Eph, as he is known, has been running and holding down the art department at CAPiTA for 18 years now. CAPiTA is a brand that always pushes the design edge a little further every year, somehow avoiding popular snowboard trends. How? We found out.
TRANSFER: Where do you hail from and where are you based now?
Ephraim Chui: I was born in Hong Kong and raised in Vancouver, Canada. For the past 10 years I’ve lived in Osaka, Tokyo and HK.
I start work at 6:30 am, so I can catch Blue in Seattle mid-afternoon. I think it’s really benefited us – I work with him in the morning and with The Mothership in the afternoon. The sun never sets on the CAPiTA empire!
Have you had a good winter? Get much boarding in?
Unfortunately, since moving to tropical paradise, I only get one shred trip a year. Usually I go to Japan to ride with the crew there. Snowboarding has become like painting to me – I don’t do it enough. I’ve been riding since I was 14, I’m 38 now. I owe my life to snowboarding, without exaggeration. I’ve never been very good at it. I can’t do spinny, flippy things. I just like to go fast.
I’m moving back to Vancouver next year though. Hopefully that means more snow time.
Fill us in on your CAPiTA backstory.
I have worked for CAPiTA since I was 20 – I am 38 this year.
In 2000, Jason Brown had a website and he would post art that kids sent him. I sent him something, and he was really into it. Turns out he was living in Vancouver at the time, so we met, ate some Oreo ice cream and just kicked it. Over the course of that summer we became good friends. He introduced me to Macs, went with me to get my first computer, and hooked me up with software. Two weeks later, he calls me up and asks me to design a snowboard. Need it tomorrow by 4pm. Slight panic. Banged out something. It became the first Black Snowboard of Death. At that point I hardly knew how to draw a circle in Illustrator but we’re still using the same skull.
After J left CAPiTA, Blue and I began to work more closely together. I was basically the only full time CAPiTA employee for the first seven or eight years. Blue’s an amazing boss/friend/big brother. Hard worker, great storyteller, super good-hearted, sticks to his principles, makes tough decisions and stands up and fights for his peoples. You know he’s always got your back.
What’s the philosophy behind your designs?
CAPiTA is in a unique position because we have stopped designing according to trends. After 18 years of life, we have a historical and visual depth that is rich in story and personality, transforming CAPiTA into its own living entity. Each year, we tell the story of CAPiTA, its dreams and desires, as well as its fears and struggles. As we mature as humans, so does CAPiTA. Its soul and philosophy, like its products, is continually reassessed and refined. CAPiTA’s art is about honesty to that soul.
Our art and graphics are used to communicate what is at the heart of CAPiTA, our belief that Everything Is Possible. The good, and the bad, positivity and negativity, life and death, and every shade in-between are all equally possible. It is up to us to choose how we face each situation and in that choice is ultimately our freedom. Sometimes the art is dark and angry, sometimes it’s beautiful, sometimes it’s absurd and irreverent, but above all, it tries to be true to itself.
Do you design for anyone else?
Being the one-man art department, CAPiTA consumes a significant portion of my waking hours. I don’t really have time to work on anything else. I do some side gigs for friends but they’re all Japanese companies that cater to the domestic market and are super chill to work with. I think if I stopped working for CAPiTA I would just move on from design. Maybe open an udon shop.
The new illustrations you’ve done for this year’s range are bad ass! Do you normally work around this type of style?
Thank you! That’s really awesome to hear. It’s always scary to put shit out there for everyone to criticise. Since I’ve had to create 75% of the line from scratch and art direct/design the rest, I have to be a style chameleon. Each season I try to learn a couple new ways of working. If I stuck to one style, the whole line would look the same. That’s probably how all in-house designers in the industry have to be though. It keeps the work interesting, you just got to continue learning or you’ll get stale real quick.
What are your influences outside of the snowboard bubble?
We make a conscious effort to keep me away from the snowboard bubble. I’ve been to SIA and ISPO once each in 2002 and 2015 respectively and have attended three sales meeting in the entire time I’ve worked at CAPiTA. We think it’s not good for snowboarding if everyone is looking at each other’s stuff.
My greatest influences have definitely been music and moving to new places. Music, because it expresses the vibe of current culture with the most immediacy. Once you understand that vibe, you can design without thinking about visual trends and still stay relevant.
And moving, because it irrevocably changes a person. I need to move to a new country or at least a new city every few years so I can get uncomfortable, be weirded out by shit, and adapt and evolve myself as a person. Travel helps get you out of a certain headspace and unwind, but it’s hard to get transformative change if you know you’re going to leave in a couple weeks. You need to commit and move somewhere to really have that effect. It’s real subtle, but learning new languages, and the way grammar and syntax works, also changes the way you think too.
Totally agree. Did you ever attend art school to get skilled up? Was it worthwhile?
I think if you can find a good program that has inspiring teachers, then there are definitely benefits to going to school, using their equipment and building a foundational technique.
During high school all I wanted to do was go to art school. I wanted to be a painter. After graduation I applied to ECIAD (Emily Carr Institute of Art and Design) and was rejected. I was so bummed at the time that I said fuck it, and decided to quit making art and apprenticed under a Japanese chef name Mr. Fukuyama. He was the private chef for the Japanese ambassador in London before moving to Vancouver to snowboard. It was probably the best thing that could have happened to 18-year-old me. Art school at that age would have probably turned my brain to mush. Instead, Mr. Fukuyama taught me about work ethic, attention to detail and a love and respect for food. Knowing how to cook is also a great way to charm ladies. I did that for a couple years, until he broke his leg shredding and went back to Japan. At that point, I basically lived at the restaurant and decided maybe that wasn’t the life for me.
I then did a two year stint at college, majoring in philosophy and sociology, but there was no career there and I couldn’t stand philosophy students so I dropped out before getting a diploma. I was already working part time for CAPiTA and a bunch of other clients, but my Chinese parents being as they are, really wanted me to finish post-secondary. Mike Swaney and Simon Redekop (HUMAN5) had just graduated from an illustration program at Capilano College, and I thought, well why not? However, the college had just changed the program to a more computer oriented, graphic design curriculum, and it was a mess. There were some amazing teachers there, but also a lot of completely clueless ones.
Anyway, I ended up handing in my freelance work in as homework. By the final year, I was already at CAPiTA full time so I basically just went to school to work. Made some awesome lifelong friends though, so not a total waste.
Can you tell us about any cool projects you have coming up for you this year?
Quitting smoking? Probably the hardest thing I’ve had to do in my life! Pretty soft life I know hahahaha.