In the winter of his junior year at RISD, Kevin Cunningham BArch 05 realized he sorely lacked the perfect surfboard to ride the breakers that crash along the New England coast. After spending considerable time scouring local shops, the architecture student couldn’t find a design durable enough to withstand more than one season of salty beatings. Plus, he wanted to ride an environmentally friendly board.
“It’s the surfer mentality to want to protect the ocean and the ecosystem – yet the industry’s most popular boards are made from highly toxic slabs of foam,” notes Cunningham. “I thought that there had to be a better way to produce these things.”
So, the designer got creative. Over winter break – when most of his roommates had temporarily vacated their cramped apartment – he rolled up his sleeves and constructed a makeshift studio in the center of his living room. It was there that he built his first custom surfboard shapedfrom recycled foam core void of toluene diisocyanate (TDI), a carcinogenic compound found in most conventional surfboards.
“It was a terrible idea to work in the apartment. Even though I shuffled the furniture around to lay a tarp on the floor, it still made a huge mess,” says Cunningham with a soft laugh. “But after I finally cleaned up the space, I was happy to see that my first board performed well on the water.”
The artfully crafted device made a splash within his circle of wind-lashed friends. Soon, the designer was spending his nights and weekends churning out custom-made boards to keep up with the flood of requests – and getting paid handsomely for his efforts. “One thing lead to another,” he remembers. “Through trial and error, I just kept refining my process.”
After graduating from RISD in 2005, Cunningham continued to run his booming side business while working full time as a construction manager in Connecticut. But in 2010, he decided to change course and launch Spirare Surfboards, a one-man company in Providence now known around the world for manufacturing high-quality surfboards with style.
One of Spirare’s most applauded designs: a board shaped entirely out of wood that incorporates a hollow “honeycomb” interior. The innovative design is light but also incredibly sturdy. Cunningham is also now refining his method of making a foam board that’s encased in a shell made out of a thin layer of poplar. “This is extremely rugged and it’s still only about five pounds,” he notes. “It would take a real thrashing to chip it."
Cunningham doesn't see business slowing down anytime soon. In addition to filling an onslaught of domestic orders, he has developed an international clientele and is currently finishing up a short board for a surfer based in France. The buoyant piece of art stands out due to its surface finish – a striking pattern of teal-colored fish scales. He’s also hashing out construction details with a client in Croatia. “I didn't even know they had waves over there,” he says with mock incredulity.
Cunningham confirms that he developed the original gumption to start his own business when still a student – learning to think critically and through his hands. “At school, I learned how to work intuitively,” he says. “I’m now able to [design] in my head and translate those ideas into the physical. That’s all [because of] RISD.”
Alumni Alexander Rosenberg 06 GL and Katherine Gray MFA 91 GL are both central to the cast of the glassblowing competition show Blown Away on Netflix.
Textiles students design custom jacquards for the RISD library’s collection of classic Knoll chairs.
Designer Karla López Rivera 04 FD returned to San Juan to launch Isleñas, a socially responsible footwear company.