If you were to compile a list of essential stops and sights for a guidebook called “The East Coast Surfer’s Pilgrimage Route,” you might have a hard time justifying the inclusion of Twombly’s Nautical Furniture in Cocoa Beach. Barring the weathered pirate statue standing out front, it’s a pretty innocuous looking edifice, one that offers scant indication of the treasures amassed within its walls. Plus, it’s a furniture shop.
Yet like a nondescript chapel that sleeps in the shadows cast by the larger, more imposing cathedrals that surround it, Twombly’s rewards visitors seeking the true spirit of surfing with forgotten relics, curios and stories, all tended loyally by an unassuming archivist in its owner, artist Joe Twombly.
Now Twombly would be the first to scoff at the notion that what he creates is art, yet after some gentle prodding, he concedes that the trade he began so prosaically involves something more than mindless assemblage. To him, all his work stems from surfing — the sport itself and the ideas and culture that encompass it — and it’s hard to steer him away from the subject toward the one we’d come to discuss. After a few hours of talking and scanning photos and clippings of his early days surfing the east coast, I returned to my shabby office to transcribe my collected notes. Here were accounts of trips and both minor and epic tales about Mike Tabeling, Dick Catri, Claude Codgen, Gary Propper, Mimi Munro, Gary Propper, and Bruce Valluzzi, along with intertwining chronologies of each character’s careers — and hardly a page about the sea-themed tables he fashions in his studio-cum-factory. This interview, I figured, would surely put my skills as a writer to the test.
But much like a pilgrim in search of the gilded, gleaming reliquary who’s finally faced with an ordinary wooden box after an arduous trek, I soon discovered that I’d stumbled upon something far more precious than the obvious grail. Giving my notes a closer look, each disparate episode and footnote swirled about magically to form the image I’d been seeking. Whether by accident or design, Twombly, a kind of befuddling surf mystic, had actually answered each of my pointed questions about what he does with refreshing candor. The greater questions for any artist, it turns out, shouldn’t focus on what they create, but where each creation springs from. To get my answer, I had to understand Twombly himself.
As soon as we arrive in the small showroom that greets visitors to his shop, Twombly sits down to regale us with an effusive account of his life on the water. What develops is a conversation filled with riotous laughter, silence for those who’ve passed, and inventive non sequiturs that, while at first confusing, shed brilliant light on dusty legends. Cabinets are opened, and attention is drawn to faded clippings, crinkled photos, and framed portraits of old friends. On paper, the facts read like a Bulfinch’s Mythology entry on surfing luminaries, but not once does the engaging Twombly fall back on empty name-dropping or deluded “when I was your age”-didacticism.
These stories and moments are as alive today in Twombly’s mind as they were 20 years ago, and like a shaman, he imbues them with warm breath for privileged listeners. Never coming across as the retired general who pulls out old medals, the better to see his reflection in their polished surface, Twombly’s modest speech is full of praise for others. Tabeling, Catri, Propper — they’re not untouchable idols here, but real people. Where a lesser chronicler would simply lump them all into an indistinguishable pile of “The Best,” Twombly enumerates all their finest qualities as only a true friend could. Tabeling? The most adventurous and courageous, convincing Twombly to take his first terrified night surf. Propper? The most encouraging and enthusiastic, like the time he grabbed a 13-year-old Twombly by the arm during a session to tell onlookers that Joe would be a surfer someday. There are hilarious tales of Catri and countless others that arise. But Twombly himself? He just happened to be there.
At one point, he shows us a photo album of a 1969 trip to Martinique with some friends. Several timeless shots elicit more uproarious laughter, a few others some sadness for friends who’ve since died. “Here’s some of the kids there paddling out on poles,” he indicates. “They had long pieces of rubber as leashes. They were way ahead of their time!” Another National Geographic-worthy photo shows some small figures looking out at the surf in beaming afternoon sunlight. “They let those kids out of school to watch us surf,” he recalls. Setting it back into a cabinet drawer, Twombly says: “It was the time of our lives” without a trace of the mournfulness you’d expect. While he’s understandably wistful about an idyllic era that ended, it seems to inject him with uncontainable enthusiasm rather than melancholy. Just having lived it informs the present, a present still filled with discovery, creativity and fun.
Twombly’s induction into the East Coast Surfing Hall of Fame in 2000 and his current Vice Presidency of the institution already speaks volumes about his dedication to the sport’s ethos, but still he reserves special credit for friends who helped make the East Coast surfer such a unique cultural force. They’re friends he met when his family settled in the area in back in 1963 after following the Twombly patriarch (who worked in military intelligence) from jobs in Tokyo, California, Baltimore, New York and Panama. “Baseball was my thing,” he says of those years. “I didn’t get into surfing until later.”
His older sister Betsy gave him his first real introduction to surfing shortly after they arrived in Florida, and the two shared his first board, a James & O’Hare. After a few years of honing his innate surfing skills up and down the coast, Twombly earned early fame helping the Surfboards Hawaii team rise to prominence. In 1967, Twombly caught the eye of Hobie Alter, who recruited him to his team and helped pay his college tuition. While at Florida Tech, Twombly, now on the cusp of marriage (he and wife Sue have been married for 37 years), studied political science, vaguely thinking that he’d go into public relations. “Look up the word ‘ambiguous’,” he says, “and that’s me.” With the help of some skills acquired while working local construction, he made his first tables out of some recovered materials as a hobby. “We needed a coffee table,” he remembers, laughing. “I built one in the apartment and resined the top in the living room. I destroyed the carpet, of course, and the lady who lived downstairs came up bitching about the smell.”
Inspired by the aquatic environment he’d come to love, Twombly began making tables, stools and other pieces for people who’d heard about them from friends. Starting with deep, curved wooden frames as vessels, as he’s done here since 1972, Twombly arranges indigenous shells, coral, small fish, crustaceans and flotsam into three-dimensional “mosaics” of color and form. Customers can choose to employ Twombly’s shells and minutiae (bought from local divers), their own, or a mixture of both. It takes an instinctively artistic eye to place them in a way that disguises their having been touched by human hands. Successfully replicating the randomness of nature and capricious tides as only a devoted waterman could, Twombly then covers each seascape with layers of clear epoxy resin to create the illusion of water.
Helped by friend and store manager Mike Meyer here in the back shop room (“The Nexus,” they call it), Twombly has made pieces for more than 30 Carnival Cruise ships, over 250 restaurants, and thousands of private customers, including a sultan from Dubai who hired him to make some railings for his yacht. Trying to count the number of pieces he’s done proves difficult (“hundreds of thousands”); reciting the roster of restaurants even more so (“Honestly, I can’t remember them all”). Twombly’s first piece was for the now defunct Captain Ed’s at the Port, and he’s since made gorgeous resin-coated tables for Ron Jon’s Cape Caribe Resort, Cocoa Beach Surf Company’s Shark Pit, Breakfast At Lily’s, Bernard’s Surf, Makoto’s, Roberto’s, Taco City, Florida Seafood Bar & Grill, Canaveral Pier, Dixie Crossroads, Grills, and the PAFB Officer’s Club, as well as many decorative pieces for Disney and EPCOT’s Chinese Pavilion.
Smaller pieces like end tables can take up to five or six weeks to complete, while larger pieces require about two months’ work, some of which incorporate vintage nautical items like compasses, coils of rope, small portholes, hatch covers and brass panels recovered from WWII ships — even capstan bases. Crouching down to look at a particularly wide oceanscape table from a child’s vantage point offers a seabed view of the scene within. Behind a leaf of fan coral lurks a blue crab, a few minute grains of sand floating near his carapace suggesting movement frozen in time. To the right, two quarter-sized fish veer vertically over a spiky pink conch and a small scattering of sand dollars and ray egg casings. It’s the kind of view usually only divers are privy to, but one Twombly seems to conjure up intuitively from years of being out on the water.
You could say that it’s this quality — this marriage of beauty and functionality — that brings people the world over to Twombly’s shop. That it also happens to be an important spot in local history, however unlikely, seems lost on many of them. But to a lucky few, Twombly’s tables aren’t just furniture, but talismans of a soul touched indelibly by the ocean.
And knowing someone like Joe Twombly made them only increases their value even more.
Twombly’s Nautical Furniture is located at 101 Manatee Lane in Cocoa Beach. To find out more about Joe Twombly’s tables, stop by the showroom, call 783-8610, or visit www.twomblysnauticalfurniture.com