Deep in the salty-aired Outer Sunset district of San Francisco is the headquarters of Iris Skateboards. It’s a skater’s heaven, with a garage built out into a full workshop, decks by the hundreds are stacked everywhere and a bowl resides in the backyard. What started as a skateboard company where old recycled boards are cut and formed together to make a new board, Iris and the man behind it, George Rocha, is expanding into much more than skateboards. Now Rocha has started to make a range of wood goods: skateboards, surfboards, furniture and whatever else he can think of. “I’m a craftsman, not an artist, everything I make I use my hands,” Rocha explained as he put the final finish on a coffee table he made out of recycled skateboards.
It’s not about the money, it’s about creating for Rocha, making something with his hands that he is proud of. Amadeus spent an afternoon with George finding out what Iris is all about and getting to know the craftsman behind it.
What initially drew you to skateboarding? Same with building, what made you want to work in woodworking?
I started skating back in the early 80s when my parents came home with a plastic skateboard that they bought from a yard sale. I was immediately hooked! I would bomb the hill down the street from my house daily. I first got into woodworking through building ramps in my parents’ driveway. I remember seeing the movie Back to the Future, specifically that scene where Marty McFly turns an old scooter into a skateboard and jumps a bush. After seeing that I was hell-bent on jumping the bush at the end of our driveway. So I built a launch ramp and went for it. I eventually made it over that bush and kept building more launch ramps, quarter pipes, bank ramps, fun boxes, and any other skateboard obstacles from that time. If it could be made out of wood I’d build it.
As the years went on I’d try to help out anywhere I heard there was a ramp or skatepark being built. Being from New England most skateparks were indoors due to the harsh winters, so the ramps were all made of wood. After picking up some jobs building indoor parks I got hired on by Breaking Ground Skateparks in 2000 to build concrete parks. Eighteen years later, I’m still doing it. I’ve had the pleasure of building skateparks in dozens of states in the US and several countries around the world. Whenever I wasn’t traveling to build skateparks I would make things like furniture and stuff in my garage, out of wood. I began making things from skateboards after seeing the work of the artist Hiroshi. I liked his sculptures but I wanted to make functional art. The first thing I made was naturally a skateboard and quickly progressed to furniture, screenprint squeegees, surfboards, tap handles and whatever else popped into my imagination.
Is there any history behind the name Iris?
I came up with the name Iris for a few reasons. But the main one is because people kept telling me that my boards looked like rainbows. I didn’t want to call my company to be called “Rainbows” but I am of Portuguese heritage and rainbow in Portuguese is “arco iris”. So, Iris, it was.
Lately, you have been making other things besides skateboards, like furniture, surfboards, etc. Having always been a craftsman did you initially go into Iris with the intention of only making skateboards or were the boards more of a stepping stone to creating other pieces using the same process?
The boards were the main focus, but I always had my mind on furniture and anything else that I thought would be improved aesthetically and functionally by being made from recycled skateboards.
You mentioned that if everyone left you alone, you’d still just be in your garage doing the same thing, what is it that inspires you, keeps you motivated and coming back each day?
I love making things with my hands. I also love the learning process of figuring things out for yourself. I had to work by trial and error until I developed a way to create what was in my mind. That progression is what keeps me in the shop day after day.
Any big plans in the future for Iris at all? Where do you see it going? Is it more ‘let’s see what we can make and create with recycled skateboards,’ or do you have a more specific future path in mind?
I’m mostly carrying on with business, as usual, making skateboards, screenprint squeegees, surfboards, and furniture, but I like to keep things new and exciting so there’s definitely big plans in the future. I’m working on some artist collaborations, a new line of surfboards and I also plan to keep developing new ways of working with recycled skateboards.
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Photography by Grady Olson.