Interview and photos by Aaron Hughes
Damion Fuller and Fern Levack are a husband and wife design duo with a resume that pushes them into the upper echelon of surf industry royalty. Mambo, Hotel Bondi Swim, Deus, Nixon and Electric are just some of the major surf brands that they have significantly contributed to, and yet they have deigned to live a quiet life in the sleepy rainforest of Otford with their son Jake, building treehouses and shaping bays, raising chickens and creating unique art that draws on parts of the history of surfing that are often neglected, if not outright forgotten in our modern age. Damion, otherwise known as the 'Board Collector', has a serious collection of surfboards, enough to leave anyone interested in the wave-riding adventures of years gone by drooling, while Fern loves riding horses, but has also been drawn deep into the surf world and the rich history therein has provided a wealth of character for her to drawn on for her recent project, Aloha to Zen.
Black Gold: So Fern, where did you grow up?
Fern: I was born up in Bellingen. My parents had left Sydney in the 70's and done the hippie thing, dropped out of society. Eventually that ended and I came back and grew up on the North Shore of Sydney with my mum and my brother and my sister.
Were you around surf culture initially or did that come later in life?
Fern: Probably later. Oh, when I was growing up in the holidays I used to always spend a few months a year up at an intentional community Bundagen, up on the North Coast where my dad lived, and there was lots of surfing going on up there. I spent a lot of time at the beach as a kid and so on. I guess that’s probably where the idea of, like in the book Aloha to Zen, it's not so much surfing on its own that I’m interested in, it's all the alternative lifestyle that can go along with it. So maybe that’s where it started.
When I left school I moved to Bondi and lived there from when I was 18. So at Bondi I went surfing and learned how to ride a skateboard and the rest of it. That’s also when I met Damion. I won’t underestimate the effect that his influence has had.
In the beginning I used to be quite annoyed, you know at dinner we’d be talking about surfing and I’d be just like, "Oh god, what a mistake I've made here!" but then after a while it becomes part of who you are, and the whole design background and everything else. Not the surfing itself, but all the background to it and the different people and personalities and that crazy collection of boards.
I guess I've just picked up all the different stories behind it and that's the part that interests me more than, you know, I don’t want to meet any of those people because it always shatters your idea of what they were like, but I found that really fascinating and fun to draw. It's almost like I can create a cartoon in my head with the funny stories that come out of the Board Collector blog and everything. Damion has a great way of describing, not very seriously, all the funny characters and stories behind everything and I can imagine that in pictures.
How did you get your start in fashion design Damion?
Damion: My father is an architect so I learned early on that good design is good design. Be it a chair, a car, a jacket, the same rules apply. You define the problem and then draw on your available resources to solve it. I studied Industrial Design and transitioned to apparel design pretty easily.
I loved art and I loved surfing so I was attracted to what was going on at 100% Mambo in the early 90's. I was lucky enough to work there in their heyday and worked on some pretty exciting design projects - pinball machines, shoes, a video game, watches, boardshorts, ski wear, luggage, all kinds of things.
Ten years after Mambo, Dare Jennings started a new project, Deus Ex Machina, and brought me back in to head up the apparel and accessories. It was weighted heavily on the motorcycle side and I helped bring in a surfing aspect to balance the brand. From there we were offered the opportunity to move to the U.S. to work at Nixon and it was this time in California that inspired the Aloha to Zen project.
Did you study in design at all Fern?
Fern: I started off doing Visual Communications at UTS and then I met Damion and he talked me out of that and said, "Why don't you do fashion design and we'll work in fashion together?" I wasn't really into what we were studying at the time, so I changed over to fashion design and I majored in textile design.
Now you're creating cushions for Aloha to Zen, did the idea for those come from your background in textile design?
Fern: We've spent 10 or 15 years working, you know we've had a couple brands together and that ended just recently. I did a swimwear brand that was really textile-based, Hotel Bondi Swim, that was really all about the textiles. I'd hand-draw all the textiles and turn them into digital prints.
I think by the time that finished, you get to a certain point in your life… I loved being in the fashion industry when I was in my 20's and early 30's, that was really exciting, but then there's a certain point in your life I think naturally you just want to do something less frivolous and seasonal. The idea of things lasting four months and then you have to come up with something completely new was sad because a lot of the textiles especially were beautiful, long-lasting, classic pieces. It seems a pity to throw them away and then a store is like, "What's the new thing you got? Oh it’s green this season." I wasn't really into that.
Fair enough! Did you always work together with Damion on brands?
Fern: Yeah, we've worked together since I did work experience at Mambo with him when I was about 19. I was at university when I met him and we’ve worked together ever since. My final range in university was this brand Kitten Clothing that I made up for uni. Before I'd even finished uni, we sold that range to General Pants and Damion and I worked on that for maybe 10 years together. He left Mambo to do that.
We eventually sold that to a Melbourne company and worked together doing design for Coca-Cola and Pepsi and Billabong and Big W and whoever! We did that for a long time.
We did get bored of it though, it was a bit too commercial for us. We like to live in a bit of obscurity and wackiness, so then we started Hotel Bondi together and did that for quite a few years, five years or something, and then I had Jake and it didn't fizzle out, but I sort of lost interest in it. We moved to America for three years after that, which is when Damion did his first job without me.
So you didn't work with Nixon at all?
Fern: No, I didn't because Jake was still just a baby, so that's when I started working on the book. I spent two or three years on the book and formulating Aloha to Zen.
Where did the initial spark for the book come from?
Fern: I think it all came from California, all the stories over there. Damion was really into his blog then and he was finding some really cool boards with really funny stories, just great stories about dudes with hairy chests that didn't like other guys because they shaved their legs or whatever the story was. There was such a depth and richness to all the funny stories that he seemed to be able to extrapolate from things.
We went on some great trips. We did the Boardroom show in San Diego and a big vintage auction that Randy Rarick invited us to in Hawaii a few times, where Damion was the guest appraiser and that was really fun appraising surfboards. It was like the Antique Roadshow of surfboards. I think because I'd spent so many years around it, I didn't realise, but basically I kind of know the same amount about all these obscure things that Damion does and I just needed to put it somewhere.
Growing up there were a lot of interesting alternative books around about meditation, eco-politics, etc. somehow all of that has gone into the book as well.
So my natural hate of anything commercial or materialistic makes it great to poke fun at the commercial side of surfing and those characters. That all naturally lends itself to my love of a certain period. Funnily enough, but for different reasons, Damion's love of certain designs is from that late 70's to early 80's. That's also the period that I really remember from my childhood as being a really great time, that I'm quite nostalgic about. Therefore those characters of Nat Young and Gerry Lopez in the peaks of their career all fit in perfectly, and then we've got those old surfboards down there, so it's really a focus on that little era.
That definitely makes sense in terms of the history and everything. How do you juggle that though when you continue to work in the modern commercial surf industry? How do you find the balance between the commercial side and the parts that you love?
Fern: The company Damion currently works for, Electric, is a special company because the guys that he works for have spent quite a lot of time here, and we’ve spent a lot of them with them. So there is another side to it that is just some families over there and some families here that are really good friends. Damion’s boss absolutely loves what we do and loves Jake, so we’ve spent lots of time together doing stuff.
Damion: He's really supported us.
Fern: I guess the commercial and business side of it is something that has to be done but luckily our families are quite close.
Damion: Yeah, they're very supportive of what we do. Originally my boss Eric was the guy who moved us over to the States five years ago for the Nixon brand. He moved onto Electric and then invited me to join him in that business, so we've had a very good relationship for a long time, but to answer your question about how you achieve your balance, it's not easy…
Fern: We're not staunch anti-anything, there's a page in there with a Range Rover running a board over and the surfer is crying and the number plate is 'DICK'. It's not a reference to anyone in real life!
Damion: It's just drawing on the culture.
Fern: Most of my friends drive black Range Rovers! it's just fun to poke fun, but I am in no way that serious about it. If my chickens don't lay eggs I’ll still go buy eggs from the supermarket!
Damion: I guess the alternative is… Well, what's the alternative? Not have chickens and not do artwork? People say to me all the time, "Oh my god, how do you commute to Sydney?" All you have to do when you arrive home is say, "I'm so glad I just did that commute."
Australia is a wonderful place if you take advantage of the things it has to offer, which is the coast and the bush. If you don't choose to take advantage of it, you may as well be living in London or Budapest or Minnesota, but it comes at a cost, you have to travel and stuff.
I guess I just find it fascinating, you know, the history of surf and the counter-culture aspects of it that are now finding themselves very mainstream. You guys are clearly bigger fans of the history and the counter-culture, but find yourself working firmly in the mainstream…
Fern: Yeah, to actually survive in the surfing market you have to have a job in the real world...
Damion: ...but it doesn’t mean you can't love it any less, and there's an irony to it too. One of my favourite quotes that Fern has incorporated into her artwork is Nat Young saying, "Just by going surfing we’re supporting the revolution." I just love that, because at the time it was true. It was truly an anti-establishment thing to go surfing. Today surfing is so commercial, but I still love to believe!
We're celebrating it with our tongue in our cheek, because we're being somewhat ironic but I still believe it at the same time. If only just by going surfing you were supporting the revolution...
So for you Damion what started your fascination, I guess especially with boards from that era, but even that era of surfing in general?
Damion: That era in general I'm particularly fond of because there was a very unique period during the late 70's and the early 80's that people refer to as the 'innovation period'. For a long time, since the shortboard revolution in the 60's, guys had just been riding regular single-fin surfboards and then, with the influence of the Hawaiians such as Reno Abellira, people started experimenting with other boards like twin-fins. Then Mark Richards won a world championship on a twin-fin and suddenly the whole world became interested in what else they could do.
So there was this really brief explosion of designs - channel-bottoms and laser-zaps and single-fins and winged-keels and Simon Anderson's thruster and it all happened in a really, really brief period of time. Guys were riding completely different boards.
I like to use one example of the 1982 Burleigh Heads 4GG Stubbies Pro. In the final you had the Hawaiians riding flat-bottomed, Hawaiian twin-fins, Simon Anderson riding a thruster, Mark Richards on his own-shaped twin-fin, Cheyne Horan on a winged-keel laser-zap, Rabbit Bartholomew on an extreme channel-bottom, single-fin pintail - all in the one heat!
If you look at a heat today and you measured everyone's boards they are within millimetres of being identical. You could call that progress...sure... (much laughter from all) but I celebrate that period of wild experimentation where anything goes and people are just making things up. Where you have Glen Winton on the rocks with sandpaper, sanding off a fin mid-comp - changing his whole fin set-up! I'm just like, wow, people aren't that involved in expression and experimentation and design any more...
Fern: A lot of them could care less...
Damion: Yeah, but could you imagine? Glen Winton grinding off a fin at the beach midway through. That's amazing!
That is amazing!
Fern: Not to mention that most of them were stoned while they were surfing!
Damion: Yeah throw the drug aspect into it...Even Michael Peterson and Simon Anderson sitting there with cigarettes and a beer there on the rocks between heats! It was a lot more free and open. But then sadly it kind of dropped off really quickly. So you have this magic window, '78 to '83 where just anything goes and then after '83 everyone has pretty much been on the same board ever since. So it was this little explosion, kind of like when The Beatles hit the U.S., suddenly everything changed overnight...
Did that period have a strong appeal to you at the time or did it come later in life?
Damion: No, it did very much so. I lived through that. Those were my formative teenage years and so I lived through the pink checkerboard boardshorts and expressive spray designs and I found that really exciting at the time and I guess that's stayed with me. It's not so much a nostalgia, it's a celebration of a pretty quirky period.
How many boards do you actually have?
Damion: I keep a running list on the side of my blog to keep track of them and there's about 200 on there. You're always losing some, some are disappearing, getting borrowed and lent, and I sell some and I buy some so it's a figure that runs around the 200 mark, which never quite feels like enough...
Fern: No, funnily enough it doesn't!
Earlier you were saying Fern that the surf talk around the dinner table was a little difficult before it caught on with you...
Fern: Yeah the first year or two I was just thinking, "Oh, this is all we're going to talk about! This is not the boyfriend that I made out with..."
Damion: Well that's why the blog started, Fern said, "Isn't there anyone else you can talk to about these things?" And I was like, "No!" (much laughter all around) and so I think the first blog entry is something like that, "My girlfriend won’t talk to me about surfboards so I'm going to write it all down here..."
Fern: But then funnily enough now I know all the detail of all it. It's all gone in, which I couldn’t say the same about showjumping with you...
Damion: That's true, but never mind... (much laughter)
That is one thing I've always wondered, knowing how passionate Damo is about such things...
Fern: These days it is much more interesting.
Damion: It's much more interesting for Fern when she's not the focus of the laser beam!
What drew you guys to live down here in Otford after California, Bondi and the rest?
Damion: I think it was Aaron Curnow who really helped us fall in love with this part of the coast, because he'd been down here longer than us. After living in the U.S. you realise what Australia does have to offer, what its strengths and weaknesses are, so we were keen to get out of Bondi and the late night bars and so forth and really embrace the best of what Australia has to offer, which really is the empty beaches and the bush. So we followed Aaron and Tanya's footsteps and ended up in Otford.
Fern: And the property prices are quite different. You swap a 50 square metre flat in Bondi for a house in a rainforest, that's pretty amazing!
You can also set up a shaping bay in the backyard!
Damion: You can't do that in Bondi! That's a real blessing, I'm really enjoying that. I've come very late to the game in terms of shaping, but I find that I have muscle memory in my hands and fingers of every board I've ever touched and I've owned and I find that it's coming really naturally to me, so it's something that I'm putting a lot more effort in and it's something that I can partner with Fern on the artwork side of it. I'm really enjoying making some things that are a bit different and quite fun.
Yeah, the artwork on your boards ties in a lot to the Aloha to Zen artwork.
Damion: It's all directly inspired from Fern's work.
Awesome, so what are the plans on that side of things then, and for Aloha to Zen in general?
Fern: The plan is going well so far, that's what you have to remember... (laughter)
Damion: The plan is going well! The plan is not for world domination. If you keep it small and you keep it manageable like-minded spirits will find you, and they have. There's people in the south of England and in Japan and the east and west coast of the U.S.A. that have really connected. What we've found is people either really, really get it and really love what we're doing or they just don't get it at all.
Fern: Sadly a lot of Australia hasn't.
Damion: So we're not really forcing that on people. You're better off just finding the people that really share your passion. So I guess you call it 'niche niche'. If alt-surf-homewares is niche, we're like the niche inside of the niche.
Fern: The new embroidery I'm working on is the guy who designed the fish, Steve Lis. My byline for him is 'ripping in obscurity'.
Damion: 'Ripping in obscurity', we could adopt that for everything! For the surfboards we're making and for the art...
Fern: ...in the obscure world, which does not translate into dollars unfortunately!
Damion: That one makes me smile a lot!
Fern: That's a new one I’m doing, obscure Californian surfers. A pillow with all of them on it. A lot of cigarettes going down in those early days!
So you'll continue to draw on new characters...
Damion: Well, there's such a wealth of characters to explore and rediscover and I think that's what Board Collector is about and that's what Aloha to Zen is about, it's rediscovering this culture that exists and then celebrating it, be they personalities or surfboard designs.
Fern: There was a lot in that book to draw on, I don't really need to come up with new ideas for a while!
There is so much in that book! How long did it take you to do the individual pages?
Fern: It took me three years, but I only had like two hours two or three times a week that I'd have a girl come and watch Jake and in those two or three hours a couple times a week I'd go sit down. Sometimes it would take me two days to do a page - two days of two hours, but it was the problem of actually finding that time and sitting down. When we moved to America it was like, "I can't do much, I don’t have much time, what can I do in this time?" So it didn't really take three years, it probably took a few months just squeezing it in...
Damion: ...but in between you have all that time to think and stew on it and talk about it and add detail to it...
Fern: Yeah, being in California was great to spend all that time at Swami's and meet all these funny characters and see how over there people don't surf white thrusters. They just don't. I don't think I saw one in three years. They all surf something interesting because they're really into the culture. It's normal for people to be interested in the design of their boards and the history of them and everything. That was really inspiring.
Damion: They have a much longer and richer surf heritage that goes back to the 30's...
Fern: ...and it's generational... Here it's like sometimes someone in your family surfs, but it's not so common for the entire family including the mums and the grandmas to surf. The amount of times I was on the beach with Jake and an old lady would come up and ask, "Can you help me? I can't get my wetsuit zip up." These really old folks surfing and stuff, it's not just a youth culture there.