By Richard Kenvin
$29.95 at The MIT Press
Until just a few weeks ago, San Diego’s Mingei International Museum featured an exhibition charting the art and history of surfboards, curated by bespectacled hydrodynamics enthusiast Richard Kenvin. The collection was breathtaking, and included early twentieth century bellyboards from around the world, plenty of Bob Simmons planing hulls, absolutely bonkers-looking kneeboards, an aquarium worth of Lis fishes, Ryan Burch asymmetrical Frankenstein boards, and the futuristic musings of Daniel Thomson and Carl Ekstrom’s designs, among many other notable surfboard experiments.
Kenvin has recently released Surf Craft: Design and the Culture of Board Riding a beautiful coffee table book stuffed with stunning images of the boards on display from the exhibition. It’s worth buying simply for the photos alone, but Surf Craft also includes a thoughtfully-written 40-page introduction by Kenvin that traces the evolution of surfboard design, and also explains how meticulous handcraftmanship can inform modern high volume commercially-made surf craft; it’s a well-reasoned take on how ramping up surfboard production in the ’60s didn’t necessarily kill the beauty and art of surfboards. “Handcrafts are revered as a sacred facet of human life,” Kenvin explains, “but they also serve as the starting point for good design, the best defense against the potentially dehumanizing effects of mass production.”
Throughout the book, Kenvin runs with that thread and explores what modern shaping theory has learned from some of the oldest waveriding equipment ever produced. His analysis is so spot-on that after reading the book, you’ll invariably find yourself wandering around your garage, pulling out your boards, rubbing your hands over the contours and looking for the ghosts of the alaias and the kneeboards that had a hand in the design of your favorite thruster or fish shapes. Surf histories typically put all the emphasis on the cultural changes the sport has maneuvered through over the decades. It’s a welcome change of pace to view the history of surfing through the lens of the one thing that’s tied surfing’s threads together from one movement to the next: the surf craft.