Designed by artist Jay Nelson, the Patagonia Worn Wear wagon runs on biodiesel while driving and solar power when the sewing machines are spinning. Photo: Erin Feinblatt

Throwback Thursday: Surfer, Artist & Designer Jay Nelson on new Worn Wear camper & working with Facebook

In our Summer 2013 issue we caught up with San Francisco, California-based Jay Nelson, a surfer, artist, and designer who is recognized for his creative pieces, ranging from a submarine-shaped annex at Mollusk Surf Shop, to his surf-concept vehicles, like the one he built for Rob Machado. As part of Patagonia’s Worn Wear Tour, Nelson recently built a solar-powered camper shell from redwood salvaged from giant wine barrels and mounted on a ’91 Dodge Cummins fueled by biodiesel. For more details behind the camper shell project, read the full story from Patagonia.
Neslon spent a month working at Patagonia in the tin shed courtyard where Founder Yvon Chouinard started the company. “When we set up the project we thought it would be fun to do some part of the build at Patagonia,” he explains. “It was really fun to be immersed in the community…”
In between building some of his other projects, the surfer has also been working on several art installations at Facebook, including an “observatory” on the roof top of the company’s Frank Gehry building. “It’s a dome like structure that you enter into with circular seating, and at the far end is a circular window that looks out on the SF bay,” Nelson says. “The hope is a space for human interaction and landscape appreciation. It’s just about peace.”

Designing Differentiation

Surfer, Artist, And Designer Jay Nelson

As a kid, I used to dream about building tree houses. Not the kind you get at Costco in a box kit made with pressure-treated planks, but the sort of structure you’d create from scratch in the branches of the perfect tree. Actually, as an adult, I still find my imagination wandering every time I spot one of those perfect trees.

Surfer and professional artist Jay Nelson has turned that capricious fantasy into a reality.
The San Francisco-based artist was commissioned in 2004 to build a tree house for a friend in Hawaii, and hasn’t looked back. He’s moved on to craft captivating wooden structures, including a submarine-inspired annex that doubles as an office space and art installation dubbed West Portal in San Francisco’s Mollusk Surf Shop.

One of Nelson’s latest creations, The New Haven, at La Friche in Marsielle.

“Most of the work I do at Mollusk is a collaboration between the owner, John McCambridge, and I,” Nelson says. “He usually has a need for some sort of structure, and then we come up with an idea based around his needs. Mollusk is an exception because of my relationship with John. I’m not all that excited about doing other stores, mostly because there’s usually limited time, and generally going into it people already know what they want; there’s less room for creativity.”

Nelson has been noted for his surf concept vehicles like the van he built for Rob Machado, which took elements of his tree houses and installations, combining them to create the interior of the ultimate surf trip mobile. His most recent work, a wooden camper hull atop a fully functional boat, utilizes minimal space by incorporating a front storage compartment for surfboards and a sunny, cozy nook and living area. Nelson prides himself on the progression of his work and views art as a way to “learn  through doing,” he says.

The relationship between the art he creates and the way it translates to emerging retail trends is an interesting concept to Nelson. He sees consumers leaning toward quality, handcrafted pieces over the convenience of mass-produced goods.

“Every time I buy an object I think, ‘Is this something I want to live with and look at and touch every day?’” he says. “For example, you never leave IKEA thinking, ‘I love this thing.’ You pack up your car and think, ‘I just spent $500 on a pile of things that have no meaning to me.’ Where, if you go pick out a coffee table from a furniture-maker who you really like, you are probably going to love it, and treasure it, and see the beauty and the story in its handmade quality. I think people are starting to realize life is too short to live with junk.”

Nelson is intrigued by ways to develop methodologies within his work—not by reinventing for every project, but by staying open to new, visually different outcomes. “Generally the moment I start to see habits forming in my work I want to break them.”

Similar to how companies are constantly pushing to evolve and find what’s “next,” Nelson is intrigued by ways to develop methodologies within his work—not by reinventing for every project, but by staying open to new, visually different outcomes. “Generally the moment I start to see habits forming in my work I want to break them,” he reveals.

Still, the craftsman acknowledges that there is a steady element to his art, and at the end of the day, it’s how he pays the bills—even if the unique model leaves most of us wishing our talents lent themselves to a more beguiling way of doing that. When asked what he appreciates most about the job, his reply sums up that free-spirited love for nature—and the inventive skills needed to work with what’s provided—that most of us in the action sports industry share.

“Building tree houses is an incredibly creative process,” Nelson says. “You work with the limited parameters that the tree gives you. It’s a collaboration between the tree and the builder.”

Jay Nelson on new Worn Wear camper
A look inside The New Haven, built by talented craftsman Jay Nelson.