Matt Titone Tells Us A Thing or Two
Matt Titone is a principal of the design studio, ITAL/C and surf culture brand, Indoek. You may also know Matt’s “Surf Shacks” books featuring creative surfers and their homes, of which over 60,000 copies have been printed to date. He has also co-authored “On Surfing,” another book published by Indoek that features his portraits of 25 surf luminaries.
1. Matt, tell us about yourself.
I am a designer by trade, but I also dabble in other art forms such as drawing, painting, and photography, as time allows. In 2012, I co-founded my design studio ITAL/C with my friend and business partner, Ron Thompson. Ron and I are both originally from the East Coast — I’m from Delaware, he’s from Virginia, and we both moved to California from New York City in 2005-6ish.
We started ITAL/C to have the freedom to work at our own pace with the clients and brands we want to collaborate with. Since we are both designers and do not have a full-time producer or dedicated new business person, we inevitably have lulls between projects. To keep ourselves busy and sane during these lulls from studio work, we devote our down time to passion projects that fall into our surf-centric “sister brand" Indoek.
These days my life really boils down to balancing these three things: surf, work, and family (in no particular order).
2. Tell us about your surf journey.
Oh man, where to begin. For me it all started with the first time I rode a REAL wave down the line. I was 18 years old. My new friends at Flagler College (in Florida) who I had just met days earlier were my only means of escaping the dorms. I didn’t have a car, I only had a skimboard and a beach cruiser. They all made fun of me for the skimboarding thing. My harshest critic, Matt Johnson, a crass joker from New Jersey with the physique of a linebacker, generously lent me his 6’0 Spyder with a swallow tail and channels. It was gently browned by years in the sun and was obviously his “beater board,” but it immediately became my prized possession and my ticket into the club.
One day, my friend Shannon Waller drove me to the beach in his gold Volvo sedan to surf the first signs of a hurricane swell. Florida in September is moist and humid – hot as balls. The ocean temperature felt like bath water — it was super inviting. I felt nervous and scared approaching the beach. Would I even be able to make it out? Nothing is more demoralizing than not being able to make it outside to where the waves break. I expressed this sentiment to Shannon who laughed it off and with confidence just told me not to stop paddling until I made it out to the lineup. “Whatever you do, just keep powering through it,” he said with his head down, shaking vigorously, while paddling with rapid arm strokes through the air. I took his advice very seriously, wanting desperately to prove my worth and fit in with my new friends. Like an organ transplant, I wanted to be accepted by the host and this gestation period was fleeting and crucial. This was my only chance. I cupped my hands tightly and paddled like hell out to the lineup. I remember feeling self-conscious among all the surfers out in the water who looked so cool and all seemed to know each other. There was even a beautiful girl in a bikini out there who I could not stop staring at — how cliche! I finally eyed a wave, pointed my board down the line — a left. I caught it, fluidly rose to my feet and rode the wave down the line on a clean face for longer than I had ever experienced before. It was probably a chest high wave, but it was definitely the biggest wave I had ever ridden. It was forgiving and crumbly upon entry, an ideal beginner wave for certain. It felt like minutes that I rode it, but any surfer knows it was likely just a couple seconds at most. However, those fleeting moments were seared into my consciousness for all eternity and shaped everything about my life henceforth. This is by no means an overstatement. I have been chasing the feeling I got from that ride ever since it happened.
You see, before this moment I always WANTED to be a surfer. I remember summer beach days in Delaware boogie boarding with my summer friends. I frequented the Bethany Surf Shop, smelled the candy-like scents of the Sex Wax in barrels next to the register counter with stickers under the glass — how I poured over the stickers! And how I would admire the faded 4x6 photos of local legends on the wall, a shrine to the best days of waves in the Delmarva coastal region. I cherished and hoarded whatever surfing magazines I could find and I soaked up their voyeuristic images of Christian Fletcher (who defined surfing as a counterculture in my 13 year old rebellious brain), Chris Malloy and his perfectly blonde hair and tanned skin posed effortlessly deep inside cyan blue cavernous barrels (which fed my lust for adventure and how I yearned to escape the trappings of Delaware where I felt I never truly belonged). I had only tried to actually surf a sporadic handful of times with demoralizing failures. In my pathetic defense; without adequate waves, friends to motivate, or a real life mentor, learning to surf during the flat summer months in Delaware was a fool's errand. So I hid in skimboarding culture, which was more obscure, but highly accessible to me at the time.
Nevertheless, after that one wave in St. Augustine, Florida, that was it: I was a real surfer. I was hooked, forever changed by my addiction and reverence to that feeling I would dedicate the rest of my life to chasing.
A couple years later, I transferred to the Savannah College of Art and Design. Surfing in Georgia is about as low as it goes, so I was driving back down to Florida almost every weekend to satisfy my new found surf addiction with my friends down there. After graduating from SCAD, I moved to NYC. I used to get up at 4am to ride the A train with my roommate, Jimi Ayers to go surf Rockaway or Long Beach before work. The surf scene in New York was much smaller back then, so we’d get a lot of funny looks on the subway carrying boards. After NYC, I lived in Los Angeles for about 15 years, battling traffic and crowds to surf everywhere between the South Bay and Malibu.
Now at 41 years old, living a bit further north in Oxnard, I surf more than I ever have in my life probably! I’m more stoked than ever on surfing.
What keeps me going are the natural health benefits and overall joy it brings me — it’s the fountain of youth. Surfing is my exercise, meditation, and therapy. It helped me cope with the loss of my father 20 years ago and carried me through all my stresses and bouts with depression over the years. It all sounds cliche, but my whole life basically revolves around it. Nothing beats the afterglow of a good surf session. I’m constantly chasing that feeling, and I hope to share it with my two sons someday.
3. And what sparked your interest in surfers’ homes?
As a graphic designer, I spend a lot of time working in front of a computer. I’ve always loved photography, but needed a specific project to get out and allow me to practice it regularly. My friend and former partner in Indoek, Drew Innis, and I had the idea for Surf Shacks because we knew so many creative surfers with cool stories and homes. These were mostly our friends; fellow designers, photographers, directors, artists, etc. and we wanted to celebrate them somehow on the Indoek website. I had also just bought my first home around that time — which was a total fixer-upper, so I was always looking for inspiration for my own constant renovation projects.
With all that, Surf Shacks was born! I shot the first one back in 2013 and since then I’ve shot around a hundred surfers’ homes to date all over the world. The Surf Shacks project has really evolved over the years; it’s gone from a web series, to a bestselling book collection (Vol. 1 + Vol. 2), to home goods product collaborations, and now we are even making a pilot for a docuseries TV show. It has introduced me to many new friends and opened many doors professionally as well.
4. What has surprised you the most while putting Surf Shacks together? I’ve been surprised by many things over the years while working on this project. Sometimes I have no idea what the subject’s home will look like before I get there. Being open to meeting new people and having new experiences has definitely led to some very pleasant surprises and hidden gems along the way.
A few folks who immediately come to mind in particular were Peter Schroff, Jim Olarte, and Jamie Smallwood. I had never even heard of Jim or Jamie before I met them to shoot their homes in Laguna and Byron Bay, but both their stories were mindblowing. To this day, they are two of the most inspiring artists to me in the entire series. I had definitely heard of Peter Schroff, the iconic 80s surfboard shaper, but the Peter Schroff who I met when I showed up to shoot him and his Venice Beach home was a totally different beast that defied any conceivable expectation I may have had prior. Words cannot describe how unique his home was there, I’ve never seen anything like it.
On another note, I have been so pleasantly surprised with the extent that friends of mine have supported this project along the way. I’ve had friends open their homes as subjects to me early on (an amateur photographer with no prior published work), friends who have offered to contribute their own photography, video and stories to the series, friends who have offered to host book release events for me all over, and friends who have just referred potential subjects or recommended the books to people — folks who have just supported me every step of the way. People have really come out of the woodwork to help me and support this passion project in so many different ways. I am overwhelmed with gratitude to all who have been so generous over the years. If you’re reading this, you know who you are, thank you.
5. Is there anything you wish were different about the surf world?
There are many things I wish were different, but they are all mostly contradictory ideas I have. On one hand, I wish surfing were more inclusive and diverse overall. But on the other hand, I wish less people surfed and it wasn't so popular these days. The diversity and inclusivity I see in the water has significantly improved in recent years in my opinion, but so have the crowds.
The dark side of surfing manifests itself in an industry that makes loud, cheaply made, toxic products. Which is ironic considering surfers subscribe to a lifestyle revolving around nature and we all should want to preserve and protect our environment at all costs. On the other hand, surf culture and the superficial industry surrounding it helped inspire me to pursue a career in the visual arts. And some of those bloated brands I despise gave me heroes with their sponsored athletes and really helped define my youth experience overall. Furthermore, I’m stoked that there are also so many smaller, more eco and socially conscious brands these days that focus on higher quality and less impact. These more niche brands speak more to what I’m looking for at this stage in my life (7TILL8 being one of them!). As surfers, we now have more options than ever from what types of boards we want to ride to what sort of fashionable styles we want to subscribe to within the overall surf culture. That is pretty neat. I just wish there wasn’t so much crap out there.
Competitive surfing is another soul-sucking force that constantly tries to find new ways to make our beloved lifestyle out to be a sport. A popular phrase is “the best surfer in the water is the one having the most fun.” How do you judge that? How do you score waves and rides? It’s not basketball– it’s a highly subjective activity. While I am totally turned off by the surf industry at large and the very idea of competitive surfing, I do watch nearly every WSL contest and consider myself a fan. I find surfboards littered with stickers like Nascar vehicles appalling, but I think the extent to which professional surfers have committed their whole lives to surfing is incredible and for them to be able to earn a healthy living from it is admirable. I have nothing but respect for countless pro surfing icons and legends. I say I hate competitive surfing, but I was still sobbing like a baby while watching Kelly win at Pipe this year. Oh the contradictions in my head!!
What’s really upsetting to me is that I find myself ashamed of being a surfer a lot these days. It’s quite difficult to wrestle with because it’s still the center of my universe and an obsessive, highly addictive personal pursuit. Yet for the most part, I find other surfers to mostly be selfish and despicable to the point where I’m a self-loathing surfer. Despite our surface level laid back image, surfers can be the most arrogant, aggressive people on the planet. The behavior on display in a crowded lineup is comparable to road rage one might encounter in 100-degree LA traffic. Localism is perhaps at the heart of this, but there is something deeper at play with a constant need to take every wave and compare one’s skills on a wave to those around us — the “I’m better than you so I deserve more” mentality. We surfers even have our own derogatory term that shames those who are beneath us and not worthy: “kook.” It’s just crazy to hear grown men yelling and bickering at each other in the water who would never feel as entitled to act like that back in the real world. On land, these same aggro-types can be found preaching the "aloha spirit" of surfing — or saying other surfer-y things like “no worries” all the time. It’s gross. I wish people could just leave the drama on shore. BUT, I can also appreciate the well-mannered enforcers of etiquette in the lineup though — those who truly deserve respect and lead by example. Without those last holdouts, we’d all be lost. When waves are a precious commodity in high demand, you’ve gotta earn your spot out there.
It’s kinda complicated and weird when you start to think deeply about it all. My rantings aside, at the end of the day I enjoy the act of surfing more than anything in the world. Any disappointment I have in the surf world comes from other peoples’ public interpretations of surfing not living up to my own personal experiences with it. At the end of the day, I am just as selfish as the rest of them!
6. And last but not least, what do you think are the top five things that unite us all as surfers?
1. Our love of the ocean.
2. Our healthy addiction to riding waves.
3. We’re all secretly selfish AF because of that addiction.
4. Peeing in wetsuits. If you don’t do it, you’re either lying or have never surfed in a wetsuit before.
5. We’ve all been humbled by nature. No one just starts out being good at surfing. There is a huge learning curve and a lot of fear to overcome every step of the way, at any experience level in surfing. The ocean doesn’t give a fuck about anything and conditions can change drastically in seconds. Being a surfer doesn’t automatically make you a waterman/woman or an environmentalist, but it forces you to respect nature at a basic level.