Oahu visitors interested in an authentic look at contemporary creations being made today by Aloha State designers should stop by the Honolulu Museum of Art’s new Hawaii in Design exhibit, which will run through March 2017.

The show features work from 10 Hawaii-based artists, who specialize in everything from building beautiful surfboards to fabricating elegant, contemporary furniture, lamps, clothing and even typography.

 “All of them use Hawaii as their point of reference in their practice,” said Healoha Johnston, the show’s curator. “They’re all working from what I’m calling a Hawaiian design principle that’s a distillation of the environment into form, function and pattern.”

What you won’t find is work dominated by the familiar sunsets, rainbows or flowers often found in tourist shops across the Islands. Some of the exhibit’s standout pieces are, in fact, a trio of wedding dresses made from black garbage bags, disposable tablecloths and feathers, created by designer Koa Johnson.

This wedding dress by Koa Johnson, made of garbage bags and other materials, is part of the Honolulu Museum of Art's Hawaii in Design exhibit.
This wedding dress by Koa Johnson, made of garbage bags and other materials, is part of the Honolulu Museum of Art's Hawaii in Design exhibit.

“It’s a take on what’s happening in Hawaii today,” Johnston said of the show. “It is not situated in nostalgia.”

Housed in the museum’s Arts of Hawaii exhibition hall, the new show offers a wonderful contrast to the space’s nearby collection of ancient Hawaiian artisanal objects, such as feather capes and lei or carved wooden bowls for serving poi that date to the 1800s.

Combining Hawaiian traditions with contemporary flair is a prominent feature in the surfboard designs of CJ Kanua, who uses ancient methods and materials to build highly sought-after pieces. Kanua works only with fallen trees from Hawaii’s forests, then excavates them after carrying out traditional Hawaiian protocol before carving them into boards.

“He is maintaining tradition, but he’s bringing a new take to it,” Johnston said. “And he’s a professional surfer, so he’s bringing his own visibility and his own energy into this particular art form.”

However, the show isn’t all about connections to ancient Hawaiian traditions. For example, it features work from Salvage Public, which produces menswear commonly featuring local expressions that aren’t the predictable tourist fodder. On display is one of the brand’s T-shirts reading “Wall Rat,” a term used for kids who jump into the ocean from the Kapahulu Groin, or the Waikiki Wall. Despite the local vernacular, the shirts are popular not only among residents but also visitors — particularly in the Japanese market.

“While not all the designers are Native Hawaiian,” Johnston said, “they all draw from Hawaii as their starting point and navigate a tourist economy without conforming to the expectations of the market. They are setting their own terms.”

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