Art & Design

Designing a sub-culture – The Michael Jäger Interview

In the colourful history of standing sideways on snow, Jake Burton is often regarded as the inventor of modern day snowboarding. But at his side from the very early days, and playing a significant part in the creation of snowboarding as a sub-culture, was designer Michael Jäger.

As a designer, my formative years were certainly influenced by the aesthetic of snowboarding as a culture; I could even attribute my life in the mountains today to those influences. So when our cover artist Dylan Fant offered to introduce me to his old boss Michael Jäger, the answer was a resounding yes. Let’s dig deep into the history of snowboarding as art.

“I grew up on a small farm 45-minutes outside of Vermont, in the northeast corner of the US, right near the Canadian border. I was dyslexic, but of course no one knew what that meant in the early ‘60s. I was just the kid who couldn’t read very well and made letters backwards and things like that. I had major issues with math, reading, I struggled on a lot of levels. But I could draw; and I had weird ideas so somehow I found my way into art. We had no money but my mum was really supportive and she kept nurturing me.

I think back to my schooldays now, the dyslexia, the way it shaped me and made me find something that I enjoyed and was good at, and now I’m like… yeah, it’s cool. When I was six or something, I won this little art contest. We had to draw Santa Claus, from memory I won a $20 gift certificate from a local department store and I used it to buy a Christmas gift for my mum. Honestly, I think these little formative things shape whatever you do, and what you imagine to be possible.

Our farm was right at the base of a small mountain and on the other side was a 400m-long tractor motor ski lift with a toe rope. I’d hike over and ski, long before snowboarding was really even invented. That was really formative; hiking, skiing, biking, skateboarding, motocross, that was the world for me, but always with art too. I found escape in music; Hendrix, The Beatles, Black Sabbath, I became pretty fixated on the art that was on many of those album covers. Art college was the right place at the right time for me. In Montreal back then I had typography teachers from Holland, illustration tutors from the UK, American teachers from the New York scene and of course Canadian teachers too. After college I returned to Vermont with the intention of moving on to New Orleans and doing album covers. I never got there. Instead I stayed in Burlington, which is the largest city in Vermont, and I started a little studio doing design work for a bunch of brands including IBM, who had a big division here. The years passed, I got married, had a family and all of a sudden we had a multi-disciplinary studio, working on industrial design, graphic design strategy, writing, video and eventually online stuff. Right outside of our studio – which was in the basement of our house – we built a skate ramp and we called it The Swamp. We’d all skate there into the night, in the middle of the woods, it was a crazy space. A lot of snowboarders would come and hang with us and it was around this time that Jake Burton and I first discovered each other. He was in southern Vermont, a couple of hours away, in a barn with 15 people pressing snowboards. He had a little retail shop, but snowboarders weren’t even allowed on most mountains back then.

“Burton was shaping the culture of snowboarding and this is how it all came about”

Some of the first projects that Jake and I worked on together were board graphics. Ski graphics at that point in history were basically big logos, heavily inspired by racing skis and very much like a Formula One race car in style. But when I got my hands on Jake’s early snowboards, I just saw immediately, snowboard graphics could be album covers. That turned into a lot of experimental stuff, including taking a painting of Christ, compressing the head and stretching the whole length over a snowboard in homage to a skateboard trick called the Christair. We also did a lot of hand-painted stuff and so much of the typography was made on an early computer.

During the first weekend of October each year, Jake would host his ‘fall bash’, an insane party at his house with live bands, riders, everyone hanging out. We went along to present our first board graphics to him, we’d been invited and we go along thinking it’d be this presentation to Jake and the Burton Snowboards crew. We had all these boards, comp sizes boards, probably about 50 or 60 different concepts, all in half size that we’d hand-cut to the shape of boards, specifically for this event. We get down there and nothings organised, everyone’s drinking and partying and at like midnight, eventually we get to present the boards. The boards are then laid all over the house, drunk people everywhere, and that’s how we picked the new line. It was so beautiful. As I think about it now, it was just so incredible. Burton was shaping the culture of snowboarding and this is how it all came about.

From then on, we had this thing called the ‘round table’. Jake’s office was just a couch with a big table and you’d throw your stuff on it and talk. He always maintained pretty chill conditions, to just be real, just to talk about things. And when snowboarding exploded, it was born from moments like that. This was all in 1987, ’88, ’89, all sideways sports from skate, surf, snow, the whole youth culture thing combined with punk rock, hip hop, art, style, fashion, everything collided and snowboarding was right at the heart of it. We were very fortunate, honestly, that Jake and Burton Snowboards were growing. He and his wife Donna, they knew what they were doing, to scale things. And instead of moving their business to California, because the snowboard scene was going off down there, they eventually moved their business to Burlington, so now we’re like two minutes away from each other instead of two hours.

“everything collided and snowboarding was right at the heart of it”

At this stage we started doing everything design-wise for Burton Snowboards. The board designs, catalogues, every tag on every product. The colours, the boots, everything. Every sticker, every poster, you name it, we did it. Every video, every advert, we touched every product in some way. We were one being and our businesses grew together. But the board designs were so important to me. People who are really into snowboarding, they keep their boards in their bedrooms. They build a relationship with their boards. The graphics on them burn into your memory, they become part of you. That carries a lot of responsibility as a designer, you’ve got to think about what it is you’re putting out there, what you’re communicating. And these days, you might see an old board, recognise it and be like, ‘Oh my god!’ You’ll remember the first time you did a certain trick, who you were with, and it’s just like with album covers.

I had riders like Terje Haakonsen come to me to design the graphics for his first signature pro model and I was very fortunate to work with some of the real, iconic, influential snowboarders; the ones who had real self-expression. These boards were developed through conversations – as designers, we didn’t make preconceived ideas. We all hung together, we got a feel for a graphic, we determined what we wanted it to say, what the rider wanted to feel. We let the ideas flow to see where they would take us. And this is why I think AI can never replace a human when it comes to design.

Obviously competition in snowboard manufacturing starts getting wild ten years later. Jake Burton was a pioneer, he blazed the trail, but then of course Nike wants in, Adidas wants in. They’re all industry heavyweights with a bunch of smart people and all kinds of cool stuff happened, but when Solomon dropped in, it was no joke. These guys kew what the hell they were doing, from engineering incredible products to knowing how to market them. We stayed with Jake and with Burton all through that, and a few decades on they took pretty much everything in-house. They’ve got like 50 people doing their marketing, a dozen people working on board graphics internally, but we still work on a few select projects. We’ve a long-term, legacy relationship with the brand now, we worked on a book about Jake’s life after he sadly passed a few years ago, and an HBO documentary too. The Ride for Jake day is a really special project and we were involved in the strategy and creating its identity.

These days I look back at the times when snowboarders weren’t even allowed in the mountains. Honestly, I think snowboarding was probably the best thing to happen to the winter sports industry. It’s like what punk rock did to glam rock. Skiing had become elitist, expensive, untouchable for most people. The style, the vibe was very inaccessible. But the first snowboards weren’t designed to be in resorts, they were for back country fun stuff. They grew and changed but snowboarders had a different way of looking at things and that really shook the foundation of ski culture in a very powerful way. Skiing needed a nemesis, that friction created change. It was all very entertaining, when I was in the thick of it, like an ‘us against them’ thing. We’d wake up each day thinking ‘what can we do today to drive skiers crazy?’

“We’d wake up each day thinking ‘what can we do today to drive skiers crazy?”

No one gets too worked up about that these days though. Some people will snowboard in the morning, ski in the afternoon. When I was growing up there was the skateboard kids and the soccer kids, they never hung out together. Now a kid might skateboard to soccer practise, it’s all blurred, which is beautiful.

These days people don’t buy so much equipment any more; they lease it. Their level of commitment to a lifestyle is like… I’m a snowboarder, or I’m a skier, or I’m a surfer. It’s not quite as identity-powered as it was. The culture has changed and I often wonder, where did that energy go? E-sports, that’s where. Now, the coolest kids are doing e-sports, and they’re on teams. They’re being super-creative in a digital space, they have a style, an attitude. Elsewhere, in the real world, I see a new phenomenon that’s a reconnection with nature as well. To me, young farmers are some of the coolest people right now. It’s super inspirational, doing something organic in food. That’s what I always look at; the people that are influencing and shaping cultural direction, what are they doing? What are they aspiring to? What happened to the global food system as a result of the freaking war in Ukraine, that’s a wake-up call. Jake and I would always agree that snowboards are basically toys. We made toys for people to entertain themselves and have fun with, but we were never changing the world.

Eventually, after all these fun times, I made a big decision to transition our business into Solidarity of Unbridled Labour, which is my design studio now. I just needed to simplify my life; at one point, with the old studio, we had like 25 people just working on colour trends. Now we work on strategy, identity, logo, packaging and communication. We still work on projects all over the world, and I still work on speciality projects for Burton Snowboards, but we’re like 15-20 people now and that’s the sweet spot.”

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You can follow the inspiring work of Michael Jäger and the Solidarity of Unbridled Labour on Instagram – @solidarityofunbridledlabour or visit solidarityofunbridledlabour.com

Designing a sub-culture – The Michael Jäger Interview
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