Ollie Ollie Oxen Free

"Laura Thornhill, backside kick turn torrance," 1977. Photography by Jim Goodrich. Image courtesy of the Design Museum.
“Laura Thornhill, backside kick turn torrance,” 1977. Photography by Jim Goodrich. Image courtesy of the Design Museum.

It was back in the 1950s when groups of surfer teens in Southern California coined “sidewalk surfing,” a term for cruising down pavement on wood, wheel-equipped boards when the ocean wasn’t delivering on surf-worthy waves. By the 1960s, industrially manufactured skateboards became commercially available, replacing the crudely handmade versions on which hobbyists had previously relied. The following decades would also eventually see the broad emergence in consumer-friendly recording devices. Soon enough, the practice of filming skateboarders in action on camera added a whole new dimension to the sport; simultaneously, the perpetual creation of footage and images of skateboard enthusiasts ultimately set the stage for its popularity to reach a global scale.

Like many countercultures, skateboarding has grown over time into a lifestyle that has given way to sprawling derivations in the mainstream landscape. It’s formed new sub-genres of fashion—namely in the form of streetwear—as well as in the realms of film, music, photography, and beyond. This week, London’s Design Museum debuted the first exhibition in the United Kingdom to focus on the topic, “Skateboard.” That a major museum in an international city has made space to explore the history of a sport with quintessentially American origins is itself a testament to the universal fascination that has grown around the pastime since the mid-20th century.

"Christ Air Mesa AZ," 1987. Photograph by Grant Brittain. Image courtesy of the Design Museum.
“Christ Air Mesa AZ,” 1987. Photograph by Grant Brittain. Image courtesy of the Design Museum.

Curated by industrial designer Jonathan Olivares, who himself grew up skateboarding, “Skateboard,” offers a functional mini-ramp, which visitors are encouraged to use. Ninety skateboards are on display in the museum ranging in origin from ramshackle homemade versions from the ’50s to the far more polished, design object-adjacent models of more recent years. Among these are icon Tony Hawk’s first professional skateboard; a 1970s model from brand Logan Earth Ski used by Laura Thornhill, who was the first woman to have a centerfold in Skateboarder Magazine, among other “first woman” skater accolades; and a late-1980s model used by Black Flag frontman Mike Vallely. On the contemporary side, see the first pro model used by Sky Brown, a 15-year-old Japan native who’s currently the world’s youngest professional skateboarder,
whose achievements so far include winning the bronze medal for Great Britain at the 2020 Olympics. Reportedly, she learned the sport by watching YouTube.

“Skateboard” is on view at the Design Museum in London at 224-238 Kensington High Street W8 6AG through June 2, 2024.

Rachel Summer Small is Family Style’s Culture Editor and a writer and critic based in New York.