POZNAŃ 6.6.2016


Dorota Kabała, a designer and founder of a studio named We design for physical culture, has just come back from Brazil with a self-made surfboard and knowledge of its creation process.
This is not a picture with beach, ocean and sunset. This is not a story about Dorota Kabała alone, though she is the storyteller. There are more characters here: surfing, sport, Brazil, design and, first and foremost, the perfect state in life where passion meets work. It is difficult to arrange a meeting with Dorota because she currently has little time. She is soon leaving for a trade fair in Cologne, where an exhibition designed by her will be shown, and then she is giving a lecture in the School of Form in Poznań, Poland. A meeting with her is a real challenge for a surfing fan: how could you not envy her those South American waves and surfing on a self-made board?

I knew from the beginning what I did not want to convey by our meeting. A story of a girl who went to Brazil and learned how to make surfboards is close to an easily told romantic banality. I did not want an interview with a person who had enough luck and money to go and do something spectacular (in the European’s eyes, shaping a surfboard near a beach certainly belongs to such extraordinary attractions). There were no fireworks, she did not win a million in a lottery and she did not do it for a short-time advertising effect. Sure, the story is exceptional, but first of all, it is planned. It is rationally grounded in Dorota’s ideas for both professional and real life.

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Surfing is a way of life – or even a way of enduring life – for many people. It is a condition able to fill every thought from dawn to dusk. Weather conditions, swimming, trainings, escapades... It all has one goal: catching the best wave. Add to that music, fashion, photography and filming, with surfing as the main theme. Interestingly, most people who follow and admire this sport do not practice it. They simply want to breathe fresh air, belong to that elite group, dress the same way and live the same way. Australia, Brazil, Portugal, Poland... The surfing industry makes a profit of billions. The biggest clothing brands sell more T-shirts and swimsuits only because they build their position using the image of ocean and waves. Pictures showing a free surfer living in harmony with nature are used in ads even by insurance companies. Many of us are simply attracted to the surfers’ hippie way of life. What is so entrancing in this discipline? Its connection with beach, water, heaven with palms and beautiful weather which it seems to require by default? Not necessarily. Imagine the opinion of a large group of Poles for whom surfing in Władysławowo in December is a standard. Some may confirm that it is a matter of freedom and a way of life; others will say that it is just sport and adrenaline.

For Dorota Kabała, surfing is not a one-time fascination or a fashionable addition in her free time. It is a strong combination of passion and work – an ideal symbiosis sought by many of us. Water and waves are a natural environment for a girl who was ten when she started to train synchronized swimming: our mutual friend used to call her a “seal” during surfing holidays. The transfer of sport to the professional life proved to be just a matter of time.


Warsaw. It is the beginning of the year, but winter has still not set in. I meet Dorota in her office in Stara Ochota district. The office is located in a tenement house coming from the interwar period, typical of this vicinity. It has high white walls with boards leaned against them behind the chair: I spot a kite, a skateboard and a snowboard. Work is in progress: Dorota is preparing herself for another Polish design exhibition.

“Where are you swimming next?” I ask her. “Morocco,” she says, smiling. “Do you want to see IT?” “Sure!” I reply in excitement. She takes a cover leaned against the wall and produces a white surfboard with a characteristic graphic motive. The board is close to the “funboard” type, usually called Evolution.

“These three black Xs symbolize spots which determine the creation of the board. Do you see the signature? It is a mutual one: it belongs to the shaper who was my teacher and to me,” she explains as she gently turns the board to the other side. “I remember the moment when I brought it to Poland. It weighed two times more because it was wrapped up in a dozen layers of foil. I was afraid that something bad would happen to it. It was almost like taking care of a child.”

Dorota likes well-made objects. She went to Brazil not only to surf and come back with her own board, but first and foremost to obtain knowledge of its creation process, meet the craftsmen who produce hand-made boards and watch their work. She even learned Portuguese to be able to talk to them.


“I remember myself in a Poznań – Warsaw train, arranging a meeting with a shaper living next to São Paulo. We were nearing Kutno and I was talking to a guy from a small town in Brazil. It was so absurdly simple that it almost seemed unreal!”

The difference between a hand-made board and that coming from mass production is essential even if we take into account the mass personalization process. On the one hand, it is a kind of experience and emotion: you have a piece of equipment created especially for you. As Dorota highlights, it is an exceptional relation with the product and its context: a craftsman, a local leader and spirituality. On the other hand, there is a more practical side to it: many people swim on boards unadjusted to their skills and bodies, thus ignoring the very important first stage of making a choice, getting to know themselves on the water and assessing their abilities accurately. “I was an example of that. When I stood on the board I had made by myself, I could not believe the result. I really started to surf. Personalized factory-made equipment certainly is a good solution provided that you really know what you need. This is why we want to produce boards for others, help them make choices and create unique, functional solutions in cooperation with clients.

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Dorota went through all stages of a craftsman’s work: selecting the board’s parameters, defining the form and finishing the surface. The Brazilian shaper taught her all that. It was a master – apprentice relation: he showed her things and she caught on to them very quickly. She has always had manual skills (both innate and acquired), easiness of assessing symmetry and the designer’s eye. It all helped her during her craftsman’s work: she acquired the know how.

“I spent those two months in Brazil simply learning. Every morning I went to the beach (oftentimes hitchhiking) and had two surfing sessions several hours each. Then I rested, drank some juice made of fresh fruit and had a nap. At sunset I started working with my board in the workshop. I took notes, watched my teacher and repeated his activities. Imagine this: a closed room, hard light of a fluorescent lamp and me almost in a trance, all covered with white dust, walking around the board. First, you grind it, determine the parameters and remove excessive parts of the material. Then you finalize the shape and even the surface.
Dorota’s fascination with surfing is not only swimming and design. She would also like to change people’s thinking of this sport as an exclusive discipline because it is democratic by nature: it does not exclude anyone and does not stem from how much you own. It is not only a subculture, looking for fun, meeting people and travelling together. Brazil is the best example of that: it has nearly three millions of surfers and three thousand kilometres of the coast. Surfing has become widespread there. Sport clubs are opened even in poor districts called favelas.

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“It is not a sport for the rich; this is not where celebrities go. People surf after work, putting on old T-shirts. It was extremely important to me to learn making boards in the country where surfing is a part of culture. It is like skiing in Slovakia: everyone does it and nobody considers it sensational. It is a normal element of their life.”

I ask her when that ambitious plan emerged in her head. “I had always wanted to create my own surfboard. In terms of the form-to-function relation, this is the purest product I know. All elements are justified and all dimensions determine the way it works. On top of that, it is beautiful. I wish other objects around us were equally perfect. Moreover, a surfboard is something more than a piece of sports equipment that you use. A more emotional relationship is involved here, comparable to that between a jockey and their horse.”

When I ask her about surfing her first barrel (a big wave), she is amused. “Let me make it clear: I do not surf well. I learn very fast, but I am only at the beginning of my road. However, my instructor wishes he had filmed me from the start: he would now have a film advertising his school and my progress.”

Dorota grabs a piece of material of which her board is made and makes grinding movements. “It is muscle memory, you know. You do not forget this. The sound of rubbing sandpaper against the foam evokes ecstatic joy in me. I would like to do it many more times.”

Interestingly, a small piece of plastic becomes a pretext for further conversation about a new beginning of professional life, changes, Brazil and ways of life. When in 2012 she finished working in her previous design studio, she stopped for a moment and thought: what do you really want? It took some time to pluck up courage and create her own brand.

“There is a place by a lake in the Mazury region in Poland that I always visit. I sit down and think whenever I ask myself what to do next. That time, I went there with a notebook and decided not to come back until I planned something. I wrote down elements which made up my life: things I had in my portfolio, my skills and contacts. Somewhere deep inside, I had always wanted to design sports equipment. I asked myself: why not trying now?”

Before Dorota founded We design for physical culture, a studio which has already cooperated with such market leaders as Nobile, she had had two lives: a design life and a sport life. She used to spend one half of the day in a tracksuit and trainers and the other half in a white blouse visiting vernissages, from where she escaped to a swimming pool anyway. She gave it a thought, summed it up and let the passion merge with the professional life. Sport makes her able to generate the biggest motivation possible: she returns to the computer with pleasure and her enthusiasm persists throughout the whole project. Work has ceased to be just a duty.
“I own a studio which deals with design for sport, so I refer to it everything I do. I do not believe in designing equipment without practicing a given discipline. If I want our studio to work for a given sport, I know I have to try it. Some time ago, we also dealt with cross-country skis and even parkour.”


However, surfing has proved to involve her the most. It justifies all her training sessions and visits to the swimming pool at 7 am. Dorota is a sportsperson type in every respect: if she does something, it must make sense. Discipline, persistence and a logical plan: it went this way with surfing, too. She first tried it five years ago in New Zealand, but she decided to devote herself to it only when work allowed her to do so.

“At that time all my interests, which had previously occupied my free time, suddenly became justified. They turned into support for my job. Surfing has ceased to be just fun: it has become a way to good design.”
Exotic holidays, bikinis drying in the sun and photos of Brazilian beaches were not the scenario assumed by Dorota.

“Today, as I sit on my board and wait for waves, I can see the whole process. I can see the shaper’s workshop and myself with sandpaper, and I think: OK, I made a board. Compare this to the situation two years ago, when I thought that the moment I achieved it, the world would be different. I was wrong: it simply became a part of my life.”

“You are talking to me now, but you would actually like to be somewhere else, right?” “I currently feel that being in Warsaw makes sense. I often travel, but I keep the balance so as not to live in wait for another journey. My aim is to derive uninterrupted pleasure from life – to feel at home regardless of geographical location.”

Dorota Kabała. She specializes in designing for sports industries and sportspeople themselves. She co-owns a studio called We design for physical culture, which works for sports equipment manufacturers and institutions supporting the development of sport and leisure, such as the National Stadium in Warsaw or Nobile. She is a designer and curator of The Spirit of Poland exhibitions in Brazil, as well as a co-creator of Knockoutdesign and Shinoi brands. She works as a lecturer at the Industrial Design Department of the School of Form (Poznań, Poland).