Faceted Wooden Cars Join Bucky Fuller And Cali Surfer Culture

Jay Nelson finds art in the act of tinkering; where others draw, he actually builds as he goes, creating charming geodesic domes that roll on wheels and float on water.

If Buckminster Fuller had been a California surfer dude, his buildings would’ve looked a lot like the weird, whimsical, and distinctly indigenous pods of San Francisco artist Jay Nelson. Nelson has the market cornered on turning vehicles, whether a scooter or a cruddy old Honda coupe, into delightfully awkward mash-ups of geodesic domes and ’50s-era Woodies. And yeah, some of the wheels even work. (Though anyone who doesn’t have a death wish will want to stay off the 101 on that scooter.)


“I’m a painter,” says Nelson, who studied at Bard and CCA and, before that, on the beaches of Southern California, with a surfboard. “I came to building these structures as a lighthearted side project to my art work. I was trying to imagine how vehicles and structures could function better for my needs.”

His first hack was his white Honda Civic, which had a broken back window, so he souped it up with a bulbous camper made out of plywood and vaguely reminiscent of a giant beehive. When he started, he had no idea what he was doing. “I like the idea of not knowing how to do the project and learning as I go,” he tells Co.Design. “I’m a lot more inspired by structures that are made without an understanding of any traditional building technique.”

“I’m inspired by structures made without traditional building techniques.”

Nelson has managed to parlay his blissful ignorance into a full-blown pod-making career. He has built a surfboard dock on the back of a moped; converted an old fishing vessel he bought in Point Reyes into a cabin that wouldn’t look out of place on the set of The Life Aquatic (incidentally, the boat doesn’t sail anymore, so it actually is something of a set piece); and, most impressively, balanced what looks like a wood-paneled Airstream on a bunch of bike or motorcycle wheels. Bonus: It’s electric! His pods aren’t limited to vehicles. As The Bold Italic reports, he’s building a three-story treehouse in Hawaii for a pair of surfing buddies. Sometimes, he shows in galleries around the Bay.

His process is always some variation on the following:

I start by imagining what I want to make. I then draw the project, and I try to imagine how I will build it as I’m drawing. To start construction I just jump right in it and try not to overthink things. I’ve found that if you think too much you tend to never start or become intimidated by the project.

The first step is to build a skeleton. While building the skeleton I make somewhat final decisions about what the shape will be. As I’m building I play with the form adding and subtracting pieces of the skeleton. Then I cover the skeleton with plywood. Next I fill all the cracks with filler and sand all the edges clean. After that I fiberglass it. When the fiberglass dries I cut holes for all the windows and build in windows and waterproof.

Glancing over Nelson’s projects, we’re struck by how brazenly Californian they are. Only in California — and in San Francisco in particular — would a wooden Airstream on tiny wheels not look out of place puttering around the streets. Here, on the fringe of absurdity, a seductive optimism emerges. Joan Didion, California’s best and harshest critic, once wrote ironically — and we’re paraphrasing — that the American Dream had better come true in California, because there’s nowhere else to go; it’s literally where the continent runs out. Nelson’s clunky little podmobiles seem to be an open invitation to hop inside and keep on going forever.

[Images courtesy of Jay Nelson]


About the author

Suzanne LaBarre is the editor of Co.Design. Previously, she was the online content director of Popular Science and has written for the New York Times, the New York Observer, Newsday, I.D