Paul Lefèvre doesn’t like to be called an artist, but anyone who has seen what he can do with a surfboard, car or other physical medium would have a hard time arguing that what he does isn’t art.
The French surfboard shaper, glasser, designer and manufacturer—who is best known by his nickname/brand, “Son of Cobra”—may have gained attention on a global level through his collaborations with companies such as Lost, Rip Curl and DMS, but it has only been since he set up shop in an industrial garage in Costa Mesa that Lefèvre has taken full responsibility for each step of the board-making process.
To the untrained eye, Lefèvre’s current selection may appear modest or subtle compared to the louder, more colorful ones often tucked under the wetsuit-clad arms of locals. The lifelong surfer developed his avid fan base by pushing boundaries and experimenting in shapes, glassing and retro designs (including creating a perfectly clear “invisible” board that would make even Wonder Woman jealous). Now that he’s a one-man show, he can embrace an elegant, milder color palette while putting more emphasis on the marbling, texturing and tinted glassing of each board—although he never has a problem with taking on a custom order for something in a bold fire-engine red or neon green, so long as he keeps his own artisanal standards.
“I don’t like doing the same stuff that somebody else does,” Lefèvre says. “I always want to create something that is new, and that’s the funnest part of the work for me. I always try to find some new art, design, shape, curves, whatever I can do to make it different. That’s the exciting part of the process. Sometimes you get some bad stuff, but sometimes you get some cool art that you can use to go forward.”
Although no one sees the products that don’t work out, his successful scientific experiments have yielded memorable, though virtually unrepeatable results.
Even if he carries the same traditional tattoos and relaxed demeanor of most in the surf industry, his background isn’t exactly the norm.
While growing up windsurfing off the beaches of Northern France, Lefèvre realized he had a passion for the science of surfboards. As a teenager attending a high-end fine-arts school in Belgium, he began messing around with shaping his own boards as well as using surfboards as canvases.
The summer when he was 14 years old, Lefèvre and a friend drove to the South of France, where he surfed and soaked up everything he could from the area’s master surfboard shapers. Showing his board and artwork to the local professionals, the young artist earned attention and was invited to draw on their boards, giving him the opportunity to spend time in legitimate surfboard factories instead of just trying to make the best out of whatever materials he could find.
After he graduated with a degree in graphic design, Lefèvre decided to go back to his first love. He discovered Australia’s incredible surf culture, as well as its relatively lax work-visa requirements, and moved down under to put in some serious hours both on the beach and in surfboard factories.
“Once I got [to Australia], I started telling people that I was a professional surfboard glasser, even though I’d only ever glassed maybe four or five boards in my parents’ garage,” Lefèvre says. “The next week, I was working in a factory, where I was expected to glass six boards per day. I was like, ‘Oh, wow! Oh, shit. . . . What am I doing here?’ But it went fine. I ended up working at about three or four other factories in Australia, too, so I could work more with pigments and colors. That’s where I learned all of the tricks that the old guys would give you.”
After his year-long visa was up, Lefèvre returned to France and started his own business, the Lucky Bastards Glass Co., in 2006. By using the colored glassing techniques he’d picked up in Australia, the young craftsman and his friend Tristan Mausse quickly became standouts across Europe’s independent surfing scene and were hired by several private clients and companies to give high-end surfboards a more retro look.
As his relatively underground business grew and he became a bigger name in the global surf industry, Lefèvre crossed paths with Matt Biolos of Lost Surfboards, who asked the now-experienced glasser to bring some of his work to the company’s headquarters in San Clemente. The duo quickly forged a symbiotic partnership, with Lefèvre splitting his time between California and France.
By 2016, Lefèvre was able to get a visa and move to California with his girlfriend. “All of the surf industry is pretty much based [in California], and my girlfriend worked in the surf industry as well, so we both knew a lot of people in the industry when we came here,” Lefèvre says. “For me, working on a global collaboration with a company like Rip Curl is easier here because all of the guys are out here. I have a lot of work out here, and I’ve been really enjoying it.”
After well more than a decade of glassing other people’s boards for a living, Lefèvre settled on Costa Mesa as the headquarters for the formal launch of his own brand.
As for the name, Lefèvre took it from a song by the French rock band Cobra, “Fils du Cobra.” He thought the translated name, Son of Cobra, would sound more appealing and “less French” to a global audience than Paul Lefèvre Surfboards. It was one of the first business decisions he had to make for his new company, and it was likely one of the easiest considering how many other aspects of the industry the tattooed surfboard scientist had to learn about to go from an independent contractor to a one-man production team.
“The transition from working for other people to being my own brand has been a big change, but it’s been pretty smooth—and now I can do more shaping instead of just glassing because it’s my own brand,” Lefèvre says. “I still glass for some other brands while working on my own because I’m still learning every day. It’s a lot to learn with everything from managing the supplies to finding a nice shipping company that’s not too expensive and doesn’t break the board every time. It’s pretty tough, but I hope to have more people helping me with that soon.”
“He’s a very creative and inspiring person to be around, but as a businessperson, he’s really bad,” adds Serena Lutton, Lefèvre’s girlfriend, with a laugh. As the only other Son of Cobra employee, she handles a lot of the logistics and other back-end details. “He would say the same thing. He’s really bad at marketing his work, but I feel like every true artist is like that. He also doesn’t like being called an artist, but that’s what he is. Sometimes being around him and looking at what he’s doing makes me sad because I wish that more people were aware of him. What he’s doing is really rare, both technically and visually, but maybe he wouldn’t be as talented with that if he were taking the time and energy to market himself properly.”
Lefèvre took his time in modifying and customizing his studio and showroom into his minimalist dream space. Aside from the dozens of in-progress and finished surfboards scattered around, the open space houses the classic car he’s currently rebuilding as a hobby and a small sitting area guarded by a sleeping bulldog named Paul Jr. (and affectionately known as “Grandson of Cobra”).
His creative presence is now starting to reach far beyond the foam, fiberglass and resin of surfing. The Son of Cobra’s designs and marbling styles can now be seen on everything from clothing to furniture through partnerships with an array of companies. Among those collaborations is a limited collection of styles for popular sneaker brand CLAE; there’s also a pair of co-branded surfboards.
“We at CLAE pay meticulous attention to materials, while keeping our silhouettes understated,” says Jerome Thuillier, CLAE’s general manager for the Europe/Middle East/Africa region. “This collaboration with Son of Cobra gave us the opportunity to take the boldness of his marbling technique and give it a unique appearance of depth on one of our classic silhouettes. This collaboration also gave us the ability to offer our customers his emblematic boards.”
Son of Cobra may just be getting started as a brand (the official launch party was last month), but the man behind the moniker has quickly established himself in SoCal’s surf scene. As more brands begin to either collaborate with him or just outright bite his style, it’s tough to ignore Lefèvre’s impact. For now, the products that come out of his Orange County industrial space are unparalleled works of craftsmanship created by a world-class artist—even if it’s a title Lefèvre refuses to accept for himself.
“I think a lot of my art background is still there, and I like to push myself to go look at some exhibitions and find some nice techniques that I can use on a board, so it all goes together,” Lefèvre says. “Sometimes I put a lot of art on a board, and people don’t even want to put wax on it, so it’s harder to sell it. I get inspired by a lot of art and design, and I still do a little bit of graphic design on the side, but I don’t think I’m an artist [with surfboards]. Art can be anything, and it is amazing, but I think [Son of Cobra] is more of a brand than an artist.”