Surf Shacks 075

Jeff Johnson + Kara Thoms Johnson
Santa Barbara, CA

On a late spring afternoon I drove up the coast to pay Jeff, Kara and their daughter Adler a visit at their restored A-frame abode. We had an especially wet winter that finally pulled us out of a near-decade-long drought so the scents of sage, eucalyptus and other blooming native foliage were heavy in the air. I have a deep love for Santa Barbara and the Central Coast region in general, but I soon realized that my local knowledge of the area was limited to the coastline. As the Google Maps app instructed me to veer inland, twenty minutes uphill in first gear along a steep, winding switchback road, I was surprised by the new terrain. This was not the Santa Barbara I knew — it felt more like a state park road in the mountains of Colorado! Jeff Johnson has achieved living legend status in the outdoor community so this journey to his house began to make sense. A former North Shore lifeguard, turned ambassador for Patagonia, he became known for documenting his personal adventures in projects like “Bend To Baja” and more notably, “180° South.” Kara on the other hand is a model from New Zealand who found a new career path as a fashion designer with her own line of heirloom dresses and other unique, timeless wares. As I reached their secluded “neighborhood” at the top of the hill, I looked back and admired the stunning view of the Pacific, which seemed to span Long Beach to Point Conception from the high vantage point. In awe of the whole scene (and the dramatic route up there), it became clear to me that Jeff and Kara’s place perched up on the edge of Los Padres National Forest was truly a hidden gem — a fitting home discovery that was earned by two worthy adventure seekers.

Matt Titone
Matt Titone
Matt Titone

Who are you? Tell us a little about yourself.

I’m a skater first. Then I guess I’m a photographer, writer, surfer, climber, in no specific order.

Where are you from?

I grew up in a town called Danville in Northern California, East Bay San Francisco.

How did you two meet?

We met in Santa Monica. Kara was a friend of a friend. When I walked into this dive bar, there was an open seat right next to Kara. I think my friends were setting us up.

How long have you had this place in the hills of Santa Barbara? How did you find it and what drew you to the area in the first place?

We have lived here for two years. It was a run down, basically abandoned A-Frame that was built in 1977. It was in pretty bad shape, so we put a ton of work into it. We knew what we could do to it. Kara had a great vision. What you see is her eye and her ideas. We wanted to be out of town in a more natural, rugged environment, live closer to nature. We were even thinking of moving to the eastern Sierra. This was perfect. It feels like we’re far away, but town is just a 20 minute drive down the hill.

Matt Titone
Matt Titone
Matt Titone
Matt Titone
Matt Titone

Your house is so beautiful inside and out. What renovations have you done since you’ve owned it?

We basically gutted the entire thing and rebuilt the deck. The yard hadn’t been maintained in like 30 years. Clearing the yard was a huge job.

What are your favorite parts about Santa Barbara and the area in which you live?

I like that it’s close enough to LA so we can tap in down there. It’s a city with a small town feel. We love the people.

Santa Barbara has been through a lot in recent years with especially devastating fire seasons. How is the community recovering? How have you and other local residents responded and adapted?

Yeah, it’s been pretty crazy. The community has definitely come together really strong. Santa Barbara seems like a place where nothing ever happens then suddenly it was a disaster area. People really pulled together.

What is a typical “day in the life” when you are at home?

Get up at 5:00 am, meditate, read and/or write, make breakfast and eat with my daughter and wife. Drop our girl off at school, come back home and work, surf if there are waves, more work, maybe do some bouldering around the house in the afternoon. Make dinner, build a fire in my wood burning stove. Watch a documentary on Netflix.

You are both busy souls with a lot going on. How do you achieve balance in your lives?

It’s tough. We both work from home so it’s always lingering. It’s too easy to check an email, or a text. We have to force ourselves to shut off, go for a walk, drive down the hill to the beach. We try and get away on weekends and travel as much as we can.

Matt Titone
Matt Titone

“I hated switching over to digital photography. I thought I had found a career that didn’t involve computers. The biggest difference is just the time you spend indoors on the computer. With film, you’d shoot, drop it off at the lab, go out and shoot more, or play — or whatever. It’s horrible sitting in one place for hours starring at the screen. In some ways, social media is super cool. I get to share photos that never see the light of day. I also get to see a ton of photos that I’d otherwise never see. But in the end, I feel social media is pretty bad for us. We’re so disconnected.”

Matt Titone

Jeff, your life seems to center around travel and adventure. Were you always such an outdoorsman and adventurous spirit, even in your youth?

Yeah, I think that spirit started with my dad. He is an expert skier and was getting me on these crazy missions up to Lake Tahoe to ski when I was a kid. Sometimes they were just day trips — leave at four in the morning and come home at 10pm. I was like 4-5 years old doing this and it’s still that way with me, get up early and make it a big day. Then skateboarding is where I got my independence. It was the eighties and we had no parks to skate, so my friends and I had to get out there to find spots to skate, this meant traveling pretty far from home. 12-13 years old thumbing rides, riding public transport, going into the big city. By the time we had our drivers licenses we had a huge network of friends spanning the entire Bay Area where our peers hadn’t even left home yet without being accompanying by their parents. That spirit has been with me forever.

What was it like being a lifeguard on the North Shore? What is one of your craziest or most memorable experiences during that time?

I didn’t graduate from college so I look at those years as my education. I was fortunate to work the beach with some of my biggest heroes at some of my favorite surf spots, Mark Cunningham at Pipe, Mark Dombrowski at Waimea Bay, Roger Erickson at Sunset. When I was on the west side my captain was Brian Keaulana and I worked Makaha Beach when his dad Buff was still holding court. These were some of the best watermen in the world and it was such an honor to learn what I could from them.

The craziest rescue I ever had was my first one. There was a kid way outside on the outer reefs drifting toward Kauai in the rip. Sunset was completely closed out. I had to paddle out on the rescue board to get him in. Luckily it all worked out.

When did you first get into photography?

I got my first real camera in 1999. I was writing before that, getting my first stories published in the Surfer’s Journal. I felt photography was the next logical step for storytelling.

Matt Titone
Matt Titone
Matt Titone

Patagonia has always been such an inspiring company to me. You’ve had a very influential role in shaping their brand over the years. How did you first get involved with Patagonia and what was it like working with them?

That’s a long story, but I’ll try and make it short. First of all, Patagonia influenced me, then when I started working there I might have had some influence on the company. I first started as a product tester, mostly for board shorts because I basically lived in them. Then I wrote a few things for them and they started publishing some of my photos. I did a surf trip with Yvon and his son Fletcher in 2004. They told me they were going to re-launch their surf component again. I knew that they had done this 4 times already and failed. I knew they were going to fail again unless they took a different approach. I began putting together a plan for the Malloys and I to join forces with them. Long story short we all got hired in 2004 to develop the surf component to the brand. We were involved in both the developing of product and the marketing.

What other brands have you been working with more recently these days?

I’ve been working with Saint Archer Brewing Co. since they started. I do stuff for Leica camera. As for clothing I work with a brand called Hill City up in San Francisco and I just signed on with my good friends at Roark.

I’ve also been very inspired by your personal projects: Bend to Baja and 180° South. A lot of people dream of and talk about doing epic trips like these, but you actually do them AND document them beautifully. What is your creative process like for these types of “adventure memoirs?”

I like to have a rough plan, then just leave and see how it unfolds. I like to be loose and nimble — you don’t want to be too structured or else you will miss the good stuff, the real stuff.

I didn’t realize you were so into skateboarding. What inspired your latest book project?

I got an email in 2007 with a link to YouTube. It was a video of my buddies and I skating a backyard pool back in 1987. This was before Facebook. The guys cc’ed on the email list started scanning their photos and adding them to the email chain. I started pulling the photos onto my desk top I saw something very unique in these images, subtle and naive. I decided to make a book out of them. I had never seen anything in skateboarding form the 80’s era depicting the everyday skaters. It was such a defining time for skateboarding, when it went underground and went hand in hand with punk rock. I’ve been working on the thing for 10 years now. So stoked to see it come to fruition.

As such an avid traveller, how has your life changed now that you’ve planted roots with starting a family and owning a home.

Yeah, there’s definitely a lot of change. But we still travel a lot — it’s really important to get our little girl out and experience the world. I still surf and climb — not as much as I used to, but I still get after it.

For someone who has been creating “content” for most of your life, what have been the biggest changes affecting how you work in the digital / social media age?

I hated switching over to digital photography. I thought I had found a career that didn’t involve computers. The biggest difference is just the time you spend indoors on the computer. With film, you’d shoot, drop it off at the lab, go out and shoot more, or play — or whatever. It’s horrible sitting in one place for hours starring at the screen. In some ways, social media is super cool. I get to share photos that never see the light of day. I also get to see a ton of photos that I’d otherwise never see. But in the end, I feel social media is pretty bad for us. We’re so disconnected. And I really feel for kids these days having their experiences tainted by having to record it. It really sucks the beauty out of it. But I feel there’s going to be a backlash with kids coming of age. I think the new generation is going to be over it, like if you’re on social media you’re not cool. I think it’s already happening.

Matt Titone
Matt Titone
Matt Titone

Kara, what is the story behind your clothing line? How did you first get into fashion design?

Growing up my mother sewed all my clothes, this helped plant the seed in me. When I grew up I started modeling from age 19 to 38, it took me all over the world and exposed me to a lot. Tired of fashion trends I would rather hunt for one of a kind vintage pieces. I always wanted to design ethically made womens clothing and inspired by the vintage pieces I’d collected and loved, I created Kara Thoms.

At what point did it become a career for you?

My life as a model basically ended when we had our baby girl, I just didn’t want to be away from her, I was so done with the jet setting I wanted to focus on being a mum. Setting up a business I could do from home seemed ideal, plus I really wanted the challenge, modeling had left me creatively unfulfilled for so long. The year prior I had slowly started designing and setting up Kara Thoms Boutique, it was so over whelming at first, but I just committed and chipped away at it and launched April 2017 when our daughter was just 1.5 and a month after we had moved into our newly remodeled Mountain home.

Where do you draw creative inspiration from?

Oooh so many places, I love traveling because of this, especially love people watching in London and Paris. However the ethos of the brand is very rooted in the old world and I would say California has had a big impact: the weather, the nature, the temperature — it’s “prairie chic!”

What was it like growing up in Fiji? Then New Zealand?

I am so thankful to have been able to experience two cultures growing up, my mother is from Fiji and my dad is from the South Island in New Zealand, they’re actually quite opposite worlds… Fiji is probably the most laid back place on earth with the happiest people on earth, I try to carry that with me.

Growing up in New Zealand we were doing a lot of the same things kids were doing everywhere, I grew up on the north shore of Auckland, the biggest city in NZ.

I spent most of my time outside of school sailing until I was age 15. The culture back then was quite heavily focused on rugby, and myself and my friends were in effect drawn to a different kinda culture, snowboarding, surfing, skating, smoking weed and listening to punk rock of the 90”s! My husband hates this music, since he is more of an 80’s punk rocker. We mostly were exploring the endless nooks and crannies, camping and having fun, New Zealand is just so perfect for that.

What are the biggest cultural (and environmental) differences between NZ and California?

California has millions more people than New Zealand and that changes a place dramatically. In NZ there are just so many natural places: national parks, bush walks, beautiful beaches where you might only see one other person. It’s pretty untouched and very green.

Culturally when you are a Kiwi, you feel like your part of this small village on an island in the South Pacific, the Maori culture is very much alive and unique, I think it’s very special that the pakeha (white people) of New Zealand actually take pride in the Maori heritage.

It must be a challenge running your own creative business and being a new mom. How has your process changed since having Adler?

Life as a mum and the brand Kara Thoms were pretty much birthed together so its all new… Sometimes it’s a juggle, I want and try to always be a present mum, Jeff travels a lot so it’s really important. I work nights a lot, when she was younger I would hire help, it’s easier now that she is in pre-school and I have employees.

Matt Titone
Matt Titone

Any parting thoughts, words of wisdom, or sage advice?

Jeff: Get up early. And if you find out the plan you made is going to be shitty, still go and do it.

Kara: Small steps! It all seems so overwhelming at first, making way for procrastination, but if you can tackle one thing at a time, believe in what you are doing and hopefully love what you are doing soon it won’t feel like work.

Discover more creative surfers’ homes in our books; Surf Shacks® Vol. 1, and Vol. 2 out now!


Matt Titone

A goofy-footed graphic designer who hails from the first state, Delaware. After attending Flagler College in St. Augustine, FL then graduating from SCAD in Savannah, GA with a BFA in Graphic Design and Illustration, Matt moved to NYC and found work as a freelance designer and art director. In 2006 he moved west to Venice, CA where he co-founded ITAL/C Studio and now resides a bit further north in Oxnard.

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