Design Rolls Into the World of Skateboarding

A newfound rigor has taken skateboards out of the realm of pure fashion.

My sister’s take was predictable: “Aren’t you only supposed to have one midlife-crisis vehicle at a time?” Though I admit to a nascent car lust, the vehicles in question were not Phaetons or Minis. I’m both a little too young and a lot too poor to go there. But for under $200 a pop, as I belatedly discovered last summer, I could indulge in the tonic of speed and get around town in style, all while satisfying a jones for thoughtful, useful, progressive design.

I was never one of those inveterate skate-rat kids, clattering around looking for the next small moment of streetscape to exploit for a drop or a grind. But my friends all were. They built half-pipes in their backyards, talked endlessly about bearings and decks. I liked those conversations; I appreciated the things as objects even then, but fear kept both feet on the ground. A friend from high school went pro. As my interest in skateboards reemerged, I tracked down a video of him doing an outlandish jump over the mouth of a catchment basin set into the steep side of some California culvert. It was harrowing and gorgeous and decidedly not for me. But during all the years I had been nursing a distant fascination with skating, a quiet design-intensive revolution had been transforming the sport, not only making it more suitable for the ­geriatric but bringing it closer to its promise: the most efficient, elegant form of urban transportation yet devised.

Longboards are to skateboards as racing bikes are to BMX, as telemark skis are to alpine, as tools are to toys. Typically at least 36 inches from nose to tail, with trucks (the axle infrastructure) often set at the ends to extend the wheel base, they are optimized for speed, for stability at speed, and for responsive carving on hills. Where a skater of the street-board school might be seen tick-tacking around, popping an ollie here and there, or pushing valiantly on the flats, a longboarder just glides through the frame. I recently watched an old skate-porn video from the 1980s. It opened with these words, over images of construction and gangly kids tearing up suburban streets: “Two hundred years of American technology has unwittingly created a massive concrete playground. It took the minds of twelve-year-olds to realize its potential.” Those same kids are now thirtysomething, and they’re pushing board design in every direction.

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One of the fascinating things about skateboards as a design proposition is their simplicity: four wheels, eight bearings, two trucks, eight bolts, some grip tape and a deck. Like other classic function-intensive design problems—flatware, say, or the chair—the intensity of those constraints can serve as a fruitful channel for innovation. It’s a game of ounces and millimeters, miniscule angles and half-degrees of flex. Then there’s the added dimension of applied text and images, which brings skateboard design into sync with the worlds of graphic design, art, and, crucially, fashion. For several decades, that last link served as an easy out: the thing itself remained largely static as companies competed for sales on the merits of imagery and associated myth. That has changed; skating has evolved out of pools and parks toward longer boards with complex shapes suitable for carving, commuting, and—at the outer reaches of the insane—downhill racing where speeds of 55 mph are not uncommon.

I stumbled blindly into this world. The first board I bought was a Dogtown model known in the stores and catalogs by the motto printed in scrolled tattoo-art letters on the bottom: “Built for Speed.” At 37 inches long, it was short for a longboard; and at 9 inches wide, kinda fat. But that day in a skate shop in Sag Harbor, it was sleek and alluring; the clouds parted, light broke, angels sang—I had to have it. Part of the appeal was that it looked like the skateboards I grew up with: wide kick-tail, pointy nose, banana-shaped in between. Its principal ­performance -enhancing feature is a long, slow camber between the wide-spaced wheels. That arched shape gives it a spring that allows one to lean into a downhill turn and approximate the satisfying carve of a snowboard. But because it came complete with narrow trucks of a type better suited for tricks, it was, as the palms of my hands soon discovered, not entirely stable at the speeds for which it was allegedly built.

Still, it was love. And I didn’t know any better. My car died, and I started riding everywhere. But as my balance and confidence improved, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was on the longboard equivalent of a Buick. I’d also grown a little skeptical of its livery. Dogtown is a hallowed California brand, and something about its red -flames-and-blue-haired-devil-girl art seemed more appropriate for Venice Beach than for the F train.

I decided that the board was too forgiving, that it would make me sloppy if I stuck to it exclusively. God bless the Internet; my late-night research soon led me to the Arbor Pocket Rocket. At a wee 27 inches, it’s a funny hybrid: it is shorter than many trick boards, but because of its rigidity, large wheels, and massive Randal trucks (the gold standard, I learned, developed for downhill racing), it rides like a classic longboard. The stiff feel of the maple board is enhanced by an extra ply of koa, a Hawaiian hardwood used in the earliest surfboards, and Arbor applies a gritty clear coat to the top—a recent technological innovation—so there’s no need to cover this rich, multihued (and, of course, sustainably harvested) wood with black tape.

It deserves a place in the design collection at MoMA. I took the Pocket Rocket to Rotterdam recently, and it got me all around town, up and over UN Studio’s moving (and exceedingly smoothly paved) Erasmus Bridge, and even down to revisit Rem Koolhaas’s troubled Kunsthal, a side trip I would not have bothered making otherwise.

The Arbor introduced me to the nuances of shape. A very sharp turned-up nose and a slight concave to the top means that your front foot always finds its place—crucial on such a short board. That prepared me to appreciate my next and possibly last board, the incomparable Earthwing Superglider.

One of the pioneers moving the industry these days is Brian Petrie, a 33-year-old New Yorker who runs Earthwing Skateboards out of his home in Brooklyn. Ten years ago, his frustration with the evolution of skateboards led him to begin experimenting with new shapes and materials —fiberglass, thermoplastics—in an effort to build a board suited for his native environment. The Superglider was developed for, and several times has won, the infamous Broadway Bomb, an annual race from 116th Street to Bowling Green through the mayhem of New York’s mythic street.

The board is a sandwich of wood between fiberglass, precured under tension to reduce weight and give it some bounce. But the key to its performance is a mere four-degree lift in the nose. It is good design at its most elemental: the angle creates a secure pocket for your front foot while simultaneously improving the angle of the trucks so that the front wheels react faster into each turn. (“There’s always some guy with a coffee cup or a woman with a stroller,” Petrie says. “The last thing you need to be doing is worrying about your skateboard.”) The rest of the board is designed to maximize that double-duty innovation, basically by getting out of the way. And in a nod to a New York sense of ­propriety—as well as, Petrie acknowledges, a rebuff to the fashion-consciousness that has stymied skateboard development for too long—it is painted the only color that never goes out of style: jet black. Just like the Porsche I’m gonna buy when I get too old for this shit.

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