Since it’s beginning in year 2000, Capita has paved the way snowboards look today. Even though “being ahead of others” never even was their point, says Ephraim Chui, or Eph as he’s usually called, the man behind Capita’s visual identity.
I started studying graphic design in the early noughties. Along dozens of portfolio sites there was one that I was particularly inspired by, and that’s Ephs personal site. I checked it out quite frequently and at some point realized it’s not going to be updated anymore. Fast forward from 2006 to 2013; I’m assigned to interview Eph and while searching for material for this interview I find the site again, up and running, the same as it was back in the day – like a perfectly survived time capsule.
I ask Eph about the site which he has forgotten completely. He compares looking at the site to “an out of body experience.” It’s obvious that he has put a lot of himself in his design work since the very beginning. ”My work has always been very personal and I guess so much has happened in my personal life, from then till now, that my younger self seems almost like an old friend that I haven’t seen in 10 years.”
When Eph looks back on his career, it was a fortune that after high school he got rejected applying to art school even though he had high ambitions being a painter. When this didn’t work out he said fuck it, decided to quit making art and took a completely different path – he apprenticed under a Japanese chef Mr. Fukuyama.
Eph did that for a few years until Mr. Fukuyama broke his leg snowboarding and moved back to Japan. Working as a chef can be exhausting, and at that point Eph also felt that the extremely long hours in the kitchen wouldn’t be his thing after all.
It still was a valuable period in his life. Mr. Fukuyama taught Eph about work ethic, attention to detail and of course love and respect for Japanese food. He says that these things he learnt as a chef have been valuable lessons later on as a designer. There were other perks as well.
“Knowing how to cook is a great way to charm ladies,” Eph adds.
The following summer Eph met Jason Brown – a pro snowboarder, artist and a co-founder of Capita – thru his website. Jason encouraged Eph to keep painting and even helped him getting his first Mac and all the needed software. “A month after I got my computer he called me up and said: ‘Hey I need a graphic for a board called The Black Snowboard of Death. Tomorrow.’” Many would have frozen in this situation but Eph decided to jump on the challenge. “At that point I hardly knew how to draw a circle in Illustrator. The result was terrible, but we’re still using that skull. Actually I really like that skull now. I credit JB 100
% for getting me into design.” That’s how his involvement with Capita begun.
Although he was freelancing for Capita in the company’s early years and other clients as well, out of his parents wishes Eph tried to finish post-secondary school. He had studied a while in college majoring in philosophy and sociology but had dropped out due to lack of proper career paths and the fact that he couldn’t stand the philosophy students. Later he enrolled to a graphic design program in different college, but since he was already working for Capita he just ended up handing he’s real work as a homework. “It was useless,” he sums it up.
Eph admits his career path does sound like a fairytale. “I’ve been weirdly lucky my whole life. Weirdly lucky because the worse shit would happen to me only to result in the best thing ever. I think now I just expect awesome things to come out of anything bad that happens to me. I might be the most ‘positive’ negative person in the world.” Of course, it’s always easy to simplify things, for the sake of a good story. On the surface, it might seem that everything just fits onto it’s place. “Maybe things happen easily, but you have to have the right mindset for good things to happen, and that’s hard work,” Eph reminds.
Cycles come and go
Trends come and go. Every new generation finds the phenomenons and fashions from previous years that the previous generation so hardly wants to forget. Snowboarding is no different. Think of tricks for example – I doubt that double grabs to boardslides could have passed few years ago. It’s the same with graphics. “When Capita started 14 years ago, retailers didn’t understand what we we’re doing and where we were coming from,” Eph explains. ”Maybe some were afraid, which I think is a natural reaction to new things.” Few years passed and other brands aligned with Capita’s style. Retailers became more receptive to Capita’s output and this lead Capita to produce riskier graphics. “Things started to get really fun,” Eph says. But then, in the mid 2000’s along with snowboarding gaining more mainstream momemtum and more money got involved, certain conservatism took hold. “Snowboarding had evolved far from its small core roots and can no longer operate like it was a shielded microcosm. There was a creeping sense of self-censorship developing to appeal to a wider audience,” Eph says.
As a result of the 2008 financial crisis, “shit hit the fan”, as Eph puts it. “Retailers wanted safer, easier to sell product and things got dialed way down.”
He has seen the cycle go round during the 14 years in the business and assumes that people who’ve been longer in the industry have seen the same cycle over and over again. And he’s quite calm about it. “There’s no one to blame. It’s just the nature of the beast.” Eph also sees the positive sides, like he seems to see in all aspects of life: “When kids are pushed to the point of being fed up and bored, they’ll say fuck the establishment, and start something new. The US economy is slowly turning around. I think we’ll have a resurgence soon. I’m looking forward to that.”
For me personally Capita was like a breath of fresh air in the early years of the millennium. I felt Capita brought the strange, fun, unexpected and “art” back to snowboarding. Eph tones me down. “Maybe it’s a little disappointing to hear, we’re not out to make mind-blowing stuff. We just want to make shit we’re hyped on. It just so happens that what we’re into, isn’t really what a lot of other people are into and that’s why there’s a perception that we’re ‘ahead of others’ when we’re just being honest.”
Maybe one reason for the freshness is that Eph doesn’t follow the snowboard industry that much. “I haven’t been to SIA since 2002. I’ve attended one sales meeting in the entire time I’ve worked for Capita. That was in 2006 I think. I look at three other brand’s graphics because they’re good friends and I think they do great work (Bataleon, Endeavor, Monument). I don’t have a huge interest in what other brands are doing because most of my waking life is already devoted to snowboarding. I desperately need other stimulus when I’m not working, so the last thing I want to do is to look at more snowboarding. I hope I don’t come off as arrogant, I just have a lot of other interests and not enough time.” However, Eph also adds that “snowboarding has it’s own soul and it’s own aesthetic, and I find that whatever we do, we are influenced by this more than anything else. There’s history and precedence that we can’t ignore. If we did ignore it, it’ll be like telling a story with no beginning.”
Eph had a change to meet design legend Milton Glaser ten years ago. “You have to be extremely careful about what ou allow into your eyes, because everything influences you no matter how minute,” Eph paraphrases Mr Glaser’s most memorable quote. But as we live in extremely visual culture, it’s hard to “protect” yourself or to be elective. “At this point though, I’m too far gone to be selective, and I just want to absorb everything. A specific project then becomes the filter.” This is evident in Capita’s boards which have references to all form of popular culture, the visual world of the boards is extremely rich. Good example is the Ultrafear board in which all the graphics from other models blend together.
Having been “weirdly lucky” for all of his life, like Eph said earlier, and ready to absorb any visual reference he sees, it doesn’t come as a surprise that his biggest inspiration comes from, well, life itself. He states in an interview for TWS Japan that “there are moments in life when you feel especially alive. It doesn’t have to come from extraordinary things. You could be walking down the street and maybe a bird shits on your jacket, and you get angry and then you laugh, and you suddenly realize that you’ve lived 33 years on Earth to arrive at that one spot, and the bird happens to shit on that one spot as it was flying by. There’s no reason for it. It just happened. There is really no deeper meaning to why you were on that spot and the bird took a shit on you. But the deeper meaning is that everything happens for no reason, so everything is up to you and the way you react. That makes me feel alive. Feeling alive is my biggest inspiration because feeling alive means everything is possible.”
Snowboarding is commonly considered as art if you look at snowboarding practiced by some of the most legendary snowboarders. Eph thinks the same. “Jamie Lynn’s methods, Terje’s backcountry lines, Kazu’s Mctwists, Scott Stevens’ general amazingness etc. This is all art.”
Actually for him almost any activity or job can be art if it’s done with respect. “Art has a potential to exist in everything. Art to me is simply respecting what you do, and doing something as well as you can. There can be art in someone flipping burgers at McDonalds,” he states.
As a beautiful turn in powder can be thought as an artistic expression, snowboard graphics are on the thin lines between design, illustration and art. Snowboard graphics can be thought as personal expression but in the end they have to serve a purpose. “All design is done to sell product. This is the essence of design,” Eph says. “I mean this in the most positive and pure way. We can wrap it up in philosophical justification, but design is done for a client or customer and not for the ‘self ’. Good design seeks to understand the client’s problems and needs and creates a solution to better that person’s life. When the answer fits the question perfectly, we have ‘art’ in design.’” Product design – board shape, camber, flex, materials – combined with visual/graphic design serves a need. “Capita serves a need,” he says. “People are attracted to Capita because there is a need they have that cannot be fulfilled by another brand. If we understand what our customer’s needs are,
and design something to fulfill that need better than they can imagine, then I think we have created art,” Eph concludes.
Working with blue
Eph has been working with Capita CEO and co-founder Blue Montgomery for 14 years. During that time they’ve had their heated emails and arguments but over the years they’ve grown a mutual respect towards each other. “We’re like brothers,” Eph says.
Titles are troublesome for a relatively small company like Capita. “We all just do what needs to be done. Actually a lot of the time Blue is the Art Director because it doesn’t make sense to art direct myself,” Eph says.
Capita uses also selected freelancers for creating their graphics. For Eph and Blue it ́s important that freelancers they work with have a prior interest in Capita and that working for them is not “just another freelancer gig”. Eph says that it doesn ́t matter how freelancers interpret the company, as long they understand what Capita is. Among the group of freelancers is Spine Magazines very own Jari Salo. Eph says his and Jaris interpretations of Capita are actually very different. For Eph this is an advantage. “Jari comes up with things that I wouldn’t think of doing for Capita because I’m so set in what I think Capita is. This is not only refreshing, but vital to making our line distinctive and diverse.”
Like Eph said earlier, in a small firm job titles don’t matter that much. For example the texts in Capita’s marketing are joint effort between Eph and Blue. “Blue and I are like the amateur copywriting dream team. I start it, he finishes it off. Except for the catalog intro which he does on his own. Most of the things I write on the first round are really aggressive or just way too out there or have too many obscure references and not fit to print. Blue cleans it up. Writing is post-rationalization for me. Post-rationalization is my best friend. Shoot first, ask questions later.”
Spontaneity is a theme that comes up again. When I ask about how far ahead Capita’s visual identity is thought, the answer is blunt: “Zero. No vision. Completely organic. I can’t plan that far ahead. That’s just how I personally function,” Eph says. He’s thankful to Blue for allowing this. “Maybe Blue secretly wishes I had more of a plan, but he hasn’t said anything to me and I appreciate all the trust he has in me.”
Just a human being
Eph has a diverse cultural background. He was born in Hong Kong, moved to Canada when he was 7, then moved for a few years in Japan and is currently back in Hong Kong. Eph says he’s definitely influenced by the mix of cultures although he finds it hard to define what those influences are. “Growing up in Canada gave me an understanding
of the visual language and cultural background of an average middle-class North American,” he presumes. “Without that, I probably would have a hard time doing my job. Maybe Japan gave me a cleaner aesthetic and an appreciation for the subtle but also the totally fucking weird. And Hong Kong… I don’t know, Hong Kong is energy and chaos, it’s like New York without any of the culture.”
Physically these influences can be seen for example on this year’s Capita Outdoor Living. Eph tells about the board in an interview for TWS Japan: “The graphics came from photos I took after moving to Hong Kong from Japan. Hong Kong is a much busier and crowded city than Tokyo. In order to get out of the city and the crowds, I did a lot
of outdoor exploration, and doing so made me feel very untethered and free.”
However, in the end living around the world has had a bigger impact on him as a person than “just” as a designer. “In the last 5 years I’ve lived in 4 cities in 3 very different countries. I don’t feel like I have a home or a country anymore. I don’t feel like I’m Canadian or Chinese, I just feel like a human being. I think the idea of ‘country’is stupid. If people can forget that they’re Chinese, or Japanese or American etc. and just be human beings, learning from every culture, I think as a whole, the human race would be wiser and more peaceful,” he says in the TWS Japan interview.
He feels really strongly about this, the idea of looking things from outsider perspective, element which is also evident in his design work. “Unfortunately the majority of us are stuck – mentally and physically – in the country that we were born into. Even if they travel, they cling on to their own culture and what they feel is ‘right’ and they never really change. They are just tourists. The people who do open their minds and really change, come back to their ‘home country’ and realize that they’ve become outsiders.
They don’t fit in anymore. I really like these kinds of people. The outsiders. When you don’t fit into society, you can live the way you feel is right. Everyone else lives the way other people tell them to.”
Making art in binges
“I love to paint. I’m the happiest when I’m painting,” Eph states. “Hahahah, it’s weird to type that out. I’ve never realized that before.”
”I don’t paint enough. I paint in spurts. I would paint for a month solid and then not at all for a few years. I’m too lazy. Or if you want it expressed more romantically, it just takes too much out of me, and I feel empty and tired afterwards. Hahahaha, It’s like I’m describing a sex binge.”
Eph also has a Tumblr-site for his photography called Noneofthishappened.com. The photos on the site, which range from immediate snapshots to some more thought of ones, have a raw and spontaneous beauty in them. “There’s a long and personal story of how it began and why I started to take photos with film,” he says. “I will not tell you about this. But the short version is I did it out of spite for an ex- girlfriend, but I also needed to do it to overcome this spite. That goal was achieved, I’m in a better mental space now.” In the process he found out that being behind the lens suited him. In addition to overcoming harmful emotions the project has been also helpful in his ways of seeing the world – literally. “Having a camera forces you to look at everything differently, more purposefully, and in more detail. It’s even more so with film than with digital.”
For him there’s still a clear distinction between these two art practices. “They both take you into a different head space. You have to exist differently when you’re doing both,” he analyzes. But is quick to add: “that sounds so fluffy and pretentious, eh?”