Feature story by Ed Thompson / Photography by Julien Roubinet
Ice Cream Headaches, a project that documents surf culture in New York and New Jersey, Ed Thompson and Julien Roubinet have collaborated on a number of interviews and photo essays covering surfers, topics and travels worldwide. For this interview, they traveled to the Basque coast of France to meet with Luc Rolland, an extraordinary artist and shaper living in Biarritz.
In your wettest and wildest dreams of surfing, where your soul drifts apart from your body to surf mystical breaks on rugged coastlines, shrouded in softly-lit morning mist, lapped with peeling, blue-green waves, and where magic wave-craft infuse your surfing with unequalled grace, Luc Rolland is your shaper.
Luc was born in St Cloud, France and grew up in Biarritz where he spent time in the ocean and eventually learned to knee board. Aged 13, amidst the shortboard revolution, he saw friends ripping the lamination off longboards to re-shape them into shortboards. “I couldn’t believe they would trash these classic old boards,” Luc said. “I asked my dad to buy a polyester slab and I made a board for myself. I just painted it because we didn’t have resin. Two sessions later it went to pieces,” he laughed.
Luc pushed his creativity in other directions. He told his mother he wanted to become an
inventor so he would never have to make the same thing twice.
Luc pushed his creativity in other directions. He told his mother he wanted to become an inventor so he would never have to make the same thing twice. He painted, drew and made sculptures.
At school Luc performed poorly because he couldn’t stop daydreaming. “The school told me: ‘You don’t have the capacity to stay in regular classes’. My parents and I went to visit a ‘manual activities’ school where they taught vocational skills. My parents choose ceramics for me because it had potential to lead to a job. I was super happy - it was just the best three years!” After his vocational training, Luc was accepted to study at a prestigious art school in Paris, returning home each summer to build surfboards for his friends.
Fast forward twenty years and Luc was commissioned to make some ceramics for acclaimed French fashion house, Courrèges. Maison Courrèges was founded in the early sixties and had pioneered innovations in women’s fashion, in particular the mini-skirt which had become ubiquitous in Europe and the USA by the late sixties. Resolutely fashion-forward and heading into the fashion frenzy of the 80s, the Courrèges creative team felt the need to a ceramicist on standby... Luc was invited to join the staff full time. He stayed for 15 years, combining creative flair with technical precision while he worked on exotic projects like Courrèges’ successful relaunch of Honda’s flagging Tact motor scooter line.
Since then Luc has forged a living from his sculpture, painting, ceramics and, increasingly in later life, from his shaping. In his studio, relentlessly assailed by his cat Mimi, Luc showed us some of his work.
Unlike most shapers, Luc doesn’t use templates, and he prefers not to use an electric planer when he works. He leafed through a sketchbook, showing the earliest formulations of his ideas. Some pages feature a single curved line, fuzzy with a few strokes. On the next page will be something radically different, yet clearly an extension of the same thought.
“There is no accident, it is all conscious decisions,” Luc said. “There is a similar language throughout the boards. Some people call it retro but I like to say it is actually very modern. It is really hard to go back into the past. I have no interest in it.”
“There is a similar language throughout the boards. Some people call it retro but I like to say it is actually very modern. It is really hard to go back into the past. I have no interest in it.”
Though there is plenty of evidence to show that Luc’s boards perform beautifully in the right conditions, he finds it hard to find a buying public. “People are afraid, he sighed. “Someone once told me that despite these boards being beautiful, my designs are too powerful, too far outside the box. People take comfort in conformism, so to try something new is a risk.”
Indeed, many of his boards seriously challenge some of the conventions in surfboard design. In his large cuboid studio, extraordinary, space-ship-like prototypes perch on racks. “This one is inspired by a cuttlefish,” Luc explained, placing an actual cuttlefish shell on the bottom concave to illustrate. One black board has a deep cutaway in the tail, almost like a catamaran. In place of fins at the bottom, Luc has crafted right-angled fins that clip in on the rails. A commercial shaper would rarely take a risk like this, knowing that the materials are expensive and finding a buyer would be unlikely. But as an artist first, Luc has a willingness to experiment that goes well beyond the usual boundaries.
Nevertheless, the hydrodynamics of his more practical designs are unquestionable. Nearby are racks stuffed with longboards, mid-lengths and fun-shapes, a pick-n-mix of perfection. Many feature robust ¾” stringers and most are either white or black, understated, elegant and glassed with astonishing precision, perhaps finished off with a shimmering, pearlescent fin.
Luc shared a story of style master Chris Del Moro trying one of his boards. “We were at La Côte des Basques with Gibus de Soultrait. There was a pretty heavy crowd but Chris went ahead and paddled out. He took off on this wave and everything just stopped. He accelerated all the way down the line, perfectly straight and with pure speed.”
But if Luc doesn’t look to the history of surfboard design for the language of his craft, where is he finding it? “It’s like asking me, ‘why am I me?’” Luc said. “I have no idea how it comes to me. It is metaphysical! Creation is auto satisfaction - you get into a process of research to feel better. I am not looking at what others do, but we are always influenced by what’s been done. I learned through that, but now I want to go towards myself, towards my own ideas. ”
Luc’s own quiver is limited to four boards, varying from mid lengths to classic single-fin logs. “I don’t necessarily try all my new shapes,” he explained. “Some are too small for me and I am just fulfilled by making them. These boards are not revolutionary, but there is an aesthetic, a quality of design that is pure and that is rare these days. I am happy with my work. If it looks like anyone else’s work, what’s my purpose here? I am not interested in that!”
"These boards are not revolutionary, but there is an aesthetic, a quality of design that is
pure and that is rare these days. I am happy with my work."
Though his space is overflowing with surfboards, we’re also surrounded by a thousand other experiments: functional ceramics, experimental sculptural forms, scratchings, paintings, etchings, sketches, strange surfboard fins, all of it physical and direct. There is a black and white through-line but this is interrupted by bursts of neon color and glittering metallics, almost in an act of self-resistance.
“My mom was a drawing teacher, so there is this positive and negative, an inside and an outside. The line creates a vibration between the two spaces. Because I’m an artist, I have an idea and then I have a strong desire to materialize it. I believe in the idea of the perfect board and the perfect wave so when I work it’s more about a feeling or a sensation than a material.”
Luc calls his boards “rêve de surf de rêve”, or “dreams of dream surfing”, and dreamlike they may seem, until they find their way out of the studio and into the ocean where, for the lucky owner, those dreams start to get very lucid indeed.
Writer Ed Thompson and photographer Julien Roubinet are collaborating on a book about surf culture in New York and New Jersey. The book will be published by Damiani Editore in Spring 2018 and will feature photographs, essays and interviews with forty cultural innovators, from surfers and surfboard shapers to artists, writers and photographers, young and old - people who have built their lives around their love of the ocean. The book's title, Ice Cream Headaches, references the familiar feeling of brain-freeze, often experienced by East Coast surfers when duck-diving sets in the depths of winter. Ed and Julien have driven over 4300 miles up and down the coast of New York and New Jersey to gather interviews and photographs for their book.