Carving Out A Niche | Korua Shapes

Korua’s co-founder Nicholas Wolken talks snowboard design, deadly prototypes and staying stoked on the creative process

There’s a phrase that’s frequently cited as ‘the most beautiful in the English language’: Cellar door. No, that’s not a typo. Cellar door. In a literal sense, there’s nothing special about it. It works purely in phonetic terms rather than conjuring up any vivid image. Still, there’s just something about the way it rolls off the tongue.

The same could be said of Korua Shapes. Any definition of the word comes up as blank as their immaculate, white topsheets. But you’ve got to admit, it does have a certain ring to it. “It kind of reminded us of an island, a beautiful island in the Mentawais, or an island with a palm on it,” Nicholas Wolken, Korua’s co-founder, tells me. “We tried a bunch of different names. We went through them all and we just liked the sound of it. It just matched.”

The inspiration for the snowboards themselves, however, originated much further from the equator, where it was the Shirakaba trees, not palms, that were native to the island. “I think what really kicked it off was one of the trips we did to Japan,” Wolken says. “We didn’t just witness different snowboards, but a whole scene and culture. A different approach to snowboarding.”

Nicholas Wolken scoring deep conditions on a rare blue-sky day in Japan (PC: Aaron Schwartz)

Back in 2013, there was little indication of the tides turning in Europe. Freestyle was firmly in the foreground, kickers were king, and carving was viewed as a pastime that possibly involved a set of hard boots and a series of gates. In Japan, however, it was snowsurfing and freecarving that had been riding a wave of popularity for some time.

“We didn’t just witness different snowboards, but a whole scene and culture. A different approach to snowboarding”

“We didn’t invent that,” Wolken stresses, “I want to credit those guys over there but we saw that it was possible in Japan, and it seemed there was nothing like it in Europe.” When the opportunity to start up a new brand presented itself, with Jerry Niedermeier in charge of product development, Wolken went into it “just totally open-minded.” By 2014, the first line of Korua Shapes snowboards was unveiled.

KORUA Shapes Apollo
KORUA Shapes Asytoni
KORUA Shapes Pencil
KORUA Shapes Stealth

From day one, the message was about one thing and one thing only. “It was like an anti-statement. Let’s just build a brand that’s all about turning,” Wolken explains. “I mean, it’s what most riders were doing about 90% of the time.”

While snowboarding was shooting along its triple corking trajectory, Nicholas, like many others, saw a gap widening. “It wasn’t relatable anymore,” Nicholas says. “That closeness to what’s happening is what makes [snowboarding] so intriguing. I feel like that maybe got lost at a certain point. It’s a big part of snowboarding, being relatable, going out, being part of a culture, and that’s what we were trying to establish.”

“Where most brands opt to spread their product line along the freeride – freestyle spectrum, Korua’s snowboards fit neatly into their own four categories: Concept, Classic, Plus and Split Lines”

The guys at KORUA Shapes weren’t reinventing the wheel; they were returning to it. “It’s always been at the roots of snowboarding. It’s like the one thing that separated us from skiing back in the day. Skis didn’t have sidecuts and it’s what made snowboarding feel so different. I think it’s one of the highlights in snowboarding… maybe not the most impressive thing, but from an experience, I think it’s at the very heart of it.”

Where most brands opt to spread their product line along the freeride – freestyle spectrum, Korua’s snowboards fit neatly into their own four categories: Concept, Classic, Plus and Split Lines. Their ethos isn’t driven by a build-by-numbers approach to filling every page in a catalogue, but from seeing gaps that already exist and bringing something else to the table, something more intrinsic. “I think we’re just trying to create different experiences to have on a snowboard,” Nicholas tells me, “different feelings.”

“At the very heart of it.” Nicholas Wolken lays out a textbook heelside carve in Laax (PC: Aaron Schwartz)

Of all these experiences, it’s perhaps their convention-bending range of Concept snowboards that most aptly fit this description. “When we started off,” Wolken explains, “the idea was to have that body where we could experiment and push for true innovation and not have to think about how many we had to sell, but rather to do something that was interesting for us, or where we saw there could be potential to create something new for snowboarding.”

Take the Pocket Rocket, for example. Here’s a snowboard that pushes its length:width ratios to an almost absurd extreme. Granted, it’s a long way from a daily driver but it brought something new into the mix. “We realised it works really well in slushy conditions and chopped up slopes that are really shitty to normally ride,” Nicholas tells me. “If you tune down the speed, you have a really turn-y board that floats like hell. It’s super fun.”

The Pocket Rocket (PC: Aaron Schwartz)

But vision is always ahead of execution – as it should be. Uncertainty is a virtue and not every concept or idea translated from paper to piste. When asked if certain protos were ever a complete disaster, Nicholas laughs. “For sure,’ he says. “You know how life is, we had a lot of times like that. It’s all part of the game. A good example was the first prototype of the Obelix. At first, it was designed with a wider nose than tail and a positive sidecut…”

For anyone with even the most basic grasp of snowboard design, alarm bells might be ringing. “We almost killed ourselves on that thing. It was so bad!” Nicholas says, almost sounding proud of his admission. “It took us three years to get to a point where we felt comfortable to release it. It wasn’t until I tried in in Japan, in really deep powder, when I realised this was probably the best powder board I’d ever ridden.”

“Sometimes they are impossible, but if you don’t try, you never know”

The Concept Line isn’t simply a practice in self-indulgence or catering to an adventurous niche in the market. What you need to know for the next piece is in your last piece. Your work is your guide. “A lot of the innovation comes from the Concept line,” Nicholas tells me. “Sometimes they are impossible, but if you don’t try, you never know.”

This kind of experimentation has led to a Formula One style of ‘trickle-down engineering’, where outside-of-the-box designs have been refined, tweaked and implemented into their flagship collection of snowboards – the Classic Line. Granted, we’re probably still some way off seeing Korua’s foray into edge-less snowboard constructions work their way into Classics any time soon, although the Tugboat, for example, served as a precursor of the incredibly popular Dart.

KORUA Shapes Tugboat
KORUA Shapes Dart

While many of the Classic snowboards take on more of a conventional outline, that word should still be used somewhat loosely. All Korua snowboards feature a wider than average waist width and their in-house ‘carving specific sidecut’, not to mention a notable absence of any true twins among the collection.

But with options like the Otto or the Transition Finder, even the most dedicated freestyle aficionados will find a snowboard that can lap up the jump line. “We have ambassadors who are more into park riding,” Nicholas says, “but they still wanted a board that carved well. That’s kind of how the Otto came to be.”

Stephan Maurer on the Otto (PC: Aaron Schwartz)

For those who like to keep their feet firmly planted on the ground and their edge cutting through the corduroy, the Café Racer or Trenchdigger are primed for building up G’s along the groomers. Both are constructed with full-length tip to tail cambers but the 165 size and 10-metre sidecut on the Trenchdigger make for an even longer, more drawn-out arc.

And then there’s the Pencil and Dart snowboards, two snowboards that have won the Whitelines 100 Awards in as many years. Their popularity has been, in large, down to their stand out performance in powder and on piste, without the need to resign them to the locker room when it’s anything less than perfect conditions. “The Pencil is just a bit more of an all-rounder,” explains Nicholas. It’s still possible to ride switch, and it has a bit more torsional stiffness, which holds up really well under higher speeds… whereas you can carve the Dart hard over the front foot and really crank it at the end to close off the turn.”

James Niederberger cranks a toeside turn on the KORUA Shapes Dart (PC: Aaron Schwartz)

For Nicholas, he views all the boards as part of a spectrum. “You can go more to the left side for powder, then more to the middle for carving, and the further to the right you go the more specific it gets.”

It’s out there, on the right, that you’ll find the Plus Line. This is Korua’s top shelf offering, where many of the Classic outlines are brought across, but phrases like ‘carbon multi-axial webbing’ make an appearance on the spec sheet and the lively red and white colourways are replaced by an altogether more serious black-on-black aesthetic. Maximum speed, minimum weight, power and performance are all dialled up to 11 to cater for the most discerning of snowboarding psychopaths.

The Bullet Train, for example, is Korua’s latest addition to the line and built with a titanium layer, which runs throughout the core, to virtually eliminate high-speed vibrations – something it was designed to encounter on every outing. “I look at the Bullet Train as a snowboard for someone who’s really into carving up early morning groomers,” Nicholas says. “It’s definitely more specialised, not like most of our other boards which can still ride the rest of the mountain, it’s for hard groomers and icy slopes. It’s a great carving board.”

(NACHT – A short film from KORUA Shapes featuring Nicholas Wolken riding the Bullet Train on a deserted piste at night.)

Of course, having the materials doesn’t guarantee the end result, but Wolken almost seems as passionate about the design and construction phases as anything else. “It’s about knowing how to mix them. I think that’s where our strength is. It’s like cooking a soup – you can use the same ingredients, but the measurement is what makes the difference.” It’s a relatable anecdote for us laymen, but you just know he’s underplaying the levels of knowledge and expertise that goes into every board. Making a soup is one thing; Korua are closer to creating the culinary equivalent of a Consommé of the corduroy.

“It’s about knowing how to mix them. I think that’s where our strength is. It’s like cooking a soup”

It’s been nearly a decade since Korua Shapes first launched and helped turn a new page in the snowboard industry. They’ve challenged conventions, pushed innovation and helped to reignite a culture of carving among all ages and abilities. “I don’t want to hop on any trends,” Nicholas says. “As long as we – the team and ambassadors – are stoked on it, we’ll go after what we like in snowboarding.”

KORUA Shapes crew (PC: Aaron Schwartz)

The conviction to follow their own path, fuelled by curiosity and creativity, is what has given the guys behind Korua Shapes their own unique, minimalist style. They have built a brand that has become globally recognised through the absence of any garish topsheet designs, through edits shot exclusively in black and white, and through nurturing a culture of snowboarding that reminds us that, sometimes, the feeling of leaving a perfect arc in the snow is more than enough to keep us coming back.

This isn’t a case of style over substance. The style is the substance. And, in snowboarding, we all know that style is the gold standard against which everything else is measured.

How are Korua staying true to this? Look between your bindings next time you’re strapped into any one of their snowboards and you’ll find the clue to the answer printed in a small passage of text by the sidewall:

“Happiness lies in the process of finding your matching shape. In this process there is no right or wrong nor a goal, since every character has different forms and every form has different characters. May you never find your perfect shape.”

As for Nicholas, when asked if he’d come any closer to finding it, his answer says as much about his own philosophies as the future of his brand.

“My favourite shape is always the one that’s not yet out there. That’s what keeps us going.”

Nicholas Wolken – still searching, still turning. (PC: Aaron Schwartz)

To find out more about Korua Shapes, click here.

To see our full list of snowboard reviews from Korua Shapes, click here.

Newsletter Terms & Conditions

Please enter your email so we can keep you updated with news, features and the latest offers. If you are not interested you can unsubscribe at any time. We will never sell your data and you'll only get messages from us and our partners whose products and services we think you'll enjoy.

Read our full Privacy Policy as well as Terms & Conditions.