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Surfboard Pioneer Carl Ekstrom As Artist

October 14, 2011 11:01 a.m.


Carl Ekstrom is a pioneer in surf industry and has held the patent on asymmetrical surfboard design since the 1960s. He's also an artist whose work is in a new exhibit at the Mingei International Museum.

Dave Hampton is the curator of "San Diego's Craft Revolution: From Post-War Modern to California Design.

Related Story: Surfboard Pioneer Carl Ekstrom As Artist


This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

CAVANAUGH: This is KPBS Midday Edition. I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. We first talked about the multi museum state-wide celebration of California modern art called Pacific standard time last month with the opening of the exhibit called phenomenal at the museum of contemporary art, San Diego. Now a Pacific standard time event at the Mingei international museum, focuses on San Diego's burst of mid-century creativity in craft and design. The exhibit is called San Diego's craft revolution. I'd like to welcome my guests; Dave Hampton is curator of the show, welcome back.

HAMPTON: Thank you, Maureen. It's great to be here.

CAVANAUGH: And Carl Ekstrom, pioneer surfboard designer and artist. Carl, welcome to the show.

EKSTROM: Oh, thank you. It's great to be here. Thank you.

CAVANAUGH: Carl, this has been a big month for you.

EKSTROM: Yes, it has.

CAVANAUGH: You were recently honored at the sacred craft surf expo for developing Asymmetrical surfboards. What do you think links your surfboard design and your artwork?

EKSTROM: Well, we use -- I've been using the same materials for doing both, you know, I've been working with foam and fiberglass for a long time. And I first got into working with fiberglass for -- foam and fiberglass for art -- we did a set of doors that will be in the Mingei exhibit. And from there, I designed furniture, and worked with architects and --

CAVANAUGH: Is this a certain esthetic that links your surfboard design and your artwork?

EKSTROM: Well, the materials give you a freedom. The foam doesn't fight back. It's a -- just a great material to use for sculpting. And then the finishes, you the fireplace glass or whatever we put on top of it, it gives it its strength. And it's just a great material for modeling and making art projects.

CAVANAUGH: Dave, surf culture and outdoor life and natural materials or new materials seem to have been a big influence on postwar California design craft artists here in San Diego.

HAMPTON: Well, that's true. The new materials that came about during World War II and after had an impact. And living by the beach, I think, and having the outdoor space and the comfortable environment also had an impact. I think what's especially unique about San Diego and some of the pieces that we have in the show is that also the people making -- whether it's chairs or doors are active surfers and are part of that water lifestyle. And there's another designer who's featured in the show named Doug deeds who's an old friend of Carl's, and they grew up surfing together. And Doug also did a lot of products that were related to getting in and out of the war. So he did things related to diving and things related to boating. And those were just the natural things that he was doing anyhow. So you do have a connection definitely with the Pacific ocean and its influence, and the beach lifestyle.

CAVANAUGH: What brought people -- what brought artists out here to San Diego besides the beach and the weather?

HAMPTON: Well, a lot of folks came during the war years for jobs with aeronautics firms. So airplane-manufacturing plants like ConvAir, and Ryan that brought a lot of people.

CAVANAUGH: You don't think of that associated with artists though. Where does that connection come in?

HAMPTON: There are all kinds of connections am this was a photographer named Lynn Fayman who we'll probably talk about shortly. He happened to be Carl's father-in-law. And he worked as a photographer for Ryan. So he put his creative skills to use for one of these big employers. And you also find that with the U.S. Navy, that they had a branch in Point Loma that was called the Navy electronics laboratory that employed a ton of really great graphic designers. They needed to produce reports related to their scientific work. They put out manuals and they would billed models and do experiments, and they employed a ton of artists that are also in our show.

CAVANAUGH: That's really interesting. Carl, can you tell us -- can you bring us back to what the atmosphere was like for craft artists and designers in San Diego, let's say in the 53 and 60s? Maybe the 70s as well? Was there a collaborative spirit?

EKSTROM: There was quite a lot going on down here. I worked with architects and different people, designing furniture and whatever. And I got into doing some medical equipment, and it was -- there was a lot going on.

CAVANAUGH: Where were your studios?

EKSTROM: I just always worked out of my house.

CAVANAUGH: In your garage?

EKSTROM: I did have a shop in Sorrento Valley for a while. And it was a complex of buildings that Lynn Fayman had built. And I was going to work with him. And right as they're being done, Lynn was killed -- died. So I then -- that collaboration was finished.

CAVANAUGH: Sure. Now, when you were making your surfboards, and you were collaborating on the door pieces that we see in the show, I'm wondering did you work outside? Were these pieces so big that you had to use garage areas or other large areas to work with?

EKSTROM: Actually, we always work inside.


EKSTROM: When it comes to shaping the foam, we use shadow quite a bit to see the shapes. So lighting is very important to sculpting.

CAVANAUGH: I hadn't even thought of that. But other artists I know use the fact that they could work outdoors in this great climate, Dave, to actually make bigger pieces than they might make somewhere else.

HAMPTON: I think that's definitely true. I mean, the sculptor that Carl mentioned earlier that he collaborated on with this door project, which we could talk about a little bit more too, Toza Radakovich, he came from upstate New York. Which is where he and his wife had been living before they came out to the coast. And you see changes in the kinds of things they make. And I think that having that outdoor space, they had land on the top of a hill. Basically all you needed was a shed roof and people could do sculpture. So Jim Hubble is another good example of that kind of thing. Toza fell into this category of architectural craft. So also a lot of those people would make door, gate, and things that were larger than people did in the typical indoor studio. Not that you couldn't do them indoors, but it was just easier because you could do it outside if you had the room. With Carl, you know, his shops and his workspaces were usually pretty close to the beach too. So the place in Windansea; is that right, Carl?

EKSTROM: Yeah, I was right up the street from Windansea.

CAVANAUGH: What a beautiful place to work.

EKSTROM: Yeah, it was great. It was really a nice place to work. And of course, I grew upright up the street from Windansea, and that's where I started surfing early on, and all that kind of stuff. So I knew the neighborhood real well. And it was a fun area to work in.

HAMPTON: And even though he's working in doors, he could go test the boards four blocks away.

CAVANAUGH: Dave, what areas would you say the San Diego mid-century craft artists really stand out?

HAMPTON: There are four that really struck me as I did all the research and thinking behind this show and sort of roughly in chronological order, it's enameling, that was largely due to the presence of Jackson and Emily woolery, and then it's architectural craft, which is people like Jim Hubble and Toza Radakovich, they were good friends and collaborated with a lot of architects. Rhoda Lopez, a ceramist in that category too. Then also furniture design and jewelry or body ornament. Pieces that are maybe a little bit bigger than the average piece of jewelry.

CAVANAUGH: And I don't want to fail to tell our listeners that there is a beautiful book that goes along with this particular exhibit at the Mingei. It's called San Diego craft revolution. And it just -- it shows people the jewelry, and the natural wood objects, and the designs in fiberglass that Carl made. It's a really nice compendium. We have more to talk about. Am we need to take a break right now. When we return I'll continue my conversation with Dave Hampton, and Carl Ekstrom about the San Diego craft revolution exhibit at the Mingei international museum. It's 12:35, and you're listening to KPBS Midday Edition.

This is KPBS Midday Edition. I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. We're continuing a conversation about a new exhibit at the Mingei international museum. It features the work of San Diego's mid-century design and craft artists, and it's part of a large state-wide presentation of California modern art called Pacific Standard Time. My guests are the curator of the Mingei San Diego craft revolution show, Dave Hampton, and Carl Ekstrom, pioneer surfboard designer and artist. Dave, give us an idea about the range of work that's featured in this Mingei show.

HAMPTON: Well, it's a huge body of work since it spans roughly 30 years from the late 40s all the way up through the late '70s. And we have probably just under 300 objects in the show. And they range from everything from examples of graphic design to furniture to an abstract experimental film from 1951, to architectural levels all different kinds, windows and gates, and a lot of ceramic work, a lot of pottery. And also some of the other things we were talking about earlier, jewelry, and enameling in particular.

CAVANAUGH: One of the conversation pieces is the beer chair. Can you tell us about that?

HAMPTON: Sure. It's a beer vs two chairs made from recycled beer cans by Doug deeds who's Carl's friend. And those are just great. They're terrific pieces. Doug Deeds made them when beer cans were being made from steel, not aluminum. So they had more strength and you could braise them. So he designed these chairs made with nothing but braised beer cans, and they're kind of -- they refer to earlier historical styles of furniture. So one looks sort of like a Roman bench. And yet he was very conscious of recycling material that most of the world at that time would have prized to have that raw material, that steel. But we were just throwing it out. And so there's so much different levels that these chairs are captivating. But one is this idea of being green and environmentally responsible. And Doug deeds was thinking that way in about 1960. You know, something like 45 years before it became popular to work those ideas into your designs.

CAVANAUGH: And I'm wondering, Carl, did you see the beer chairs being made?

EKSTROM: NO, but Doug's a real good friend of mine. He had all kinds of projects going. You never knew what he was going to be doing next. He even did a car.

CAVANAUGH: Made out of what?

EKSTROM: Well, fiberglass. Foam and fiberglass.

HAMPTON: Just lake a surfboard but it was a car. He said it was his daily driver.

CAVANAUGH: I want to ask you about one of the chairs that you've made, Carl. And that is an award winning piece of furniture you designed. The two-part portable chair. First of all, describe the piece to us, if you would.

EKSTROM: Well, it's actually taken from -- it was a Mexican design, they had one slab of wood going through another slab of wood that made for a little chair. So I made that. Someone came to me and they wanted to manufacture it, so I made it out of foam. Urethane foam with some stringers in it for structure and fiberglass.

HAMPTON: As a model.

EKSTROM: As a model, yeah.

CAVANAUGH: And you submitted what you knew was a model, but a jury didn't know it was a model in a design contest, right?

EKSTROM: Yes. California design show up in Pasadena. And so it got -- I think they only took about 10% of what was submitted. And they thought that the picture was of a full-scale chair. So I had one week to do that chair. And it went well. I got it done, and it showed real well.

CAVANAUGH: You were talking about the colors that Carl uses. They are really bright and primary and arresting.

HAMPTON: They are very unique. And Carl was known for his finishes of his boards, immaculate finish, and an array of really different, unique colors. And the chair is in this -- I don't know what shade of orange it is, but to me, it's a shade of ornage, and it's just terrific. The chair even the thickness of it, it reminds you of a surfboard or a boogie board. It looks to me, Carl, I hope this doesn't bug you, it looks to me like you could take it apart and go and hit the waves with either piece of it.

EKSTROM: There's people that could ride either piece now. Ryan birch is one.

CAVANAUGH: I want to let our listeners know that they can see pictures of what we're talking about, Carl's doors, and the beer can chairs on our culture lust blog at I want to ask both of you, are San Diego crafts items sought after by collectors now? Let me start with you, Carl.

EKSTROM: Oh, I'm they are. Jim Hubble and -- there's just so many good designers down here. Of course.

CAVANAUGH: What is that like? That desire for that particular time period in San Diego in crafts and design?

HAMPTON: Well, I think there's -- I'm 45, and I think that I am sort of part of a larger generation that for whatever reason finds a real resonance with these things that were done in the 1950s, and the 1960s, and the 70s too. It just resonates. Maybe it takes people a while to catch you have or something. And it's not just collectors too. It's actually the museums now that are really taking stock of what San Diego had to offer. When I was working on preparing for this show, I wound up in competition for some of the same great examples of some of our local artists' work with other curators who were working on their shows that happened to be taking place at the very same time. I was in computation for Toza Radakovich's work, in friendly competition with curators from the museum of art and design in New York, and from the LA County county muse numb in Los Angeles. And they were all looking for the same things and the same people. So it's not just San Diego. These other institutions and people are aware that there was a strong community here. But the kind of a bit hard, I think that's part of our sort of identity in San Diego. It's always been a little tough to convince everybody else that there's this really exciting scene going on here. People don't generally expect that there would be. We're a bit off the radar.

CAVANAUGH: I'm wondering, Carl other during the time of the '60s and '70s and '50s when these ideas were being generated by artists, and they were making things out of wood and fiberglass and reconceiving the idea of what it was to have little object, you know, either on your vanity or ash trays or even salad bowls. When they were thinking about all of this in a new way, did you have a feeling -- was there a feeling in the community that there was indeed something new going on here?

EKSTROM: Yeah, there was a real renaissance, I felt. Because of the new materials. And it just -- there was good communication between a lot of the artists down here. And the architects, designers, and artists, painters. And I think it all came together during those years where -- and the museum was real prominent. Of the La Jolla museum of contemporary art. And we had a lot of places we could go to show.

CAVANAUGH: Now, you -- you made a living to a large extent, Carl, by your commercial designs and your surfboards and so forth. How did other artists and craft artists in San Diego make a living? Did they make it selling their art at the time? Or was it that they were working building aircraft or somewhere like that?

EKSTROM: There seemed to be a pretty good demand for art in those days. Some of these guy, like I said, you know, TOZA, and Tim Hubble, and people, they were hooked up with architects. Bruce Richards and people like that, they were getting their art out there. It was being -- it seemed to be a good community for actually selling art.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: You know, a lot of people, I think, even here now, Dave, are going to be seeing these works, and they're going to -- it's going to sort of open up their eyes because they're not familiar with them even here in San Diego. What do you think it's going to take? How many shows like this is it going to take to really get people to be aware of the kind of craft revolution that went on here in San Diego during that time?

HAMPTON: Well, we could use more than one. That's for sure. But this show is a very good starting point. It really is. With the show, it's so broad, and with the book that you described, I think we've sort of opened a door is my hope. Because there were so many different dimensions to what was taking place in San Diego. And almost -- it's almost entirely undocumented. People are more familiar with some of the earlier art scenes in San Diego with the plane air painting, but our period hasn't really been explored.

CAVANAUGH: I want to tell everyone, San Diego's craft revolution from postwar modern to California design, the show opens this weekend at the Mingei international museum in Balboa Park. I've been speaking with the exhibit's curator, Dave Hampton, and artist and surfboard designer, Carl Ekstrom. I want to thank you both very much for speaking with us.

EKSTROM: Hey, thank you. It's been great.

HAMPTON: You're welcome.