Chris Christenson has blazed his own unique trail in the surf industry since shaping and selling boards out of his college dorm room over twenty years ago. Since then, he’s garnered respect and notoriety as one of the premier shapers in the world, creating a style and aesthetic that blends modern progression with a timeless look and ethos. Chris is somewhat of a renaissance man, pursuing a number of passions both directly and indirectly involved with surfing. We took a trip down to his shop and had a few questions to ask...
A CONVERSATION WITH CHRIS CHRISTENSON
You seem like a guy who has his hands in a lot of pots. Shaping boards, building cars, motorcycles, and backcountry snowboarding... Where does it all come from?
Well, my dad introduced me to cars and racing culture from the 50’s and 60’s when I was a kid. It’s always been something I was interested in. With surfing and stuff too, that era was extremely creative. People back then inspire me because they didn’t have access to the blueprints that are available now with social media and the internet. If you built cars, did art or made music, it was a fully solo pursuit.
And this bleeds over into your board design?
Yeah, I really like that period of equipment. I approach my own designs as if the 60’s never stopped. Where would it be now if the people in middle generations didn’t go off and make wrong turns? When I try to think of new designs, the last thing I do is go into a surf shop and look at other surfboards. I go up to my shaping room in the mountains. A lot of my best ideas will come from up there when I’m out of the element. Just put some headphones on, grab my sketchbook and start drawing outlines. A friend of mine is a musician and when he writes music, he doesn’t listen to anything. He shuts down for sixty days and just hides out. That’s rad, and its how to find a unique perspective.
Yeah, it’s hard to be on your own trip nowadays. So growing up, were you always into music?
I was always into music and I was exposed to it early because my dad was a musician. That’s how he raised our family, he was a guitar player. As far back as I can remember, I had a guitar in my hands. But I think it was the typical story: If the dad does it the kid normally doesn’t do it. My guitar skills stop at dorm room chords. (Laughs) But I always liked music.
Were you stoked on collecting records and going to shows? What was the first kind of music you took notice in?
Well, I was really into The Rolling Stones because of my dad. That stayed with me. My first concert ever was Guns N’ Roses. That blew my mind. It was so good!
In like, ‘87 or ‘88?
‘87 I think. It was at the Forum in LA.
That’s rad you were able to catch them right when Appetite came out.
Yeah, it was cool. And then I got really into the punk scene. There was this place called the Fullerton Ice House, which was pretty historical back in the ‘80s. There I was exposed to the Bad Brains, D.I., The Vandals, 7 Seconds and Fugazi. I loved old Metallica too. It sucks to say, but I can’t think of any new bands that do it for me… but I did get super into Radiohead later on. Even my dad, who’s a music snob and in his seventies now, appreciates Radiohead!
I can see Radiohead having that multigenerational appeal. They kind of have a timeless sound in a sense and do their own thing. Definitely cool your dad sees that.
I wasn’t really sure about them at first, but then you put on headphones and get it. You see a lot of people trying to copy them now, right?
I guess it’s bound to happen. They’re so influential.
I was a late bloomer to the Grateful Dead too. When I was younger, just growing up and being into punk, I never listened to them. And you would see the shirts and shit everywhere. I didn’t like the name and thought they were just a bunch of stinky people. (Laughs) But in the last seven years I’ve gone in deep.
What was your intro to them? That is such a hard band to find an entry point. There’s just so many fuckin’ records!
Well, I just didn’t have the appetite growing up. I had heard the first couple albums but nothing ever stuck with me. A few years ago I was driving through the country and stumbled upon that Deadhead radio station on Sirius. It just made sense for the zone I was in… 4-wheel drive going through a wash east of the Sierras. It just fit, I don’t know. (Laughs)
So growing up, how did you find surfing? Did your dad surf? Or was it something you found on your own?
My dad surfed when he was young but not with me. I just found it on my own, going to the beach a lot as a kid. My neighbor growing up was from Hawaii and shaped surfboards. He had this full setup in his garage: airbrushing, glassing, and shaping. As a kid on training wheels I would ride over and watch him in his garage, just sit out on the driveway and not say a word. When I was twelve or so he let me borrow his tools and that was it. Done.
That’s cool you took an interest that young. From a kid’s perspective, it seems like normally you would want to be in the water as much as possible, not necessarily shaping your own boards.
I always liked working with my hands. And my grandpa was a carpenter. I would go to the beach Monday through Thursday and on Friday he would pick me up from school and drive me to his cabin. He was a tinkerer so we were always working on something, whether it was building a new deck, putting on a new roof, or tearing out the tile in the shower. I just always had a tool in my hand.
Makes sense. I guess if you can tile a bathroom at 10, building a surfboard at 12 isn’t as crazy as it sounds.
(Laughs) Yeah! I remember going to the mountains and taking the trucks off my skateboard, this is like 1982. I wasn’t even exposed to snowboarding. But I would take my skateboard and varnish the bottom, just make it all slick. Then I’d wrap a bicycle inner tube around it nose to tail to keep my feet locked in, and ride down hills. As a kid, I just thought of it like surfing on the snow.
Then, I remember from the breakdancing days, dudes would put furniture spray on cardboard to do better backspins. (Laughs) I would do that on the bottom of my skateboard in the snow and it was way faster! Had no idea about ski wax, but I guess it did the same thing. I was going down those hills like the Chevy Chase flying saucer.
As you were getting older, were you doing anything else outside of surfing?
When the skate scene was going big, I was building my own ramps. Ray “Bones” Rodriguez lived in my neighborhood. As a kid, it was awesome. Like, Ray “Bones” just went off one of my launch ramps! I was like a pig in shit, just so excited if anyone went off one of my ramps. And we would make these sixty foot long rails out of PVC pipe, just try to grind as far as possible. It was like a mini skatepark in my neighborhood.
I heard you went to school on a golf scholarship. What’s up with that?
Well, I was super into sports as a kid. Like total closet jock. Baseball, basketball, football, and golf. I played golf in high school and college. I had a golf scholarship to Point Loma Nazarene but only used it for a year and then I quit. I just wanted to surf and was kinda uninspired. The money I was supposed to get from the school never came anyways. So surfing kinda took over. I had my own little business going.
So how did that go? Were you just shaping and selling boards to kids at school?
Well, I was making boards for myself at first. My good friend Phil Goodrich was going to school there and was one of the best surfers around. Him and this guy Greg Drude, Dan Kennedy, and Ricky Irons. There were a ton of good surfers that went to Point Loma, but Phil and Greg were my favorites and I started making boards for them. Everyone in school was influenced by those dudes cuz’ they grew up surfing with a lot of people in the area. Once those guys got my boards they ended up liking them, which made more people hit me up. I was living in the dorms and going to my parents' house every weekend to shape. I had this little setup and would make two or three for the week, glass them and everything. I wouldn’t even get the sand jobs finished so I’d take them back to school. I used to run an extension cord out of my dorm room window. I had two sawhorses and I’d bring my sander and sand boards outside my dorm room. Just make a huge mess. (Laughs)
And I never got in trouble for it! That would never happen nowadays. Back then, I guess no one was as convinced that the earth was dying from us poisoning shit. So yeah, it was kinda rad. I even bought an airbrush kit and would airbrush boards in my dorm room. I had this little zone in the bushes where I would work too.
And now, some people kept those things and they’ll come give them to me! I have a few upstairs where I’m like, whoa these are bad.
It’s sick that people held onto them. What shapes were you doing back then?
Back then it was only thrusters. Like thruster or die man. That’s all I was doing. There were guys like John Wagner that went to school there too. He definitely influenced me with the whole longboard thing. And there were still some guys staying true to the old school keel fin fish, cuz that’s where it started. I’ve been making that same fish design for over twenty years. So looking back on it, I remember at first I was like, why are these guys riding knee boards? Then I saw them ripping on these things at Sunset Cliffs. No leashes, all black suits, no stickers. They didn’t give a fuck. Ghetto, dirty wax jobs but fully ripping. Then I rode one and that’s when I understood. That’s how I got hooked on the alternative thing.
Who was inspiring to you as a shaper back then?
Well, Skip Frye for sure. I got exposed to him and Dick Brewer’s designs from a factory I used to work in. Being in Point Loma exposed me to different genres of surfing that I would have never experienced living in Orange County. It was getting really stale. A lot of good surfers, but I wasn’t experiencing as much compared to when I moved down to Point Loma. I lived there from ‘91 to ‘98 and then I lived in La Jolla for three years. I’ve lived in Cardiff since then and now I spend half of my year in the Sierras. It was good that I moved around. I don’t know if my brand would have evolved as much as it did, you know?
So what year did you start shaping fishes?
Well, I grew up with the old philosophy of respecting your elders, which you just don’t see anymore. I knew Skip Frye was shaping them. And with those movies, Searching for Tom Curren and Litmus, those were the light bulbs for me. Tom Curren was riding a Skip Frye fish, and then in Litmus, Derek Hynd was riding a Skip Frye fish. I knew I could make one, but I wanted to be respectful. At that time I was only riding my boards but knew I needed to get one of those Skip Frye fishes. It was in ‘95 or ‘96, right when I graduated college, that I approached Skip and asked to buy a fish just like the one in Searching for Tom Curren. He was surprised cuz none of the younger guys were asking for that design, but was really stoked and made me one. He made me the same one Derek Hynd rode in Litmus, a 5’8”. I rode that thing for like eight months straight. It felt like the best surfing I’d ever done. I was blown away. Got back on a regular thruster and just bogged. (Laughs)
So you just rode one for a while, but didn’t shape your own?
Yeah, I never once templated or copied it. Later on I ran into him and just said hey, I shape surfboards and I’m in love with that board you made me. I’ll never sell it, but I’d like to shape some boards like these if you’re okay with it? He was totally cool. I think he was excited to see someone younger take an interest in shaping the older style boards. There were other guys making them at the time, Larry Mabile and George Gull, but you never saw them north of La Jolla. So I made a few and got my friends on them.
Wow, and then that shape became a signature of yours.
Yeah, I started making fish in ‘96 so it’s been over twenty years. And I’m so stoked I had it in me to ask him! It’s cool because the way I shape fish is totally Skip Frye inspired. I have my own little curves and stuff, but that’s the heritage. And it’s crazy too cuz the ones I shape today are hardly any different than the ones I made in the ‘90s. What was funny too, I had this factory in ‘99 and I wanted to expand but was scared. Skip’s shop had to move too, so I called him up and asked if he wanted to take over the building with me. It came back full circle and he ended up being my neighbor for ten years. Learning and having a shop next to him was really when I was able to hone in on my style.
So what do you think helped your brand evolve during those early years? How did you get from shaping boards in your dorm room to having a factory and a full-on business?
The old school way man. One board at a time by word of mouth. Initially it was my friends from college that just ripped on my boards. Then I did some work for Dick Brewer and a little bit of work for Rusty and G&S, kinda paid my dues and made some people happy. Early on, I had this theory that every surfboard sold two surfboards. And it did. By the time I graduated college I was neck deep in orders.
Let's go back timeline-wise. When did you start to notice everything come full circle with alternative shapes?
Well, the roots of it go back to the late eighties. There were still guys at Sunset Cliffs staying true to the fish design. Skip Frye and George Gull were always shaping these boards. And Joel Tudor was doing his thing all through the nineties. Tom Wegener, who influenced Joel Tudor, was a guy who really brought back that late sixties style noseriding. His brother, John Wegener, was the one who exposed me to all of that stuff at Point Loma when we were in school. In my opinion, those guys kinda planted the seed and kept it growing.
How big of a role did the movies from that era play?
In ‘96, Searching For Tom Curren and Litmus came out, which gave video validity to what the fish was capable of. Fast forward to the early 00’s, Skip and I are selling a few fish to some niche guys, and then Thomas Campbell came out with Seedling and Sprout. He ordered a green fish for Dan Malloy to ride in Sprout. After that, a ton of these pro guys started to order fish from me, and it created all of these different alternative classes in surfing. I blended in to all of it.
So after Seedling came out, you really noticed a difference in the kinds of boards people were ordering from you?
Yeah, when that came out it was like the third movie that gave validity to those alternative design. So many great surfers were riding them, so it just gave it another big push. I was working next to Skip at the time and he and I were just switching back and forth, making a bunch of these dudes boards. That’s kinda when it exploded. And it's cool. Way more of a timeless feel.
Has that momentum continued through today?
I think so. But looking at the future too hard is just a waste of time. I want to make shit that people will ride for as long as possible. There are a ton of boards I don’t even put a logo on because I know that someone can enjoy the board twenty-five years from now, rather than having some blown out logo. I really do my best to make boards that feel timeless. I’m not saying I achieve that, but I do my best. (Laughs) I know a lot of the performance boards I make don’t have that feel, but people order what they want to order.
So let's talk about your logo. That was something that always stuck out to me when I’d see your boards in shops or whatever. The skull was striking and the placement was weird. There almost seemed to be this outside, rock n’ roll influence or something. Was that intentional?
The skull logo was a trip. I’d always liked skulls, since seeing those Ray “Bones” boards growing up. I thought Powell Peralta was the shit! (Laughs) And all that old school biker and pinball art from the seventies had skulls and pirates and shit. Now the hipsters are trying to use it but back then it was real. Old pinball art is rad.
I saw this old Iron Maiden pinball machine at a bar the other day and couldn’t stop looking at it. Those things are like time capsules.
I love that shit man.
So your logo, how did that come to be?
My logo was done by this graffiti artist named Dmote who’s done a lot of work for RVCA. My friend Mitch Abshere referred me to him and I just called and asked if he wanted to do a logo. That was actually his first take. I have this thing where if I like something, I’ll know in like two seconds. And I thought it was the coolest thing. So I just met him at a coffee shop, gave him the money, and that was it.
Wow, so you just knew right away.
But on some boards, I still don’t use a logo. Sometimes I’ll just take a brush and some red paint and swipe a little stripe on. I know there’s a lot of people that hate my logo, and some people like it too. It all kinda depends. But I just let the brand evolve with it. You just have to be careful though, like I don’t really do stickers or any of that shit. I’ve maybe made like four hundred over the course of twenty years. There was a period a few years ago when I called Demote and wanted to change it too.
Why was that?
I don’t know, it just never sat with me in a way. I love the skull but the shape always seemed off to me. I don’t know, I ended up keeping it. People have a love/hate but it’s whatever. Sometimes on certain boards, it just doesn’t look right. Like, I’ll get these custom orders once in a while and people want to put logos and shit in the weirdest spots. But I don’t care, I’ll do whatever.
That’s interesting you kinda pick and choose with some boards though.
Well, there was a period when I just hated logos. When Clark Foam shut down in ‘03 or ‘04, Black Wednesday we call it, I just stopped. Mitch’s Surf Shop in La Jolla was my best account, and they had this ten board order and I didn’t put a logo on a single one. I delivered them and Mitch was so pissed off, and that guy never gets mad. He wanted logos, but I don’t know. I just wanted to use my signature for a while. So I told him if the boards didn’t sell in five days, I’d come back down and give the money back. He called two days later and said he sold them all. Then he started ordering only blank boards. So my logo has gone through a few different phases. (Laughs)
Yeah, there is definitely a minimalist element to your boards.
And I still have certain models where you can’t get a logo. My Chris Craft model has no logo, just my signature on the bottom. Sometimes people will get weird about it, like I don’t think they deserve my logo on the board or something, but that’s not it at all. That’s just the way some boards come. And they learn.
That makes sense. What year did the skull logo happen?
That came in like 2008 or 2009. Around the time when Greg Long won the Eddie.
So what happened with that?
So going back a bit, the economy was starting to tank really bad. I had just built a new factory, the one we’re in right now, and went through my whole savings. Greg (Long) got invited to the Eddie in 2009 and I wasn’t going to go. So many accounts owed me money. No one was paying. I had like $700 to my name. Then, I remember talking to my friend Danny Dimauro, everyone was getting excited cuz the Eddie hadn’t ran in a couple years, and Greg Long was on fire. Just winning everything. And we had built this bitchin’ board. So it’s like four days before and the swell is coming. My buddy was like, you’re gonna be so bummed if Greg wins and you aren’t there.
So I called a client in Hawaii and asked if I could shape ten boards when I was over there to cover my expenses.
So you ended up going then?
Yeah. Greg ended up winning on one of my boards, and I was glad I made the trip.
Pretty rad you pulled it off.
Oh yeah, and at the time too, I wasn’t liking the whole internet vibe. The social media thing was sitting weird with me. I felt good about the win, but the whole climate was strange. I thought about quitting and just not building boards anymore. I was burned out and the economy was bad. I just didn’t like where things were headed. The whole, putting lipstick on a pig era. All those fucked Facebook and Instagram filters. I just decided to really test things out. The day after Greg Long won the Eddie, I shut my website down. I called the office and people were tripping, but I just wanted my hands to do the talking. No social media, no nothing. And for a few years straight, my business grew like thirty to forty percent. (Laughs)
Fuck. That’s unreal.
So now, I have Instagram again and I have a small website. It cost me like $800 to build. I took all my photos with my iPhone. (Laughs)
Yeah, just create a little mystique. Don’t give away everything.
There’s a home page and an email. That’s all you need. My manager is on commission, he has a kid a stuff, so I got back on it for him in a way. I’m just glad how it all happened. I’m from the last generation of shapers who had to do it the hard way. I had the elders around, and they would call you out.
In what way?
Like tough love. There was this guy, John Holly, that I used to work with at Brewer. He was fucking mean. When he didn’t like something, he would let you know. And it was the best thing for me. I would lose sleep over that shit. He gave me a hard time. Whether I’d be embarrassed or afraid, that’s what made me better. Now if you did that, you run the risk of being sued for slander or bullying. This whole deal with walking on eggshells man, it’s crazy. You can’t say shit to anyone anymore. I’m glad I had rougher experiences.
Well yeah, you were able to have a taste of both worlds. Does it trip you out how much influence you have over these young kids who started shaping their own boards?
Yeah, I actually like helping younger kids out. I just read this interview with the guy that founded Alibaba. He just announced his retirement at 54 years old. He said your twenties are for learning, your thirties and forties are for taking risks, and your fifties are for teaching. When I read that, it just really made sense. I’m 45 now, have taken some risks, and things are pretty comfortable. I like giving back and helping younger shapers if they have a sense of respect. They don’t have to respect me, I could give two shits. But if I see someone doing it the right way and they have a business mind, I’ll help out.