In its August 1997 issue, Longboarder magazine ran a story on MoMA’s Hobie surfboard with the tag line “MoMA’s Got a Woody: Yes, But is it Art?” Fun hook, but perhaps the wrong question. The better question might be, why a surfboard? or better still, why this surfboard?
Easy answer: the Hobie Alter Expert Model Surfboard is a well designed object; a 10’6” balsa wood “big wave board” with redwood stringers, shining polyester coating, and flawless lines—nothing extraneous, nothing frivolous, just exquisite form for function.
And it was designed and built—“shaped” in surfing lingo—by Hobart “Hobie” Alter, who’s pioneer work as a surfboard designer changed the surfing world in a similar way that surfing and surf culture changed the landscape of American pop culture.
“Perhaps more than anyone else Hobie Alter has been responsible for the growth and development of surfing. Hobie Alter can best be described as surfing’s Thomas Edison,” wrote surf journalist Drew Kampion in SURFWIRE.
“Hobie has put more people in the water than have all the Baptist ministers in the states of Georgia, Alabama and the seven southern counties of South Carolina” cracked Patrick McNulty in West Magazine.
In the early 1950s when Hobie began building surfboards, wood was the predominant material. As the balsa wood supply started to dwindle, Hobie and a surf pal, Gordon Clark, began experimenting with foam, fiberglass, and resin—materials developed during wartime, but now finding their crossover purposes. By the late 1950s, through a lot of trial and error (including a half-blown up shaping shop), they’d developed a method of building boards that were lighter, stronger, and more responsive in the water. They revolutionized surfing, essentially creating the industry that paved the way for the Gidget movies, The Endless Summer, Dick Dale, The Beach Boys, and the Quicksilver Pro New York .
The Hobie Expert Model Surfboard is now on view in the exhibition Shaping Modernity; Design 1880–1980.