Matt Parker makes boards that toe the line between sports equipment and art. Photo: Matt Parker // Album

Matt Parker makes boards that toe the line between sports equipment and art. Photo: Matt Parker//Album

The Inertia

Matt Parker, the creative force behind Album surfboards, is known for making boards that are both high performing and inventive. They’re also beautiful – elegant shapes adorned with bold artwork.

Before all that, though, he was a 24-year-old at a crossroads in life. After living in Utah for several years, he had recently moved to California to study design at Chapman University. He was also a new father. Matt and his wife had just had their first daughter.

Coming back to Southern California was a homecoming of sorts – living in Irvine, a few miles away from his hometown of Orange, where he started surfing at Newport Beach when he was 12 years old. It was only 15 miles away, but if he couldn’t get a ride from his mom, he’d have to take the 4:56 a.m. bus, which took two hours. “You would hustle to do whatever you could do to get to the beach to go surf,” he remembers. “It was always like that, a little out of reach. So I think it kind of lit a fire, to try to figure out ways to make it happen.”

Though he had spent plenty of his youth hanging out in surf shops, he was mostly disconnected from the world of making boards. Thinking back, he remembers trying and failing to find alternative shapes in the ‘90s and early ‘00s, when basically every shortboard in the local shops was a slight variation of a stock thruster. Maybe there would be a fish or two in a dusty corner, but nothing like the options available today. “I had ideas in my head that I wanted to try and I probably wasn’t very good at communicating what those ideas were,” he says. “When I would get a custom board made, it just kind of wasn’t really what I was thinking or what I had intended.”

Now that he was in design school, though, he was getting better at articulating those ideas. Though he’d always had a background in making art, this was his first time having a formal education. Now he was taking classes that were broadening his horizons – sculpture, drawing, painting. He was learning to see the world in a different way. “I was like ‘Oh, that’s cool. I’m in art school, I’m trying all these different forms of art. I should just get some tools, get a blank and just shape a board and see how it goes,’” he says.

All he needed was an opportunity, which ended up coming from an unlikely place. “This couple we knew were going out of town on a vacation and we were this young married couple, so they asked us to house-sit and watch their kids for them while they were gone,” he remembers. “They had a backyard, so I was like, ‘All right, my window.’”

He went and got a blank from Westminster surf supplier Foam EZ and the most basic toolset he could find (Matt had no idea if the project would even work, so he wasn’t going to invest in a Skil 100 or any of the other more advanced tools of the trade). Luckily, the Clark Foam blanks of the era were already pretty close to the right shape for a finished board. “If you had a decent outline, it didn’t take that much to basically take the skin off of it and turn the rails and you could have something reasonable,” he explains.

Matt in his current-day shaping bay. Photo: Matt Parker // Album

Matt in his current-day shaping bay. Photo: Matt Parker // Album

So he took the blank back to the backyard and just winged it. As the kids ran around in the background, he scribbled out an outline – a sort of hybrid ‘80s-style shape. After about two or three hours of skinning and shaping the blank in the yard, using a couple of chairs for racks, he ended up with something usable. It was 5’ 11” by 20” by 2.5”. “Kind of low rocker and a little bit different,” says Matt, “a little bit extra foam and all this stuff. Kind of like a fishy tri-fin.”

He took a step back to look at his work. It was better than he expected. “I was like, ‘Oh, it actually looks semi-decent. It looks like a surfboard,’” he remembers. “The first few, actually, I was just trying to make it look like a surfboard. Trying to figure out, ‘What are rails supposed to feel like?’”

Despite his success at making that first shape, Matt knew better than to attempt to glass it himself. “I was already pressing my luck shaping it in their backyard and getting dust all over with their little kids running around and everything,” he jokes (the couple actually never found out what he’d done. He never told them). So he sent it in to a local glasser for finishing.

As soon as the board came back, Matt took it out to his old home break, Newport. Once again, he was surprised that this whole project had actually managed to turn into a functional board. “I could catch waves easier,” he tells me. “I could scoot down the line really quick. I was like, ‘Whoa, it actually works, kind of.’”

The experience immediately lit a fire in him, the same fire that had once propelled him from Orange to Newport on the OCTA bus. “I wanted to do better,” he says. “So I surfed it to get a feel for it and then I went and put it on consignment at Surfside Sports in Newport Beach. Insanely, somebody bought it. It sold in like a week.”

Just like that, Matt was in business. As soon as he picked up the consignment check from Surfside Sports, he turned around and bought another blank. By the end of the next week, he’d shaped another board. It began a process of Matt swinging from vine to vine, taking the money he made from one board and using it to buy materials for the next.

“It’s funny, because that first one is really clear, but the next probably 100, I don’t even really remember,” he says. ”It was like: make it, try an idea, get it glassed, maybe surf it, see if someone wants to buy it, get enough money, make another one, go buy another, go buy two blanks this time, make two.”

It wasn’t long before his design work started to bleed into his shaping. Matt began playing with logos and artwork, trying to make the boards look professional enough to get an extra $50 off consignment. The name “Album” came maybe 15 or 20 boards in. It was the name of Matt’s design agency and he used the boards as a way to experiment with different logo ideas. He went through many different iterations, type treatments and artwork variants that he would hand-screen on rice paper, but the name was always the same.

It was fitting that his eventual surfboard brand would stem from his design work. From the very beginning, Matt’s relationship with design was part and parcel with his approach to making boards. In fact, if it hadn’t been for design school, he may never have ended up shaping in the first place.

“The reality is I’ve snowboarded my whole life, too,” he explains. “I was good at snowboarding. I used to do some Rocky Mountain demo stuff for Burton and I used to work at a snowboard shop.” His first choice of design school had actually been the University of Utah, to be close to the mountains. It was only after being rejected that he applied to Chapman. “That’s what took me back to California,” he says. “So if I had got into design school in Utah and kept snowboarding, I definitely would not have shaped the board then. It definitely would have taken me on a different path.”

Editor’s Note: The Inertia’s Cooper Gegan works with well-known shapers to tell the stories of the first boards they created. Read about Doc Lausch hereStretch Riedel here, and Darren Handley here. 


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