The Unknown Craftsman

Presenting surfboards in their historical context of craft and design.

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In September 2012, the directors of San Diego’s Mingei International Museum invited me to curate an exhibition of surfboards at the museum’s facility in Balboa Park. The boards, which would be displayed through January 2015 in conjunction with the Balboa Park Centennial Celebration, were to occupy the entire first-floor gallery. I accepted the offer with gratitude, enthusiasm, and a sobering sense of responsibility. Here was a chance to present surfboards in their historical context of craft and design, guided by the philosophies and ideals expressed by the founder of the mingei movement, Soetsu Yanagi, in his seminal work, The Unknown Craftsman.

Selecting a group of surfboards according to the aesthetic standards of an early 20th-century Japanese intellectual may seem like an overly highbrow treatment of lowbrow subject matter. This is understandable. When the surfboard became a mass-produced item in the early 1960s, a centuries-old ritual craft loaded with spiritual significance migrated into the territory of commercialism. In the realm of popular culture, surfboards became disposable products of a casual pastime, soon becoming outmoded. Once made of wood, they were now composed of fiberglass and a stew of petrochemicals. Today, with the rise of professional surfing and the multibillion-dollar surf industry that supports it, surfboards have become moving billboards for action sportsters to showcase their athletic skills for the benefit of their sponsors and their careers. At best, in the commercial arena, surfboards are taken seriously as a genre of collectable memorabilia. All of these “lowbrow” perceptions of surfboards reflect the realities of surfing, but only in the context of the surfboard as an item manufactured by an industry serving a market.

Many surfers embrace these commercial realities and thrive within them. Some, including professionals and those who work in the surf industry, accept them as a necessary evil, even as they hold values that run contrary to mainstream consumerism. Still others see symptoms of a disease they would rather not be infected with, and they choose to identify with the full scope of surfing beyond its commercial distortions. They create surfboards that reflect aesthetics predating the commercial era. And more and more, there are those surfers—most notably native Hawaiians, but also enthusiasts from other lands where surfing has spread—who are digging deep into their surfing heritage in order to balance a lopsided equation. Most surfers, though, are too busy working, living life, and surfing to split aesthetic and cultural hairs on dry land. They just want a good board.

The surfboard is a prime example of a handcrafted object that has faced challenges in maintaining its cultural role during the industrial era. In The Unknown Craftsman, the Japanese philosopher Soetsu Yanagi assigns a lofty “standard of beauty” to such traditional objects but also accepts that industrialization has become the primary means of providing society with affordable goods for daily living. His ruminations in The Unknown Craftsman outline an aesthetic standard that is intellectually complex, yet also spiritual and, above all, practical. Handcrafts are revered as a sacred facet of human life, but they also serve as the starting point for good design, the best defense against the potentially dehumanizing effects of mass production. Yanagi does not naively propose that modern society return to a feudal system, with useful products made by a legion of nameless craftspeople toiling in obscurity. Rather, he envisions a future in which handcraftsmanship and technology are in symbiotic harmony.

Yanagi looks first to the past, and next to the present, to achieve this. In The Unknown Craftsman, he repeatedly stresses the importance of contemporary artist craftsmen humbly and respectfully contemplating the unsigned, egoless work of past masters. For him, objects like the Kizaemon Ido tea bowl from sixteenth-century Korea carry the eternal message of handcrafted beauty and functional design. As the potter Bernard Leach states in the introduction to The Unknown Craftsman, “We can relate the work of individuals to the magnificent communal creations of unknown, humble…artisans of past ages and draw inspiration from them.”

An artist-craftsman working in relative anonymity for 40-plus years, Greg Martz has quietly made a business laying down impeccable hot coats and colorful resin tints. Photo: Jeff Divine

Jumping to the present, Yanagi extols the Danish industrial designers of the 1950s, along with American designers Ray and Charles Eames, and he cites them as showing the way forward through their work methods, in which handcrafted prototypes play a vital role in product design. Yanagi and two of his disciples, Leach and Shoji Hamada, visited Charles Eames in Los Angeles in 1954. In the introduction to The Unknown Craftsman, Leach writes how Yanagi and Hamada were struck by Eames’s “open acceptance both of the contemporary scientific and industrial world as well as the traditions of the past;…his refusal to be chained by fear, and his constant inventiveness and domination of the mechanical by a new freedom and joy in making.”

Acting on an urgent impulse to protect and preserve traditional handcrafts, Yanagi coined the term mingei, which means “art of the people,” in 1918. In 1936, along with Hamada and potter Kanjiro Kawai, he founded the Japan Folk Crafts Museum, or Nihon Mingeikan, which stands for “art of the people, returned to the people.” He filled this Tokyo museum with the very objects that had inspired his philosophy. Foremost among these were Korean ceramics of the Yi dynasty (1392–1897), made in large quantities under tradition by anonymous craftsmen for five hundred years. Yanagi saw in these works a profound, transcendent beauty. In Japanese, the word that refers to this particular aesthetic of simple, subtle, unobtrusive beauty is shibui (adjective) or shibusa (noun).

Beginning in the 16th century, Japanese tea masters selected similar simple utensils while following the Way of Tea, which Yanagi considered to be the ultimate expression of shibusa beautyAs he states in The Unknown Craftsman, “We poor mortals can, with the help of this fundamental word, measure the qualities of beauty.” In Yanagi’s “kingdom of beauty,” all objects take on their appropriate value—not in an artificial, material sense but in a human sense: naturally, eternally, and spiritually.

My own awareness of mingei as it relates to surfboards began in 2004, when I bought a copy of The Unknown Craftsman from the Mingei International Museum’s gift shop. At the time, I was three years into an ongoing quest to explore an obscure board design that I came to realize had a distant point of origin in two traditional Hawaiian boards: the paha (or paipo) and the alaia. After reading The Unknown Craftsman, I realized that Yanagi’s manifesto about the value of handcrafts in the age of industrialism applied to the surfboards I was researching in California, and perhaps more specifically, to the traditional Hawaiian boards. Yanagi’s philosophy provided a uniquely appropriate framework with which to appreciate and value all aspects of the craft, design, and use of surfboards.

In The Unknown Craftsman, Yanagi divides crafts into four broad categories: mingei (or folk) crafts, artist crafts, industrial crafts, and aristocratic crafts. Mingei crafts are anonymous, handmade objects intended for daily life. A traditional Hawaiian paha or alaia board is an example of a mingei craft. Artist crafts are signed, calling attention to the skills or stylized techniques of the individual who made them. In this way the maker begins to eclipse the object. A hand-shaped, custom surfboard made today by a famous “shaper” is an example of an artist craft. Industrial crafts, however, are made within the industrial system by mechanical means. The seasonal boards sold off-the-shelf at big-box stores are examples of industrial crafts. To a lesser extent, so are the branded, high-volume “production boards” made for the labels of renowned artist-craftsman shapers. Most production boards today employ a combination of techniques: the polyurethane foam blank is machine cut, then fine shaped and signed by an artist-craftsman shaper. Finally, the true “unknown craftsmen” of today, the glassers and sanders, finish it off. The glasser laminates the board with resin and fiberglass, and the sander treats the entire board before it is glossed. The final category, aristocratic crafts, are those commissioned by the aristocracy or royalty. The traditional royal Hawaiian olo, made by a craftsman in service to the king, can be considered an example of an aristocratic craft.

In 2006, not long after reading The Unknown Craftsman, I stood in a small warehouse in Honolulu, surrounded by the Bernice Pauahi Bishop Museum’s collection of traditional Hawaiian surfboards. Of the countless surfboards built and ridden by Hawaiians over the centuries, only a handful survived the cultural devastation that followed European contact. The boards that remain bear silent witness not only to systematic genocide but also to the design savvy, handcraftsmanship, and wave-riding knowledge of their makers. They are beautiful in their functional simplicity. They are anonymous, and yet they radiate a human presence. Human hands made them for a purpose, to be used. In The Unknown Craftsman, Yanagi writes of the essential, egoless appeal of anonymous hand-crafted objects used in daily life. In the realm of mingei, such items represent the purest expression of human creativity. Seeing the traditional boards, I felt that purity, and I could imagine nothing more beautiful than the thought of them sliding across Hawaiian waves, under the feet of the people, long ago.

In Yanagi’s “kingdom of beauty,” objects speak for themselves, and in doing so reveal much about their makers. The priceless, anonymously made, wooden surfing artifacts at the Bishop Museum speak volumes about the original Hawaiian culture of surfing. They are the cornerstone, the point of origin for the historical record of surfing. All significant board designs of the modern era bear an ancestral link to one or more of these traditional boards. In many cases, the historic boards contain design principals that modern surfboard designers are only now beginning to understand.

The traditional boards preserved by the Bishop Museum have, over the past century, manifested the abstract concepts that Yanagi worked so hard to express. Without the presence of their makers, the boards themselves, simple and anonymous, have indirectly guided the evolution of modern surfing. This is the power of the unknown craftsman, the legacy of makers long gone and forgotten. George Freeth, Duke Kahanamoku, Tom Blake, Wally Froiseth, John Kelly, Fran Heath, George Downing and others who stood in the presence of those boards never knew their creators. But the boards spoke for themselves, and slowly but surely, those who sought them out fell under their influence.

7’3”.5” x 19.5” x .75”. Traditional Hawaiian Alai’a. The “go-to” board of traditional Hawaiian surfing. Fast, maneuverable, and versatile. This board made from redwood, also known to be made from koa & wili wili. Shaped by Tom Pohaku Stone. Collection of Larry Fuller and Tom Pohaku Stone.

I was fascinated and humbled by an alaia board I saw resting on a rack at the museum. It was made of a single piece of wood that was seven to eight feet long, about the same width as a modern professional board, but with a very straight outline. The nose was gently rounded, the tail bluntly squared. It was incredibly thin, less than an inch thick. The combination of design features, especially the extreme thinness, was completely foreign to me, and yet I knew that its hydrodynamics were profoundly functional. I could not imagine why a board with no buoyancy would be intentionally designed for surfing. It was beyond my understanding. I thought, “Whoever made this knew things I don’t have a clue about.” The alaia I was pondering had evolved over untold generations in a seafaring culture whose quantum understanding of the ocean was beyond the comprehension of the Western mind. In the words of the renowned anthropologist Wade Davis, “If you took all the genius that allowed us to put a man on the moon and applied it to an understanding of the ocean, what you would get is Polynesia.”

The boards in the room could be roughly divided into two types: thicker boards with buoyancy, and thinner boards without buoyancy. Thick, buoyant boards like the olo were reserved for royalty. Thinner boards, like the o–nini and the alaia, were ridden by everyone, royals and commoners alike. The alaia barely floated. Its design evolved not for ease of paddling, but for maximum performance on a variety of waves. It allowed intimate access to one of the most dynamic, intense, and beautiful places on earth: the face of a Hawaiian wave. The alaia is the distant ancestor of today’s high-performance surfboard. It was one of the most versatile and widely used boards in traditional Hawaiian culture. Often referred to as the board of the commoners, in the context of The Unknown Craftsman, the alaia can immediately be recognized as fulfilling the highest aesthetic criteria of mingei: a highly functional, anonymous, handcrafted object made and used by many people in daily life.

The board shown here was made by Tom Pohaku Stone, a man who has spent plenty of time in the presence of the traditional Hawaiian boards preserved by the Bishop Museum. He built this board from redwood in a shop near Santa Cruz, not far from where Hawaiian princes Jonah Ku–hio– Kalaniana‘ole, David La‘amea Kahalepouli Kawa–nanakoa, and Edward Abnel Keli‘iahonui introduced surfing to California in 1885. Naturally, as princes, they rode royal olo styleboards, which were also made from redwood that was cut at a local timber mill and shaped in a local woodshop.

Pohaku holds a bachelor’s degree in Hawaiian studies and a master’s degree in Pacific Island studies from the University of Hawaii in Manoa. “I’m into the origins of things, native things” says Pohaku. “I started wanting to rediscover the old ways.” The board shown is a recent manifestation of his decades long anthropological study of native Hawaiian culture. Hand crafting and riding traditional surf craft (and other native craft such as holua land sleds) has been an important facet of Pohaku’s research. Pohaku has conducted hands on educational programs for the Smithsonian Museum and other institutions around the world. Educating others on the true roots of surfing is a central focus of his life.

This redwood alaia is part of a much larger group that Pohaku is in the process of making with assistance from wooden surfboard aficionado Larry Fuller. The master group consists of thirty boards representing every known design used in traditional Hawaiian surfing, begining with the thin, dynamic alaia. Behind each “design” lies a ritual and spiritual tradition that goes far beyond the scope of the English language, Western style genre labeling, or performance classification. Through ritual and ceremony the living spirits of the source trees are invoked to bring forth the shape that dwells within the wood. Each board is a unique expression of the spiritual world. The maker communicates with, and is guided by, the ancestral and spiritual realm throughout the process of building and riding a board. In the realm of handcraft, this is as pure as it gets.