Words: Anna Hoghton / Pictures: Teri Bocko
Guy’s workshops are located in the backyard of his home in Venice, Los Angeles, California. Hawaii-born Guy and his rad, bleached-blonde assistant/social media VP named Eden, are painting surfboards when we arrive. Guy puts down his brushes and shows us around his small garden lamenting the perplexing, recent death of his favourite lemon tree. Halfway through our talk, the gardener arrives and the mystery is solved: Guy, in an act of love, has been over-watering the tree. Because his house is so close to the ocean saltwater has come from below and caused the tree’s death.
This sets the horizon nicely for our conversation. Guy himself has never lived far from the ocean, whether in California, Australia or Hawaii and confesses to sometimes ‘over-watering’ his own ideas in the quest to constantly improve the performance of his designs against saltwater. Guy describes this as the ‘curse and blessing’ of making his own boards. Pushing limits is an important part of the job, but there’s a danger in always striving for more. Guy has travelled extensively but now enjoys a slower way of life. A lovely, humble guy to spend the morning with; Guy’s outlook, like his boards, is all about balance, moving with thought, and rolling with the waves.
How would you describe yourself as a maker?
I’m not ashamed to just call myself a surfboard shaper. There’s a tradition behind that, that I’m proud to be part of. I don’t consider myself to be some kind of unique artist.
How did you start?
My father made surfboards. He made me my first three. My uncles all surfed. They made their own boards too. In those days you had to. There were no surf shops. So if you wanted to surf a certain style you had to make it yourself.
What forced me to make my first surfboard was the revolution in 1967 when surfboards went from long to short. The guys I was surfing for were primarily longboard builders. They were uber successful and the largest manufacturers of longboards at the time. From a business point of view, to shift gears and start making shortboards was neglecting the foundation of their longboard business. It would have been a real risk so they were reluctant to do it.
I kept pestering them for a shortboard. Finally, one day, I was in the shaping room with Harold Iggy, the head shaper. I remember this moment so clearly because it was really one of those life-changing moments. Iggy turned to me and said: ‘if you really want a shortboard come in after I’m done and make it yourself!’ and he handed me his hand plate. There was this ‘woah’ moment. I said no! ha! I didn’t feel worthy at the time but the seed had been planted and, within a few months, I was shaping my own boards.
How does it feel to ride a surfboard you’ve shaped yourself?
Oh, it’s fraught with anxiety because they don’t always come out the way you intended! Fortunately, in my first few years my boards came out amazing, but that’s because I didn’t know any better. As I’ve gotten better at shaping and am trying to push my designs further, that’s when I’ve made mistakes. But I think that’s the job. The job is to push the envelope. If you’re not pushing the limits then you’re not doing the job. And the best way to learn how to do something new is to try, even if it means you fail a few times.
Is business busy for you all year round?
No. It definitely varies. I’ve come to see the connection between the natural world and my business, which is so tied to the ocean. When the weather’s good and the surf’s good my phone rings off the hook! But when it’s been grey, like today, it’s very quiet. It’s a funny thing. I used to worry and stress about it but I’ve learnt to see it as a good thing and enjoy it. I do other things with the extra time I have, like work on my website and take part in interviews like this one!
What’s your favourite place, and why?
I love it here in Venice Beach. I still travel and go on small surf trips all the time, but I always come back to here and there’s no place I’ve been that I’d trade it for. California, particularly LA and particularly Venice, offers so much opportunity and variety.
I was born in Hawaii. It’s beautiful but it’s tiny. I went to University in Hawaii with the intention of staying, establishing connections with friends and family and setting up some sort of business there. But after college I felt so boxed in there. I couldn’t stay.
Here, in Venice, we’re ten minutes away from LAX international airport. I can take an Uber, be on a plane in two hours and then be anywhere in the world. And, if I leave early enough and hit all green lights, I’ll be on the Pacific Coast Highway in twelve minutes. I keep all my camp gear stowed in my truck so I could literally hop in there right now, drive down to Mexico and survive a week with what I have stored if I wanted.
You say you still take small surf trips all the time. Is travelling regularly important to your craft?
Absolutely. Travelling inspires me. One of the reasons I feel it’s important to go to Hawaii all the time, is that it’s still the Mecca for surfing. It may not be the centre of the professional surfing any more - that’s moved to Australia - but it’s still got such a high concentration of the best surf, the best surfers and the best surfboard designers in the world. I can see so many different theories and philosophies of shaping in one spot.
Are there lots of different philosophies in surfboard shaping?
It’s as varied as any art form. It also varies because the surfers themselves are so different. There was a time when surfers were typecast as these tiny agile types. In the 80s it was so monolithic. It was just about performance surfing on tiny little short boards. And if anyone didn’t fit in that category of surfer they quit and that was really sad.
Today, that’s really changed. Now we have lots of women and older guys, who have grown up surfing and stuck to it. That alters the type of equipment people want. Nowadays, there are all shapes, sizes, ages and genders out there on boards anywhere between ten and five-foot. I think that’s great.
Is there a philosophy that guides how you make boards?
Years of working in surf shops and kidding around with the guys produced the aspiration to create the ‘fastest and loosest surfboards’ that could possibly be conceived. Loosest means the most maneuverable, a board you can turn and move with a thought. So if you think go left, the board will go left.
The slogan started as a joke. In the shops we were dealing with people that really didn’t know what they wanted so the guys and I would always just pitch up. ‘You want something really fast but really loose, right?’ we’d say. ‘Oh yeah, that’s right!’ they’d say. ‘Ok, we’ll make you the fastest, loosest board we can!’ They’d be overjoyed even though they had no clue what we were talking about and we had no clue what we were talking about either. But looking back, 20 years later, I think the aim holds true. I’m always looking to make more boards as fast and maneuverable as possible.
What do you love about surfing?
Surfing is in my DNA. I grew up on the beach. My first memories are of playing in the sand - surfing was just an extension of that. I always tell kids that, when I was younger, I liked digging holes and building sand castles more than I enjoyed surfing. I understand why that was now; digging holes and building sand castles was all about seeing how structures I shaped would stand up against the waves. Now my boards are doing the same thing. Sandcastle building was my introduction to surf and the live nature of the ocean.
What places from your past have made you?
The two places I’ve lived for the longest have shaped me most: Venice, as I’ve mentioned previously, and Hawaii, where I was born. These places are very similar in that they are both close to the beach. I grew up just outside of Waikiki in Kahala right on the ocean. Here in Venice, I’m just three blocks away.
Both places are also tourist areas that have gentrified. When I was growing up, there were no high-rise hotels in Waikiki. It was a very low-key, sleepy town. People forget that now but it really was a natural paradise. There were freshwater creeks running right down to the ocean and fish right up on the shore. You could pull crayfish out with your hands back then and tourists were a rare commodity. When I was younger, we’d see a tourist and stare. Today, it’s the opposite; if you saw a local you’d wonder what they were doing there!
Venice is going through that same transition at the moment. It used to be this sleepy, little, bohemian town - now I don’t know what it’s turning into. The next three years will be really interesting; on the one hand, Venice has always evolved, it was an oil town, then it became a bohemian town, then it turned into a tourist town. On the other hand, it’s now turning into an area where billionaires are displacing millionaires and that’s concerning. I can only guess what’s going to happen next. The changes are coming so quickly now. My wife and I are involved in local politics and building and planning processes going on in the city.
What place do you think makers have in this changing modern world?
Sometimes, I feel like designers like myself are dinosaurs. Technology moves so fast and everybody wants to reinvent the wheel the whole time, or make things faster or better; I’m guilty of that myself. I think that’s part of the human spirit. But I think people get to a point where mass produced stuff isn’t what they want. The way technology is advancing is going to make people like me either obsolete or more sought after - hopefully it’s the latter.
I know a good deal of people that are surfboard shaping for the monetary rewards and because it’s become fashionable. There are corporations jumping into this industry who want to use surfboards, shapers and surfers to create a brand they can spin into all these other products. It’s a marketing strategy. It’s not illegal and no one can do anything to stop it but hopefully people get bored with that.
What sort of place would you like to make the world?
I’d like to see a better world, of course. That’s a simple answer, but my main issue is this: Everyone talks about the environment or world peace or hunger. I feel strongly about all those issues. But I think what’s really at the core of all our problems, and something very few people are willing to talk about because it’s so sensitive, is the population explosion. We can talk about capturing carbon, not eating meat, not using cars and switching to bicycles, all that - but those are all band aids on the real problem. The real reason we have all these tensions and conflicts over resources around the world, be it over oil, water or food, is that we just have too many people on the planet. Until we address that we’re just going to continue to overpopulate. This issue transcends religion, gender, all of that. And it’s sensitive because everyone wants to see their families lineage preserved.
Do you see what you’re doing here as standing in protest against gentrification and mass production?
If I can be a symbol of that, then that’s great. I certainly don’t aspire to make a tonne of money. I mean it would be nice - it’s always nice! I kid around that to do all the things I dream about I’d have to win the lottery, yet I’ve never played. I think that’s telling. While, it’s nice to have dreams I think the reason I haven’t played is that the reality is this: if you can achieve the small goals you set for yourself and you’re happy with those goals then what’s wrong with that? That, I believe, is how to be happy.
It goes back to that thing of people always aspiring to do more; to make things bigger and better - and I’ve admitted I’ve been guilty of that too.
When you’re young it’s part of youth; you want to go to every place your friends go, every party, every festival, every country; you want to go to Europe and Portugal and Spain and Morocco... I lived my life like that for quite a while and did it bring me true happiness? No. Because the following week I wanted to go someplace else and do something else. Finally, I realised - hey, you know what? Just being in the moment is pretty cool. What’s wrong with enjoying today? I still have a tonne of fun travelling but does it make my life worthwhile? No. I had a pretty good time right here yesterday.
Guy’s two workshops are in the backyard of his home in Venice Beach. They originally belonged to his father. One is a garage, which Guy uses as a warehouse. It is full of finished boards and paints. The other is the shaping room, where blanks wait to be fashioned, and a host of tools hang up alongside maps of Australia and photographs of Guy’s travels. There are road signs for Driftwood and Speedway, the location of Guy’s previous house and it’s clear, just from the walls, that places are important to Guy. In the garden outside Guy grows lemons, avocados and herbs. He plays music and seems to have a nice time with his two cats Zephyr and Buttercup.
Why do you call this place ‘The Backdoor?’
The name is a bit tongue-and-cheek, like the slogan ‘fast-and-loose’ was. The back door is a surf term for getting into the tube by coming from behind the peak of the wave. It also describes where to find the workshops, as you have to go to the back door of the house to get in here. My dad was also an amateur backyard do-it-yourselfer and I’ve inherited that tradition so the name fits.
My dad got it for me, which was joyous and surprising because before he always wanted me to go to college and become a doctor. Buying me a planar felt like him saying it was OK for me to pursue surfboard shaping. This was a big deal. Some fathers, especially Asian fathers, would be angry or disappointed if their sons didn’t follow the family plan but my dad was just like: ‘hey, if that’s what you want to do then you gotta be the best at it’. He was such a great guy in that sense. He was always positive about whatever I chose. That’s pretty special so the planar means a lot to me.
I just had it rebuilt by a planar doctor - who is a retired engineer, of my generation, down in San Clemente. The tool is a little slow because it’s so old but it’s smooth and quieter than the newer ones I have and it’s really beautiful.
Shaping your own boards is a blessing and a curse: The blessing is that I can make my boards exactly how I like and adjust them as I need. The curse is that whether a board is good or bad as soon as I’ve made it and used it my brain starts imagining the next best thing. I’m out there on a board thinking: ‘this is brilliant, what if was just one inch smaller? Would it be better, would it be worse?’ Then I go to sleep pondering that question and the next morning I’m shaping again. I really love the three boards I have right now but as soon as I get some more blanks I already know I will redo two of them!
Remco Merbis, founder (1999) and creative director of visual storytelling agency Pixillion.