William Westenhaver, the creator of Witco, passed away on December 14, 2016. Witco literally changed the face of tiki with his avant garde carving style. His rough, chunky, loose, abstract shapes stood in stark contrast to the smooth and sleek style that dominated earlier 20th century design.
His company, Witco, was founded in Mount Vernon, Washington in 1959 and operated for 20 years. His furniture and carvings were sold coast-to-coast, reaching their zenith when Elvis famously furnished his Jungle Room at Graceland entirely with Witco. William Westenhaver spent some time carving for hotels and restaurants in Florida; his pieces can still be found at Polynesian Gardens, the Hawaiian Inn, and the Aku Tiki Inn. A Witco fountain provided the logo and souvenir tiki mug design for The Mainlander in St. Louis. A veritable temple to Witco remains at Hala Kahiki just outside of Chicago. Witco pieces appear in and are treasured in tiki bars old and new, enough so that there is an entire image gallery on Critiki dedicated to Witco carvings. Tiki historian Sven Kirsten fell hard for Witco: it features heavily in his second book about the world of tiki, Tiki Modern.
I’ll admit, while I always appreciated the appeal of Witco, initially I didn’t think it was for me—until I found myself wanting more and more of it. I type this while sitting beneath a Witco Viking ship. A Witco tiki that was initially a lamp sits on the bar top in my home tiki bar, my constant companion, like a friendly bar back. (I named him Telly, because he reminds me of the muppet.) Guests rest their rumps on a Witco tiki stool.
William Westenhaver was adored by friends and family. He taught his carving style to his grandson-in-law, Ken Pleasant. Ken shared a personal note on Tiki Central:
Bill will truly be missed, he was a great friend and grandpa. I will always admire the positive outlook he had on life. He really did have a constant grin on his face. I have been very blessed to have known him for the last 20 years. The lessons he taught me on life I will forever be grateful. The skills he taught me in carving I will never forget and will always consider myself lucky to carry on his legacy.
- RIP William Westenhaver a true friend and inspiration [Tiki Central]
- William John Westenhaver obituary [Legacy.com]