Reshaping Surf Culture

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Nick de la Mare, Frog Design.
Nick de la Mare, Frog Design.
Last weekend, Southern Californian Mike Sheldrake showed off his boards at the Maker Faire, the mecca of geek-craft and DIY innovation. Using an intricately latticed corrugated cardboard core design (above) to replace the traditional foam, Mike creates ribs similar to those an airplane uses as structural elements, saving weight and avoiding the use of foam entirely, a material as ubiquitous in surfing as it is toxic to the environment.

Gaining notoriety domestically and in the Japanese surfing press, Rhode Islander Kevin Cunningham builds surfboards that are as much art as tools for riding a wave. Seeing his craft as a way to connect with nature, Cunningham says: "Surfers traditionally respect the ocean and environment and actively work to protect it, yet we ride surfboards that are made from highly toxic materials that are a hazard to both the people who make them and the environment." To counter the inherent hypocrisy in surfing, Kevin has replaced the standard foam core with a honeycombed wood veneer (above) that makes a form that is ride-able and sustainable.

And from the birthplace of surfing, Country Feeling Surfboards in Hawaii got a shout-out on Treehugger for their moves towards sustainable surfboard construction. Using "soy- and sugar-based foams, plant-based and solar-activated resins, and hemp, silk and bamboo-cloth" shaper Jeff Bushman explains why they are exploring different manufacturing techniques: "We're the ones playing in the ocean and it just seems like the right thing to pursue."

Ocean Green, a company that produces boards from sustainable raw materials, explains the rationale for using natural production methods in surfboard design: "The most significant component of a surfboard is the blank/core. Typically this is made from either polyurethane or polystyrene. Both of these are non-biodegradable and are produced from toxic fossil fuel materials. Their production requires high levels of energy, which releases large volumes of CO2 into the atmosphere. The Ocean Green EcoFoil blanks are a hollow balsa construction. The wood is sourced in Nicaragua from sustainably managed forests and worked by carpenters and shapers under Fair Trade conditions. OG has planted over 5,000 trees and aims to increase this yearly, providing a natural take up of CO2."

Surfing has been popular since the 1960s, so why the sudden trend towards innovation in design? In 2005, Clark Foam closed its doors amid fears of government environmental regulation. Clark had a monopoly on the surfboard blank market, providing polyurethane slabs to virtually every board builder out there. While there have always been a multitude of shapes, forms and colors on the market, the underlying technology beneath them was the same. Foam's ubiquity and easy access kept innovation at bay. While it was clear that the materials used to create surfboards stood in direct opposition to the nature-loving persona of surfing culture, innovation wasn't a cost effective choice when there were readily available and cheap blanks to use. When Clark stopped feeding board shapers raw materials for their boards, there was no way for those shapers to go but to re-evaluate the way the boards were constructed and to introduce novel materials and methodologies that tied them more closely to the values they espoused.

The exotic and unorthodox surfboard forms and designs we're now seeing are the fruits of their labor. In many ways this is the rebirth of surf culture; until the late 1950s all surfboards were carved out of wood. As shaper Gary Linden says in The Surfboard: Art, Style, Stoke: "The next phase of surfboard evolution must be about returning to natural methods. Surfing is Nature's gift to us. In turn, we must protect Nature in any way we can. My next magic board will be 100% natural."


Nick de la Mare, a Creative Director at frog design San Francisco, has spent his career designing digital, physical and experiential systems.
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