitted to the idea that it was a place disconnected from the rest of Hawaii, and that I was the visitor. However, I am starting to recall its charm.

As an interior designer born and raised here, I’ve had the privilege to express stories reflecting my life. There are many beautiful moments in our history, and culture, that inspire me. Early in my career I had the opportunity to help design a historic hotel on the grounds of Helumoa in Waikiki. Senior designers taught me its significance and our responsibility to respect the land and continue its legacy even through inevitable change. Without them, I’m sure Helumoa would look much differently today.

When I design hotels in Waikiki, I envision my grand­mother dancing in its ballrooms, my mother running barefoot to Aunty May’s, my aunty performing in The Jim Nabors Show, and of course, the countless after-school surf sessions with my friends.

Our design community is losing the chance to share these stories. We’re often being overlooked for large design firms based in L.A., New York or San Francisco. Many hotels across our islands aspire to look like our mainland counterparts. But, when local designers create a new narrative, instead of hiring them, hoteliers employ mainland consultants to recreate it. Unfortunately, our cultural stories and identity are being interpreted from afar.

Hotel designs have become so homogenized it’s hard to recognize if we’re in Waikiki or Miami.

As we rebuild our economy, we will do what Hawaii does best. We will show our aloha spirit by supporting each other and buying local first. This is also critical to our design industry. Local designers collaborate with Hawaiian artists, craftspeople and cultural advisers. When hoteliers hire local, they directly contribute to Hawaii’s economy on several different levels.

As the lights slowly turn back on, the restaurants open their doors and the trolleys ring their bells, I trust our leaders will navigate us through this transition. Now is the time to address quality of experience, and to rebuild our industry to become more thoughtfully designed, and locally engaged.

I hope to see Waikiki, Wailea, Hualalai and Princeville develop into places that we design, reflect our culture, and ultimately, make us feel like we belong.

Michelle Jaime is principal/creative director of The Vanguard Theory, Inc.

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