Imagine waking up under the graceful branches of Hawaii’s iconic koa tree every morning—that fanciful thought is possible, thanks to Martin & MacArthur.
The Honolulu-based furniture and accessories maker has been handcrafting pieces from Hawaii’s most common native tree for 60 years. Koa is prized not only because it’s indigenous to all the islands of America’s 50th state, but also for its unique color and rippling grain. Hawaii’s volcanic soil is among the reasons koa wood is imbued with tones of deep red and espresso, which seem to flow through every cross-section. “That rippling pattern catches the light in different ways and causes it to look as though it’s undulating, almost like a hologram,” explains Michael Tam, president and CEO of Martin & MacArthur. “All of these elements come together to create a wood that’s available no place else in the world.”
Martin & MacArthur was founded in 1961 by Jon Martin and Douglas MacArthur, two mainland transplants who had fallen in love with both Hawaii and the idea of highlighting the beauty of fine furniture crafted from koa wood. MacArthur handled the business side of the company, while Martin conceptualized and built each piece by hand. Heritage was key: Martin’s first design was the Monarch Rocking Chair, still one of the firm’s bestsellers, and was based on the chair owned by Queen Lili’uokalani, Hawaii’s last sovereign, who reigned from 1891 to 1893. “Martin received permission to measure her original chair [at Oahu’s Iolani Palace] and created a piece that is as balanced as it is beautiful,” Tam says. “He literally built the company on that rocker.”
Other designs followed, from beds and armoires to desks and dining tables, all crafted to highlight the beauty of koa wood. Fast-forward to 2008, when Martin decided the time was right to retire (MacArthur had shifted to a real-estate career in California years earlier). That’s when Tam, whose family hails from Maui, stepped in and purchased the company, determined to heighten the profile of both the brand and Hawaii’s history of fine-furniture handcraft. “My dad grew up on a small sugar-cane plantation, but my background is in retail and product development on the mainland,” Tam says. “When I came back to Hawaii, I wanted to find a company in which I could apply my experience, and Jon Martin and I agreed that this could be a wonderful pairing.”
In 13 years, Tam has expanded the number of Martin & MacArthur retail locations from two to 13, including a flagship at Honolulu’s Ala Moana Center, the world’s largest open-air retail destination. He’s also enhanced the apprenticeship program Martin started roughly 50 years ago, which required in-house craftsmen to apprentice for 10 years and then work as journeyman furniture makers for another decade before they could attain the title of master craftsmen. “In the last 10 to 13 years we’ve institutionalized the idea of apprenticeship here on the island much more strongly, reaching out to local high schools and talking to students about what it’s like to be a fine craftsman, especially in this day and age,” Tam says. “The skill set we’re teaching is timeless. Fine furniture craft has been around for centuries, and a lot of the techniques we employ are the same as you would find in Europe or Asia.”
Indeed, each piece is crafted by one person from start to finish, regardless of its size or complexity—“no assembly lines and no mass production,” Tam points out. Two weeks are needed to craft a Koa rocking chair, for example, while pieces like the Koa Tree Bed, which features a headboard carved in a silhouette of the signature tree, requires four weeks. More than a dozen bed styles are currently available, from sleigh beds to four-poster designs. Another popular choice is the Moana Bed (the same style seen at Oahu’s Moana Surfrider resort), with a sloping headboard crafted precisely to highlight koa’s unique woodgrain patterns.
Of course, one subject comes up often in Tam’s current conversations, the buzzword that is dominating so many elements of the luxury industry: sustainability. But decades before responsible sourcing became the hot topic among upscale labels, Martin & MacArthur was exploring only ethical harvesting of its koa wood, Tam says. “Ever since Jon Martin founded the company in 1961, only dead koa trees have been used; we never cut down any trees,” he explains. “So sustainability has always been a part of what we do. Using dead trees also helps with forest growth, because we’re clearing out dormant trees that are covering the ground and preventing new growth. Everybody talks about planting more koa—and we are a leader in reforestation—but taking the dead koa out of the forest is equally important and is at the heart of what we do.”
Early on, Tam also realized that crafting only large pieces resulted in a surplus of unused koa wood; it’s among the reasons he expanded the product offerings to include smaller items, from vases and humidors to jewelry and even watch bracelets crafted from koa. Beyond the craftsmen in his workshop, Tam also recruits a variety of Hawaii-based artists and artisans to create exclusives from koa wood, always with sustainability in mind. The Ala Moana Center flagship is among the Martin & MacArthur locations that have been designed to offer the company’s complete lifestyle approach. “We wanted to leverage the same quality of wood we’re selecting for our furniture so we could make gorgeous home furnishings and accessories with it,” Tam says. “When you fold in the artists we work with, the result is a retail destination that feels more like a living room than a traditional retail environment. When you look around our store, it’s everything you need to live graciously in Hawaii.”
Among Martin & MacArthur’s latest projects is a partnership with Disney, dubbed “Magic in Paradise,” a fine-art collection featuring works from a variety of artists—from seascape artist Walfrido Garcia to former Disney background artist James Coleman—all highlighting the studio’s legendary characters within Hawaiian settings. “It’s not just Mickey Mouse, but Mickey in board shorts,” Tam says with a laugh. “Ultimately we wanted to create something that conveyed the idea of that fanciful, magical feeling of being in Hawaii.”
Martin & MacArthur’s 60th anniversary also required a unique event. In March the brand announced an exclusive partnership with the USS Missouri Memorial Association to create a collection from the teak wood previously used for the deck of the battleship known as the “Mighty Mo.” Out of that collaboration, Martin & MacArthur craftsmen have created a collection of teak boxes, desk accessories, pens, photo frames, and other items that premiered at the Ala Moana Center flagship over Memorial Day weekend, with a portion of the proceeds from all sales going to the USS Missouri Memorial Association.
“Over the past five years the USS Missouri has been undergoing an extensive renovation, and that includes the teak deck originally installed in 1940,” Tam notes. “This is the same teak on which General Douglas MacArthur once stood, and the same deck where the Japanese surrended in 1945. We couldn’t think of a better use for this discarded wood than to create a collection that not only gave this teak a new life, but also benefited the association.”
The partnership is a natural fit as Tam continues to explore new ways to combine the traditions of handcraft with Hawaiian heritage. “Here, I’m the one who’s responsible for finding the next great thing,” he says. “I believe that retail always has to be fresh, but it also should have style and vision and feel special. And everything we do is focused on the idea that there’s just no place in the world like Hawaii; it’s reflected in every item in our collection. That’s a story we are excited to tell.”