United Shapes: Looking Back to Move Forward
How one small brand helped shake up a stagnant industry with progressive old-school shapes designed for the next Golden Age of snowboarding
*all photography courtesy United Shapes
The story of United Shapes is a an interesting study of cosmic synchronicity, a certain rhythmic timing with the universe. When Pete Sieper, Steve Kimura, and Gray Thompson decided to launch their new brand snowboarding was in the midst of a significant transition. Though as big brands were suffering from economic downturns and declining participation numbers, small brands began finding their footing amongst the giants.
Not only was the industry rapidly changing, but so was board design. A need for something different was nagging at snowboarding like a persistent child. For decades board shapes had been a bit stagnant, year after year snowboard companies seemed paralyzed by fear, afraid to think outside of the box.
Out of this stagnation came a number of small brands willing to take risks. Brands like PowderJet and Spring Break began creating unique, hand-shaped customs, with the movement reaching critical relevance as Transworld Snowboarding released the acclaimed docuseries Snow Craft, produced by the Huffman brothers. For the first time in almost 20 years boards design evolved out of the twin-tip frame of mind it had been stuck in. The irony of this evolution was that in order to move forward snowboarding needed to look back to its storied past.
At the same time United Shapes started designing boards that both utilized modern technology and incorporated shapes from bygone eras. Reminiscent of surfing's alternative shape movement, these innovative small brand manufactured snowboards that allowed rider to reconnect with their past in a modern way.
Snowboards started to replicate surfboards especially in the realm of volume distribution, by playing with the width and length of snowboards, many brands started to create boards reminiscent of surfing’s iconic fish outline with the wide point up front, allowing for short and fat boards and offering maximized float in powder. These new designs ushered in a new way of looking at snowboarding, suddenly a carve became as worthy as the latest uber spin. United Shapes was at the forefront of a movement that created snow craft focused on enhancing the experience and sensations of riding your snowboard everyday whether you were a super progressive freestyler or a soul surfing mountain slasher.
It was clear from the inception of United Shapes in 2014 that the founders were drawing from snowboarding’s past, a past that was heavily influenced by surf and surf culture. What transpired was the alternative shape movement that has now become a mainstay in snowboard culture, but at the time was considered fringe. From the first year of production US aimed to design and manufacture boards that not only reflected the energy of snowboarding’s golden age but also offered customers a timeless and unique choice when buying new gear.
“We were most definitely aiming to create something unique from the get go,” United Shapes founder and team rider Gray Thompson tells us. “I guess the main reason for starting United Shapes was a response to all our ideas about product, designs and brand identity that did not exist at the time.”
By not attempting to be everything to everyone, United Shapes found their rhythm.
The results are design elements that feel timeless and minimal. Like a vintage Porsche 911 or pair of Mcqueen’s Persol sunglasses, the US brand identity reflects a sort of effortless cool—every aspect feels well-considered, from their logo and board graphics to type selection within brand collateral. And because vying to be on trend isn't the end goal, their boards don’t instantly feel dated year after year. When US creates a shape it serves a purpose—they take their time to create boards that resonate with their own approach to snowboarding, making each new model feel special and inspired.
Like most small companies there were growing pains, Kimura and Sieper were childhood friends that had grown up snowboarding together and had launched the hand crafted NYC based outerwear company Owner Operator in 2008. They teamed up with Thompson who was making a name for himself with his lo-fi snowboard films the he was producing under the Warp Wave label with friend and fellow Owner Operator teammate Eric Messier to launch United Shapes after a collab deal with a major brand fell through.
“Prior to launching US, we were working on an OO collab board with a big company, and developing the direction of snowboards we’d always wanted to make.” Tells United Shapes Founder Steve Kimura. “Things got weird with them, and I ended up telling them that we were pulling the plug because we were starting our own thing.”
The first year of production was full of creative energy, but as a small startup without many resources the boards they produced didn’t meet the standards of the three at the helm. “Our first boards were a compromise performance-wise, but a necessary stepping stone to figure out exactly what we wanted to make.” Continues Kimura. “An accidental lesson was that the industry timeline is kind of fucked, and we just needed to ignore parts of it if we were ever going to get off the ground.”
By not attempting to be everything to everyone United Shapes has found their rhythm. With manufacturing now on pace with design, and the opportunity to grow in a sustainable manner, United Shapes seems poised to stick around—a feat easier said than done in an industry marred with daily headlines declaring it dying.
Drawing from the past but always looking to the future, the team at United Shapes plans to continue moving forward with timeless and functional shapes aimed at inspiring riders around the globe to embrace the next Golden Age of snowboarding.