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Tacoma Tiki: Back deck is love child of retro surf kitsch and rusty Tacoma DIY

Rustic decking, statuary and bamboo make for a laid back scene for artist Terry Rishel and his dog Freddy.
Rustic decking, statuary and bamboo make for a laid back scene for artist Terry Rishel and his dog Freddy. Staff photographer

From the busy street, it looks just like any other North End Tacoma home. Maybe there’s a clue in the yuccas outside the back fence, or the vaguely Hawaiian palms in the front yard. But walk through Terry Rishel’s mid-century-vibe home and you’re in another world — a Tiki world, where the Tacoma artist and photographer has transformed his entire backyard into something out of a 1950s surf movie. It’s a fascinating combination of artist aesthetic, low-cost DIY, Tacoma grunge and California childhood that lets Rishel and his family live a surf shack life right here in the urban Northwest.

“I spent a lot of time in L.A. when I was younger,” explains Rishel, who just celebrated his 63rd birthday with a family party on the Tiki deck. “One of the big influences was 1950s tiki lounges — it was everywhere in California. ... I’m totally in love with it.”

Formerly the head photographer and Tacoma collections manager for international glass artist Dale Chihuly, Rishel now focuses his time on his own art: highly saturated photography, Kandinsky-esque paintings using Chihuly’s own vivid color tubes and hand-painted canvases of vintage pin-up girl photos. But around seven years ago he also found time to build his own deck, which takes up the entire backyard space (about the size of a large living room) and includes a stand-alone surf shack complete with corrugated metal roof, aqua cushions and TV.

Part of it was to have a place for parties: Rishel and his wife have five kids and 13 grandkids. But part of it was to have somewhere to live a beach lifestyle in the city — a place to sleep outside, have barbecues and pad around in bare feet and shorts.

It all started with a tree. After cutting down an 80-foot fir that shed everywhere and prevented anything growing, Rishel had a footprint of a stump to build on to. Using treated lumber that he stained a lush chocolate-brown, he built a deck around the other tree in the yard: a shady old maple that reminded him of a bonsai.

Simple benches line the two fence walls, which Rishel covered with an authentic Vietnamese bamboo screen. Against the house wall he used the same timber to build an enormous dining table, adding industrial castors to make the corner bench accessible and roofing it all like a verandah.

Then came the surf shack. A 12-foot-square room that’s weather-proof but open to the breeze, its every detail sings like a Beach Boys song: the bamboo-covered sliding screen door, the piped aqua cushions giving the wide benches a boat vibe, the bamboo wall cabinet that hides the TV (with hidden surround-sound speakers), the vintage fan and icebox, the 1960s pin-up posters on the walls, painted Mexican frogs, and even a round, green Dewey Weber skimboard in the rafters — Rishel’s own childhood board. There’s also a camp stove.

“I sleep out here in summer, make breakfast and coffee,” says Rishel. “And the grandkids love to spend the night out here.”

It’s amazing enough that all this sits tucked away in a Craftsman-era neighborhood. What’s really intriguing about Rishel’s Tiki deck, though, is the combination of picky visual aesthetic and down-to-earth Tacoma DIY that’s a reflection of the man himself: someone who worked at the Dickman Mill, who’s always loved the industrial patina of blue-collar Tacoma even while developing as a professional artist.

So there’s a barbecue grill, but it’s artfully hidden behind more bamboo screens (“It’s so ugly,” explains Rishel). Tropical plants and Tiki torches cluster near Easter Island-style statues — bought on sale from Fred Meyer. The timber and plastic bench supports are standard Lowe’s issue, but carefully stained and coated with a marine polyurethane sealant for durability. The light fittings, chunky bamboo cylinders, were made by Rishel himself so as not to disturb the Tiki vibe. He’s also looking for a surfboard to hang above the dining table, but it has to be vintage and the right palette –— “Muted, not too colorful,” says Rishel. Around the side and front yards, he’s chosen a river rock as mulch, partly for the low maintenance, partly for the beautiful colors it turns when wet. A vintage-looking fire pit with claw feet is actually a big-box purchase, but rusted to the right patina.

“When things start to get rusty and old, they get more interesting,” says Rishel, whose love of all things mid-century was also shared and encouraged by Chihuly when they worked together.

Finally, says Rishel, the Tiki deck — ironically, for something inspired by California — is also a perfect fit for his hometown.

“I see Tacoma (as industrial), but it feels more like a town than a city,” he says. “I love the old, weathered vibe here ... that’s the patina of Tacoma. This deck felt perfect for me. It’s a reflection of the way I feel about Tacoma.”

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