“I became really interested in particular with campers in making very high functioning small spaces that were really thoughtful and minimal… A bag can almost be similar to a camper or a home where you’re really considering the details in your life and how you’re setting it up in a way to curate an experience.”
Jay Nelson Profile: Jay Nelson is an artist and woodworker based in San Francisco. He went to art school in New York, but his most formative years were growing up building skate ramps and treehouses, and of course spending ample time surfing and exploring the natural environment around him that keeps his practice grounded yet exuberant.
Max Houtzager Profile: Max is a creative director and photographer based in Tokyo. He grew up in Northern California, where from an early age he spent most of his time surfing, snowboarding, mountain biking, or photographing and filming such. His work in the fields of food and drink, hospitality and outdoors explores the certain feelings and moments that people chase, as well as the people themselves, the environments and culture that surrounds them.
Jay Nelson is prolific to say the least. His work builds on itself while growing in breadth and depth and becoming more simple and refined at the same time. On a sunny ‘winter’ afternoon at his home in the Sunset District, we discussed time, small spaces, influences (both early and recent), and the rituals that keep him going, inspired, and grounded.
Max: What are your current hobbies? Past ones?
Jay: Is a hobby like, surfing or something?
Max: I think so.
Jay: Pretty much my life consists of going to work, time with my family and then filling in surfing when there’s available time to surf, or when the waves are good. That’s pretty much all I really have time for. I like shaping surfboards, but it’s hard to find time. I grew up shaping surfboards, and that was my introduction into making things, that and ceramics.
My mom was a high school ceramics teacher, so I did a ton of ceramics as a kid and made surfboards. I think just not really being very good in school and being very interested in art and surfing, those were natural things, and then that gave me a lot of confidence to feel like I could make things.
Max: Do you still make ceramics as well?
Jay: Not really, although I’ve been talking to Jenny [Sharaf] about maybe doing some– She’s been offering to help me, because I want to make some lights. I have some light fixture ideas.
I realized, there’s things I want to make out of wood, but they’re really hard to make out of wood. I was like, “Oh, I can make these out of clay and it would be a lot easier,” because you can just carve it so quickly. I started off building a lot of tree houses and small structures, cabins and campers. I became really interested in particular with campers – making very high functioning small spaces that were really thoughtful and minimal.
Then as the projects have grown bigger, and now I’m doing houses, they’re still small houses, but trying to approach it in the same way, and then I really enjoy making all the things that go inside, like the light fixtures and the furniture. I spent a lot of my time thinking about just trying to make things better, as far as making furniture and light fixtures and built-ins and all these things. It’s really fun to think about.
Max: Where do the shapes in your work come from? Are they informed by wood as a material?
Jay: Well, I think it’s just a natural process of things. One thing being built on the next over time. I guess I should say, too, that when I was a kid I was skateboarding a lot, so I was making skate ramps and building tree houses with friends. Wood was a material that was abundant and that I got used to using. It’s not necessarily that I feel very strongly that I want to work with wood, it’s just that I feel like it’s abundant and easy to use. It’s there. I’ve always been really interested in salvaging, even since I was a little kid, we would salvage all of our materials for tree houses and stuff.
Max: What are some places where you like to spend time, or think of often?
Jay: Well, I think just in general, California has been so important to the work I make. I really think of my work as California. I lived in New York for a while and I really loved it, but I always have felt so much more connected to California, and inspired by California. The landscape is incredible. The culture and all the different art that’s happened here and the design and everything, and just the fact that the materials I use are from here, like redwood and Douglas fir.
Then I’ve actually been spending a lot more time in the Sierras, and we’re building a house up there. We’ve fallen in love with that area just because it’s a really nice balance for the beach, like the fogginess. You go up there and it’s very dry and comprised of granite. I love just all the granite and stone.
Max: What about specific places in the Bay Area or San Francisco or around there?
Jay: Honestly, I love our neighborhood so much out here. I don’t really like leaving. I really, really enjoy it out here. I like to be close to the ocean to just keep tabs on the beach. Just today we were walking by, I was like, “The waves might be good,” but I looked at the forecast and it’s like, “No, it’s not going to be good today.” Suddenly you’ll have these moments where it suddenly gets good or you just feel it in the air like, “Oh, the waves are getting good.” I really like that. I like to be around. I like the beach. I like being out here.
I guess my thing with New York feeling exhausting was just how hard it is to access nature there. The nice thing about San Francisco is even the beach is incredible nature right here.
And nature is a big influence, for sure. Not so much that I look and see forms that I like, but mostly it feels good and it helps initiate work. I like spending time in the outdoors.
Max: In terms of spending time, what’s a typical day like?
Jay: I always take my kids to school in the morning. I drop them off around 8:00 to 8:30, depending on which one I’m taking. I would definitely have a more productive day if I woke up and left at like 7:00 AM but I like the mornings with them and helping out and getting them to school. Then from there, I usually check the surf, and if it looks like the surf is not going to be good, then I go to work at my studio in Sausalito. But I have projects all over. I have a treehouse down in the Santa Cruz mountains, and then I’ve been doing an ADU for some people up the street here. Most of my projects are spread out, so it’s always different. Then sometimes I pick my kids up from school and then hang out with them in the afternoon, but usually that middle of the day is between checking in on projects, getting work done, and potentially surfing. I always have dinner with the kids and hang out, put them to bed and that kind of thing.
Then I travel for work sometimes. I’ve been doing a house in Hawaii, so I’ve been out there. I’ll go out there for like two weeks at a time and check-in and work on it a bit, although that’s finished now.
Max: What moments do you find the most fulfilling?
Jay: Well, I really like the work I do because when I start a project, I feel very excited, and then as I work through it, it can be really challenging. Then you get to a certain point where the project’s like maybe — This can happen multiple times in the course of a project, but it’s generally towards the end where it reveals itself and you’re like, “Holy shit, this is incredible.” I feel like those feelings really create a high and make me want to keep going for the next one and trying to always outdo myself from project to project. That’s very fulfilling.
Then surfing, I was surfing the other day and the waves were pretty big and I got some really good waves and then I had to take my daughter to meet her cousin for dinner, and I was driving through the city and everything was sparkling and beautiful. It was like that afterglow from surfing really good waves, and I was like, “Wow.”
It’s just really interesting how if I didn’t surf and I did that same drive, I’d probably think like, “Oh, the city’s looking dirty and gross,” and that’s what surfing does to you. It gives you hope or just makes the world sparkle a little more. That brings me a lot of joy, but making things and seeing a project through is very, very exciting.
Max: Similarly, is there a certain mindset that you try to stay in to stay motivated? Things that you try to think about?
Jay: Yes, I definitely find that if I’m not busy and I don’t have projects going, I can get a little bit depressed, which is a little bit concerning probably, but I think it’s normal for people. I think we need something to look forward to and something to work on. I don’t know. I keep pretty busy, I guess, if that answers your question.
Max: Do you collect anything, photo books, or things for inspiration?
Jay: Yes. Well, I collect a lot of surfboards, and that’s pretty much it. Oh, and books. I collect a lot of books.
I’ll see a house on Instagram or somewhere and just be like, oh, that’s an amazing house. That’s so cool, but you know that when you see that house, probably there’s thousands of other people are looking at that same image, and then I’ll research that architect or artist or whoever made the work and then I’ll find their book, or maybe I’ll just come across their book, and I just find that it’s so much more interesting looking at a book of someone’s work than it is seeing a few images. You can actually draw so much more inspiration from books. I just really feel like books are a very important part of working and drawing inspiration. If I see a book and it looks remotely interesting, I buy it. I always keep a few books out on the coffee table that I like to look through and just keep them in rotation to get inspired.
And, you can be interested in architects like John Lautner, for example. He has this iconic house that everyone’s looking at, but then sometimes you don’t see all these other interesting weird works. Or Le Corbusier is the same way, where he made a lot of smaller work that was pretty interesting that no one’s really seeing.
Max: You said you also make surfboards. Collecting, what’s the approach?
Jay: Yes, there are certain shapers that I collect their surfboards and ride them, like Ryan Birch and Ryan Lovelace, for example, two really incredible shapers, also Derek Disney. I like collecting boards in the same way that you might collect an artwork that you really like, but it’s obviously not art, it’s more of something I’m going to use. I like to collect old boards too, mostly from the 70s and early 80s. I collect old single fins, old 60s boards too – if I come across them. It’s a mix of new and old. We’re in such a cool time with surfboards. There are so many cool designs really– Surfboard design is in a pretty cool place right now.
Max: What’s the most important thing in your life? If you had to pick.
Jay: 100% my family, of course, my kids and my wife.
Max: Is that instinctual, or?
Jay: I don’t know, it is somewhat instinctual but it’s definitely true. Friends, family, and community are really important to me.
Max: How do you think about bags and their role in your life?
Jay: A bag can almost be similar to a camper or a home where you’re really considering the details in your life and how you’re setting it up in a way to curate an experience. I always have a bag. I always have a tote, and there are certain things I really like to keep in it. I don’t really know how to describe it, but you can build this set of things for the day how you want that day to go. I really like that about bags.
I drink tea every day, and part of my ritual in the morning is making a big pot of tea and a thermos, and I have that usually in the afternoon. Sometimes I’ll even make two pots, two big thermoses. I like to have that, I like to have my journal, a camera, phone and keys and wallet, and that’s about it. Those are my kind of things that I set out on my day with, so not too much.
Max: In that context, what do you think about Briefing bags in particular?
Jay: I am pretty stoked on the amount of compartments. I feel like they’d be really great for traveling. When I’m traveling, I have a lot more things, like toiletries and that kind of stuff.
I think I probably need to really spend some time with it and figure out how to dial it in a little bit and what goes where. I’ve just scratched the surface with them so far. One problem I have with my journal is that I inevitably always leave the cap off my water or tea a little bit. It’s like a guarantee within a certain amount of time I’m going to get water in the bottom of my bag. It is nice to have an area that’s a little bit more waterproofed. Maybe this compartment would be better for that. It probably wouldn’t get wet if it was there. I like this little feature too. It’s pretty nice for your keys.