Ceramicist Paul Nielsen spent about three decades crafting household items like lotion dispensers and tissue box covers for department stores before sculpting his first tiki creation: a mug he released in 1997 as part of an experimental cocktail line.
“It completely bombed. It didn’t sell at all,” says Miles Nielsen, Paul’s son. But the wacky little mugs—a staple of midcentury cocktail cool long since passed into dusty obscurity—were simply ahead of their time. A couple of years later, in 1999, one of the mugs wound up on eBay, where it fetched a fine price.
“The whole scene was taking off right then, and we didn’t even know it,” Miles says of tiki’s recent revival. Miles, who had toyed with ceramics throughout school, left a band behind to sculpt alongside his father.
After their eBay revelation, the father-and-son team began operating as Astoria-based Munktiki, maker of mugs now ferociously coveted by the tiki cognoscenti. “There were only one or two people making tiki mugs at the time,” the younger Nielsen explains. “We came in and started doing it with almost a lifetime of ceramic experience.” Exactingly detailed by hand, Munktiki’s slip-cast stoneware mugs are often created from a single plaster mold, meaning limited-edition, hot-ticket tiki items.
The duo’s 18 years in business and devoted following afford them flexibility. Lately, Miles has strayed from tiki’s typical Polynesian-inspired aesthetics, instead favoring marine motifs laced with heavy metal ’tude: a barnacle-bedazzled rum barrel tipped sideways atop a hermit crab; a smoldering skull coated in a textured lava-like glaze; a rainbow of buoys with clanging bells built into the base. The firm’s most intricate offerings often take weeks to move from clay sketch to glazed-and-fired booze vessel.
Now, tipplers across the nation (and at local rum havens like Hale Pele and the Alibi) set sail into boozy seas via Munktiki mugs. The director of Toy Story 3 tapped the company to make gifts for the film’s crew. Next year, these curious creations will surface in Astoria at Dead Man’s Isle—Miles’s forthcoming tiki bar riddled with The Goonies references.
“I love the escapism of the scene,” he says of a good tiki bar. “You go in, have a drink, and just forget about the outside world.”