One day in the fall of 2006 I held the door for a distinguished looking woman who was exiting El Pescador Fish Market in La Jolla with a bag under each arm. As she thanked me for holding the door, I recognized her as Martha Longenecker from a small photo of Martha I had seen in a catalog of the Mingei Museum’s collection of artifacts. I rushed after her, introduced myself, and asked if she was indeed Martha Longenecker. She smiled, and said that she was. I quickly explained to her that I was researching a design paradigm in surfboards; that I had read the Unknown Craftsman, and that I felt that these surfboards were a compelling example of beauty and use in the context of Yanagi’s text. Martha was intrigued, and invited me to visit her at her home to further discuss surfboards and surfing in the context of mingei.
A few weeks later I went to Martha’s house. Like most non-surfers (and many surfers, for that matter) she had some preconceptions about surfboards. ‘Aren’t they all made from molds out of plastic these days?” she asked. I explained that some were indeed made entirely of petro-chemicals, assembled in factories with no handcraftsmanship involved, wrapped in cellophane with garish product labels, and then sold cheaply on the floors of big box stores as “seasonal” items during the spring and summer months. Most, however, were still more or less hand shaped, hand laminated, and hand finished, though they too were made mostly from petro-chemical materials, and the blanks were usually 80% pre-shaped by a machine. But regardless of the materials used, as a production item of considerable volume made to meet a global demand, a remarkable amount of handcraftsmanship still goes into in the large scale manufacturing of surfboards. In fact, aside from the machined pre-shapes, the process of hand finishing a blank of surfboard foam and then laminating the finished design with resin and fiberglass had changed little for over fifty years.
In the Unknown Craftsman, Yanagi divided crafts into three broad categories:
folk crafts, artist crafts, and industrial crafts. Folk crafts are pure mingei, anonymous objects hand made to be used in daily life. The alaias in the Bishop are examples of folk craft. Artist crafts are consciously made and signed, with considerable value placed on the cache’ associated with the individual craftsperson. A hand shaped, custom surfboard made by a famous shaper is an example of an artist craft. Industrial crafts are made under the industrial system by mechanical means. The “seasonal” boards sold at the big box stores are an example of industrial crafts. To a lesser extent, so are the branded, high volume production boards made under the “labels” of renowned “artist-craftsman” shapers. Discussing these divisions with Martha, it was clear that most surfboards built today were a blend of artist craft and industrial craft, to a greater or lesser degree.
But the boards I was inspired to share with Martha didn’t come from a time or place of high volume production. In fact, many of them qualified as pure folk craft. Others were artist craft, but tempered heavily with the anonymous character of mingei due to the restraint, humility, and aesthetics projected by the people who made them. Those who made these boards, whether consciously or unconsciously, created their work in the true spirit of mingei. The fish kneeboard designs of Steve Lis, built in the garages of Point Loma and Ocean Beach during the late sixties, inspired me to take the first steps on a journey that had led me to the alaias in the Bishop Museum, and now to Martha Longenecker’s living room. Lis’s fish was a radical, progressive departure from the conventional board design school of its time. And yet, it revealed an ancestral path leading to much older designs, particularly the paipo boards of Hawaii, the hydrodynamic planing hulls of Bob Simmons, and finally to the traditional alaia boards of Hawaii.
These four types of surf craft are the major links in the design chain I had been following into the past. All of them were examples of mingei, hand made, unsigned, functional designs used for surfing. Steve Lis once told me that ‘The real history of surfing was never on film, and it was never in a magazine. It was just the guys on the beaches making boards, just going and doing it.” A fraternity of unknown craftsmen, building boards with their hands for themselves and their friends to ride. I brought two boards to Martha’s house that day, a Steve Lis fish, and a Simmons planing hull.
I showed them to Martha. I didn’t need to explain anything; she saw them and understood. The boards spoke for themselves of functional simplicity, of beauty and use, of shibui. As time went by I lost touch with Martha. A year or so passed, and then late one night my phone rang. It was Martha, she was in New York City. She told me she had been thinking about surfboards and surfing, and that she now saw them as one of the most compelling examples of the mingei philosophy in the realm of handcraftsmanship. ‘It really is such a beautiful thing, such a powerful example of craft.”
Martha’s words that night strengthened and affirmed my belief that Yanagi’s philosophy was a vital means of appreciating and understanding surfboard craft and design. Ultimately, it was Yanagi and his close friend, Shoji Hamada, who had inspired Martha directly to fulfill her own quest, which was bringing mingei to America. She had succeeded in her mission by founding a museum that collects, conserves and exhibits arts of daily use – by anonymous craftsmen of ancient times, from traditional cultures of past and present and by historical and contemporary designers. Her quest had united with Yanagi’s in Japan 60 years ago, and theirs in turn had intersected with my own when I found the Unknown Craftsman in the bookstore of her museum. After reading the Unknown Craftsman, I never saw surfboards the same way again. Now, like me, Martha couldn't either. Yanagi’s words had taught us both how to see.