Studio Visit: Corey Smith + Spring Break Snowboards
How an obscure art project mixing sculpture and snowboarding grew to influence the global snow sport industry
At the most basic level snowboarding is the act of riding a piece of plywood down a snowy hill. And in its purest, a physical expression of creativity through nature. But with all the quad flips, turbo spins, olympic medals, stadium events, sugar water contracts, and New York Times obituaries, it’s easy to forget this. Very easy. At times it feels as if the entire industry has forgotten it. Though if you look past such distractions to the cool kids hiking ski resort sidecountry around the world, you may see something slightly odd under their feet—boards more likely to resemble the activity’s early incarnations than those from run of the mill sporting goods stores.
While progression and innovation are every media outlet and marketing type’s favorite keywords to tout, a great many have felt for some time a return of snowboarding to its most basic, creativity-driven roots is the most logical way will to bring fun back front and center. Driving this movement since well before it was recognized as such is former pro snowboarder and current contemporary artist Corey Smith, and Spring Break, the experimental handmade snowboard brand/art project he founded in 2010.
Now before we get too deep we feel a duty to mention skateboarding and surfing are experiencing a parallel old-school-revival moment too. As we all know the three original board sports (and arguably the only three that need to exist) share an intricately intertwined history, so to see continued crossover here is no surprise—trends and styles in skating and surfing will always influence snowboarding, though rarely, if ever, the other way around. But for now our focus is on snowboarding. And though Smith grew up skating and was originally inspired to start handcrafting snowboards by famed American surfer Bunker Spreckels, we’ll let further surf and skate debate die here.
"There’s a difference between being inspired by my shapes, and directly ripping them off."
Before all this Smith was a veteran pro, with standout parts in numerous iconic videos that defined snowboarding in the 2000s. His raw riding style and unique approach to what snowboarding could look like and where it could be done made the Pacific Northwest native one of the most influential snowboarders in the industry. After a brief hiatus—spent in LA making art and chasing birds—Smith returned to snowboarding in 2010 in pursuit of powder, and perhaps rediscovering what drew him to the activity in the first place. A particularly dry January in Lake Tahoe led to a bit of cabin fever, which led to the idea of hand making snowboards. As soon as the plywood creations were deemed rideable Smith’s art brain clicked on and the concept grew into Spring Break, a functional art project mixing sculpture, painting, and snowboarding.
With the entire first run of Spring Break boards hanging in the Utah Snowboard Museum, Smith is now back in Portland, Oregon full time with his hands in many pots. “Ex-pro, snowboard shaper, brand ambassador, artist—I don't know what label is best,” he says. “I’m just following my passions at the best capacity I can.” In doing so he and a few friends have grown Spring Break into a genuine brand with global influince. And each board is still made by hand.
The process is really more simple than you might think. The shape is drawn on and cut from a sheet of balsa birch marine-grade plywood. A single stance option is eyeballed and marked, making each board unique to its owner. After T-bolting binding inserts comes the glass binding. A couple coats of resin does the trick, soaking into the wood and fiberglass to create a strong bond. After all is dry, Smith sands off the excess and then it gets the secret ingredient, Zep high-traffic floor polish—Smith is a master of making due with what minimal equipment and materials are available—and a nice hot wax. Last is the top sheet, painted however he’s feeling that day. The graphics and shapes inform the names: Slime Time, Wabi Sabi, Mellow Yellow, Powder Pill, Beetlejuice, Dildon’t, etc.
The end result is more or less a functional piece of art. Because of this, Spring Break snowboards don’t really look like snowboards. At times they resemble what Tim Burton would have designed—had his first name been Jake and he’d grown up in Vermont—or possibly Timothy Learly. Others take more traditional shapes, albeit exaggerated in almost every direction. They use birch plywood, fiberglass and resin, like a surfboard, and an archaic DIY board press likely designed in 10 minutes on the back of a bar napkin. And that’s the beauty of Spring Break, it’s like nothing else out there. At least it was at its genesis.
As Spring Break began to make waves with various art shows, magazine articles, and collaborations, the kids weren’t the only ones watching. So too were the marketing departments of the mega corp ski and snowboard brands. Five years ago if you surveyed the entire industry’s offerings you could find a few fishes, a swallow tail or two, and maybe even a ready-made split, but nothing too “weird.” Fast forward to the 2015-16 season and nearly every brand has at least two new, unconventional shapes. And a few look curiously like Smith’s original designs. But that’s life, as Smith will admit.
There’s a difference between being inspired by [Spring Break], by my shapes, and then like directly ripping them off,” says Smith, “but you know, for the most part brands are trying to do their own thing.” Avoiding a shit throwing match is smart. Because what’s good for the goose is good for the gander, and the snow sports industry has been hit with shit winter and low sales winter after winter during the past decade, so anything to stimulate growth is good. “I mean I’m stoked. It’s good for the industry, it’s good for snowboarding as a whole,” says Smith. “I think it brings more people in and gets more people excited about [snowboarding]. There’s people from the surf world, from the skateboard world…it brings people that aren’t interested in a twin tip popsicle, or riding handrails at the snowboard park. They wanna get out and ride powder, be in nature and all that kind of thing.”
"That's the goal... just treat it more like an art project, like an art form."
One company that took note early on, and really has always been synonymous with Smith is CAPiTA. Smith was pro for the Seattle-based brand for nearly a decade in the early 2000s, and has been contributing graphics on and off since 2002 too. His tenure no doubt inspired many a young snowboarder to purse art. And now, with a partnership between CAPiTA and Spring Break continues to take shape, the influence can and will continue.
The first factory product of the partnership, the Slush Slasher, made its debut for the 2015-16 season, and did very well. The stubby, resort-friendly board is designed for hard craves and side hits, and is capable in powder too—for a real demonstration of what this sucker can do, see Rhode Island hero Dylan Gamache. By fall of 2016 the count will rise to 12, including four unique powder-specific shapes. Each in the line is derived from shapes proven by Smith’s handmade creations, developed over countless prototypes.
“Some of the handmade boards we know are not gonna ride good, we just make them purely for conceptual value, for the creative part of it. But otherwise we take the best attributes from the handmade ones and then bring them into production, so it’s actually like a really fun and creative way to do prototyping, raw prototyping,” explains Smith. “A lot of brands, they’re making powder boards, but they’re just basically slapping a zany nose and tail on an existing shape and on existing construction. They’ll CAD it up on the computer, and pay a bunch of money and like hope it works, you know. We’ll hand make a board that’s big or small, and then go see how it rides."
Most importantly, every Spring Break x CAPiTA board is made in CAPiTA’s recently opened Mothership factory in Austria. Opened in 2015 and 100% hydro powered with zero CO2 emissions, the Mothership is perhaps the world’s most advanced manufacturing plant. “It’s really been a blessing to hook up with [CAPiTA]. There’s just no other factory out that can do the stuff we’re doing—developing powder boards from the ground up, creating completely unique shapes with balsa wood cores and forged carbon inserts. You know, just super premier, exotic materials that I personally would never be able to get my hands on.” says Smith. “If we were to go to another factory and be like, hey, we want to pay you to make these, it would be insane. It would be unrealistic.”
The handmade and factory produced boards represent two sides to the same coin. The handmade boards give Smith an artistic outlet and allow the brand to stay true to its roots, whereas the CAPiTA produced boards allow the brand to grow and evolve, and make it more accessible. “If you want to ride a board, buy one of our boards made in Austria and get a two-year warranty. But if you want something that’s one of a kind—a piece of art—then you can buy a board off of us that’s hand-signed and dated,” says Smith. “That’s kind of the goal, to keep growing the [factory made] aspect and then just continue to do the one-off, custom, handmade boards kind of at our leisure. And kind of just treat it more like an art project, like an art form.”
As nearly every aspect of snowboarding has risen to such insanely unattainable and unnecessary levels, it’s important for Spring Break to both retain it’s arts-driven identity, while also making their product more accessible. Because at the end of the day, Spring Break wants you to have fun. They want you to ride powder; to earn your turns, and to see your local terrain through fresh eyes. They also want you to toss back a few cold ones and stop for safety meetings often. And most of all, they want you to remember that at the end of the day all you’re doing is riding a piece of plywood down a hill, and that’s a silly, inventive, and beautiful thing.