Table of Contents
SURFING THE SNOW
Skiing’s next evolution came out of military activities starting about 1760. To better train army personnel the Norwegian army held skills competitions involving skiing downhill, weaving between trees and sliding across level snowfields while shooting. These early races became the seeds of modern winter activities and the predecessor of what we see today in as sporting events.
In 1924 the first Winter Olympics to be held in Chamonix, France showcased only Nordic skiing. The general publics preference for downhill skiing resulted in its inclusion in the 1936 Winter Games held in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany. That same year the chairlift was invented in the USA, revolutionizing skiing as a recreational activity. Skiing grew rapidly after 1955. Technological innovations such as the metal ski made it easier to use and control skis on the slopes. Eventually forms and designs became driven more by technology rather than the need to adapt to natural slopes and terrains. Ski resorts began to to alter the snows surface. Bumpy moguls, jumps and contours could be found where they previously did not exist. As we look through the history of snowboarding it is important to keep in mind this transition that occurred in skiing. It is within this framework of historical developments that the story of the visionary designer of Gentemstick Snowboards emerges.
A BRIEF HISTORY OF THE SNOWBOARD
In 1964 a young surfer with visions of surfing the snow-covered winter landscape of the Rocky Mountains was struck by an idea. Sherman Poppen built his first prototype as a present for his daughter Wendy. At about 1,20 m long it was essentially a plastic plank consisting of two child-length skis simply bolted together. After winning over the neighborhood children it went on to become a cult phenomenon – selling more than 1 million units over the next 10 years. Unfortunately, just as Poppen had introduced new Snurfer competitions sales of the snurfer collapsed. What had appeared to be the beginnings of a new sport was relegated by history as simply a fad.
BURTON & SIMS 1980~
Jake Burton and Tom Sims are the two forces who pushed snowboarding culture into the mainstream. During the 1978 ski season in Vermont, Burton started selling a Snurfer knockoff he called the Burton Board. Growing from selling just six units his first season his business acumen was his real talent. Meanwhile on the West Coast, skateboard icon Tom Sims started selling his own version called Sims Snowboards. Early results were identical there – resistance to the snowboard concept was stiff. Ski resorts would not allow snowboarders during the day and this was making it difficult to sell the boards. Early-adapting boarders had to arrive at night, walk up the trails, and ride down covertly in order to avoid ski resort fines. Vowing to keep on improving their snowboards until a breakthrough happened their persistence would eventually pay-off. Burton and Sims emerged as snowboarding’s leading forces on the East and West Coasts respectively. Burton’s business savvy and dedication allowed him to eventually surpass Sims as the leading snowboard manufacturer. Today Burton stands alone as the brand leader in snowboard manufacaturing.
SKI RESORT EVOLUTION 1984
Snowboarding faced a major obstacle in the 1980s. Most ski resorts didn’t allow snowboarders on their hills. Whether it was insurance liability issues or simply not wanting young rebel snowboarders irritating their core skiing clientel – ski resorts were reluctant to adopt. A strong attempt to persuade them to accept snowboarders netted 40 resorts during the 1985 ski season. By 1990, the number had grown to 476 and today just three North American resorts ban snowboarders.
As both a snowboarder and a surfer Taro Tamai believes that the tidal wave and snowy mountain contours share similar, natural traits. Each is a contact point between the rider and the natural forces shaping the terrain. With the homogenization of board shapes and courses putting him temporarily off the sport he felt an impulse to do add his voice. Drawing upon the feelings that originally drew him to the sport he set a goal to create a snowboard design that would “ride the snowy terrain just as if birds flying in the sky or fish flowing in the stream.” He sought a design that would return to the rider the original spirit that snowboarding embraced. It was a trail the masses were not currently on.
GENTEMSTICK creates each of it’s snowboards with a “distinct characteristic”. There is no single prototype just as in nature individual species have differnences. Gentemstick Snowboards design also positions the user’s body differently than other snowboards. Whereas in snowboarding the rider is postioned leaning into the hill, with the Gentemtick the surfer rides in a more central position. Rather than fighting against the slope the rider becomes one with it. These important details aim to allow the rider to discover the trail’s true rhythm on each ride.
In 1998 Taro relocated to Niseko, an alpine area of Hokkaido, Japan that many consider to have the best powder snow in the world. To begin, his boards took on the familiar shapes and retro styling of the first Wintersticks on which they were modeled after. This though was to be just a starting point. Taro’s choice of names indicate a person who revels in the mystical qualities of ocean and mountain. The language and symbols show a reverence towards nature – it is clearly his guiding force. Cutting edge eco-materials like bamboo, new design innovations and an attention to detail that has its roots in the craft history of Japan began to emerge. The intertwining of philosophy and craft is a frequent occurrence in Japan whose history of crafts is long and highly revered. The spirit of the Gentemstick philosophy are clearly rooted in surf culture. Instead of surfing the natural rhythms of the ocean tides, one surfs the mountains surface topography. In the Alpine world the surface projects the internal rhythms from the soul of the Mountain. This is the very essence of Gentemstick Snowboards phiilosophy. When you buy it – you buy a vision. This lifestyle is embodied within the company itself. What propels Gentemstick beyond other companies in the sports equipment category is that it is a philosophy of life first – a product company afterwards. This is obvious the moment one steps inside it’s flagship store near Hirafu. Staff here begin only after spending the morning surfing the fresh powder coated mountainsides.
Taro Tamai has been hand-shaping his eye-catching Gentemstick snowboards for over a decade. In the process a definitive style has emerged. Designs are subtle and sophisticated with a distinctive handmade look. Where most snowboard design shouts the Gentemstick snowboard whispers. A Gentemstick communicates poetry rather than prose. The design approach here shares values very close in spirit to the principles of product design set out by the legendary Braun designer Dieter Rams.
A small shop inside an aging house offers the eye a collection of artifacts that reveal clues to the design genesis of Gentemstick snowboards. Just inside the entrance a wall-wide rack of surfboards collected from Taro’s time in Hawaii stand vertically. Their austere aesthetic and purity of form have roots in the “Weniger, aber besser” edict of Dieter Rams -translated as “Less, but better”. This is not surprising given that Rams was strongly influenced by his grandfather who was a carpenter by trade.
Three pieces of wood in various stages of completion stand just inside the doorway. From rough hewn tree plank to a new shape and finally its final, refined state – the board always communicates its origin. Of note, the Gentemstick snowboards brand name remains largely invisible on the final product. This is in vivid contrast to almost every other ski equipment maker operating today. It reflects a quiet confidence in the purity of the design approach and one that stays true to the Rams principles of good design.
In a similar vein, the idea of sustainable product development is embraced with the Gentemstick. For Rams obsolescence was akin to committing a crime in design. An unobtrusive approach results in objects with a timeless nature and less prone to changing fashions and trends. The aesthetic quality of a product is integral to its perceived usefulness. Products that are used daily effect moods and ultimately their the users well being. It is the responsibility of the designer to provide easy access to the core function of a product. For Rams only high functioning objects could be considered as beautiful. On this scale the Gentemstick soars. At first glance it is an object with which the user can ride the earth’s surface. Feeling it’s contours transmits the rhythms of its formation. It communicates history – the story of its past. One feels the very soul of the earth. It is an honest expression of a place.
There is no manipulation of the experience through technology nor by aesthetic. It is a ride that encourages the convergence of the human experience with the natural forces that brought it into existence in the first place. It is honest. It is perhaps meant to be.
Snowboarding by contrast looks to impose new realities upon the rider. Flashy design licks the surface of the board giving impressions of something better when in fact it is not there at all. The boards themselves are formulaic, birthed in a singular mold the finessed with technological voodoo. Promises of technological innovation parade before prospective riders in glitzy marketing campaigns. Thoughts are seeded with the idea that choices outside of what the mountain naturally provides can be attained. Ski resorts add moguls, carve slopes and impose flagsticks that encourage directional change running counter to the intuitiveness provided by the surface below. Nature becomes the awkward guest at the party. It is this approach that signaled it was time for Wintersticks, Gentemsticks and other “crafted” snowboards to take the stage. Snowboarding design had lost its way. A return to the origins of skiing was needed.
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Gentemstick snowboards are unobtrusive in all aspects of its design. It’s colors are neither fashionable nor antiquated. They do not shout nor do they obscure the underlying natural wood material which is most often bamboo. Bamboo is of course a wood that can be grown sustainably and has a longer life due to its superior physical qualities. With these wise design choices production and visual pollution are minimized. This was another key Rams design principle: Design must contribute positively to the preservation of the environment. It should conserve resources and minimize pollution. The choices of bamboo as a base material together with a timeless design aesthetic adhere to this principle well.
Addititionally, 1% of sales is donated to promote sustainable causes thereby allowing future generations to participate in the same pleasures that current generations do. Dieter Rams recently said “I believe, in the future,” he says, “it will be less important to have many things and more important to exercise care about where and how we live.” One can see in the company created by Taro Tamai a reflection of the best design principles as well as considerate reflection on the future of our planet. In some ways the journey taken as an initial reaction has led to a principled modern company that is leading the way to the future. There will come a time when it will be less important to have many things. Decisions to buy things will be based on quality, durability and on whether they protect both our personal environment and that of the greater populace. It would seem that Taro Tamai’s Gentemstick Snowboards are uniquely placed to benefit the citizens of our planet both today and in the future.
it’s not just a way to ride the snow…..it’s a lifestyle
TARO TAMAI BIOGRAPHY
- Helped Launch Moss Snowboards TT Model
- All Japan Snowboarding Champion
- Participatant: Swatch TTR World Snowboard Tour & World Extreme Snowboard Championship
- Pioneer of steep Alaskan descents at Valdez, Alaska
- Director and Producer of AURA – Deep Powder Experience Film
- Founded Gentemstick Snowboard Design & Manufacturing in 1998
- Co-Producer of Public Sentiment Film
- Photo Exhibition entitled Sono Toki Soko Basho Ni Irukot (To Be Where I’m Supposed To Be When I’m Supposed To Be.)
- Published Photobook called The First Track
- Directed The Spring Session – Modern Snowsurf Experience Film