Carl Ekstrom shows this reporter a photo of himself surfing taken from the deck at Duke’s La Jolla, sometime in the 1960s. “That’s me, doing a bottom turn on an asymmetrical,” he says, beaming. “I’m going up into there.”
Ekstrom, 76, doesn’t surf anymore, but his surfboard designs still will for decades to come. Working in his garage workshop in Rancho Santa Fe, this fiberglass Picasso shapes boards for top surfers and other clients. (He’s worked for Disney, Nissan and even for Andy Warhol, shaping two boards shot by the pop-art superstar for his 1968 art film “San Diego Surf.”)
“I’m a prototyper,” Ekstrom explains, speaking in the art gallery inside Misfit Pictures on Pearl Street in La Jolla, where he’ll have a showing on Dec. 16. “I make the first version usually. I’m always interested in new techniques, new designs to fit into the new riding styles.”
The 1960 La Jolla High graduate said he began surfing near his childhood home in WindanSea in 1948, when the sport was in its infancy. “My brothers were riding before I was,” he recalls. “We have really good waves here.”
When Ekstrom made his first board at age 13 or 14, it wasn’t a matter of art or craftsmanship. “We didn’t have any money, so we had to do something,” he explains. “We bought an old board with redwood rails. I blasted the paint off and I knocked out one of my teeth out immediately.”
But even La Jolla surfers with money built their own boards. “There were no local surfboard shops,” Ekstrom recalls. “You couldn’t just go down and buy your own board, unless you went up to L.A. to Velzy or Jacobs, or to Hobie in Dana Point — and a lot of their shapers came from La Jolla.”
In 1967, Ekstrom developed the first asymmetrical boards, which he still holds the patent on. These boards differ on their left and right sides, enabling surfers to tailor their ride to their personal forehand and backhand surfing styles, rather than vice-versa. “The toe side is for drive, the heel side for power,” Ekstrom explains.
Although they didn’t start out with the intention, Ekstrom and his fellow surfboard-shapers — including La Jollans Al Nelson and Pat Curren — became so appreciated, they ended up inhabiting the art world. “It is art,” Ekstrom says, “because everyone’s putting their own little design concepts into the board.” (At Misfit, Ekstrom plans to display some of his favorite asymmetric models — including a modern board, carbon-dated to 2,700 years old, from a Sequoia that fell in Northern California on its own in the ’60s.)
Ekstrom eventually branched into furniture, doors and other things — often building them out of the same fiberglass and foam he made surfboards with. “It’s all connected,” he says. “I just want to get in and produce some unique whatever, so I just do it,” he says.
Ekstrom quit making boards in the late ’70s, but was coaxed back by some surfer friends in 1999 for custom jobs. Those friends soon spread the word and he’s been back in business since. “Everyone in the surf industry knows that he’s the underground legend, everyone,” says Misfit Pictures co-owner Pierce Michael Kavanagh. “Carl’s the type of guy that will think of an idea, and then will build whatever, and he would never be satisfied. And the fact that he’s the nicest guy in the world, that’s a rarity.”
IF YOU GO: Carl Ekstrom will show his surfboards at 7 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 16 at Misfit Pictures Gallery, 565 Pearl St., Suite 100. Admission is free. misfitpictures.com