The Mingei International Museum opens Surf Craft: Design and the Culture of Board Riding on the first official day of summer, June 21, 2014. The surfboard exhibition examines board design from a previously unobserved perspective – in the framework of Japanese philosopher-potter, Soetsu Yanagi’s mingei movement of the importance of handcrafted art and its beauty. “Yanagi believed that a design’s true beauty and purpose are revealed when it is put to its intended use,” according to Hydrodynamica project director and guest curator to the exhibit, Richard Kenvin. In its purest form, the craft of board building, along with the act of surfing, exemplifies mingei.
The exhibition encapsulates the influences behind American design in board riding, from the ancient Hawaiian alaia boards and the little-known surf bathing boards of Africa, England and Japan to post-war hydrodynamic hulls of Southern California with tapered tail ends to contemporary mass-produced longboards. The exhibit will also feature innovative surfers and board-shapers of the past and present, including celebrated surfer-innovator, Bob Simmons, who drown in La Jolla while surfing a big swell in 1954, and San Diego native and surf design guru, Carl Ekstrom.
For centuries, people have ridden the waves, crafted and shaped surfboards, but the Hawaiians merited the greatest notoriety as surfers. Hawaiian legends and mantras dating back to the 15th century pay homage to surfing, and cite rivaling chiefs and incredible waves.
In 1778, the crew members of Captain James Cook’s HMS Discovery became the first recorded Europeans to witness the art of surfing during a stay in Hawaii. Almost 100 years later, Mark Twain recorded surfing in Roughing It, when he told of almost catching a wave, but not being able to time it right. “None but natives ever master the art of surf-bathing thoroughly,” he commented in 1872.
Then, in 1907, Irish-Hawaiian surfer, George Freeth cut his redwood board in half from 16-feet to 8-feet, and demonstrated his surf skills in a Redondo-Los Angeles Railway publicity stunt.
Originally fabricated from wood, handcrafted, and designed with mathematical precision, surfboards were objects of both cultural and recreational significance. From the ancient Hawaiian tradition of wave, called he `enalu to training exercises in order to maintain top physical condition and even as a method of conflict resolution, surfing has endured.
It was a spiritual affair, from the skill of riding the waves, Kahunas (priests) praying and chanting for good surf, to the practices surrounding the artistry of creating a surfboard. During this time, there were two surfboard models, one for the Alli or chiefs, and Alaia, designated for the commoners. Made from the koa or wiliwili tree for buoyancy, the surfer’s social class determined the board length with the chief’s board extending up to 15 feet long.
Riding waves became more and more popular through the decades. During the Second World War, young Americans were drafted and shipped out to Hawaii and the South Pacific. While on deployment, they observed surfers riding the waves. By then, surfboards were much lighter, made from balsa board, marine plywood and redwood to name a few.
From the 1940s onward, surfboards continued their evolution – from a 1951 Dale Velzy fiberglass and foam board to Lord James “Tally Ho” Blears and Tom Blake models. Since the origin of the surfboard, groundbreaking riders and shapers have brought their own respective finesses, understanding and abilities – from ancient Hawaii to ultramodern streamlined boards – to create a surf craft that will ride the waves. Individually, the exhibited boards are eye-catching examples of functional design. As a collective, the boards in the San Diego Surf Craft exhibition narrate a fascinating account of the transformation of an American art form.
By Dawn Levesque