Hayden Cox has built a career and a thriving international business based on challenging accepted wisdom and always looking for a better way of doing things.

13 October, 2023

It’s never been about change for the sake of change with Hayden Cox. Whether it be in his revolutionary surfboard design, or in any of his subsequent, often disparate design projects, it has always been about finding a better way of doing things rather than simply searching for a point of difference.

Innovation and performance have been the constant drivers for the designer since his earliest days – and don’t forget the importance of aesthetic appeal – that too has always been an essential ingredient in the Hayden Cox mix.

A questioning mind and a way of looking at things differently have long set Cox apart and have allowed him to approach ‘old problems’ from a new direction with extraordinary results. The story of his initial success is well known, bringing a completely new approach to the time-honoured and entrenched method of manufacturing surfboards which resulted in the patented FutureFlex technology and launched an international brand in the process.

The fact that surfboard design and construction had undergone precious little change in years was no deterrent to the young Cox, who was simply focused on finding a way of making surfboards perform better – even if that very approach flew in the face of convention. 

To the untrained, non-surfing eye, one surfboard looks much like another save for cosmetic board finishes and physical size. But to those who surf, including professionals the world over – Cox’s approach represented a quantum leap in how they performed, improving the board’s dynamics and response to rider input in the water.

By essentially taking the board’s spine (called a stringer) from within and creating what amounts to an exoskeleton of reinforcement around the outside of the board, its handling characteristics were dramatically changed for the better. 

Put in generic terms, it wasn’t so much a case of ‘reinventing the wheel’ as completely reimagining the way a wheel was constructed so that it would roll better. The proof, as in all good things, was in the actual application. It worked, and as a result won both popular and critical acclaim around the world, and now continues to be the benchmark in surfboard design.

That in itself would be a perfect end to a true success story, but Cox is not one to sit around and bask in past successes. 

To that end he has not only continued to refine and grow the surf side of the business, but has embraced new challenges that don’t seem to follow traditional lines of lateral integration – projects as diverse as fashion to furniture, artwork to interior design.

Inspiration has come from all manner of sources whether directly related to his field of endeavour or not. 

“Manufacturing in general really interests me personally,” says Cox. “After a tour of the [luxury watch] IWC Schaffhausen manufacturing facility in Switzerland a few years ago, I was really intrigued by the way precious metal offcuts were captured and repurposed which in turn really made me look at what I was doing within surfboards and how waste material could be reapplied in valuable ways.”

“I'm always open minded and looking for new ways to learn about how things can be done better.”

This revelation formed part of the catalyst for diving into repurposing waste from the surfboard manufacturing process – from components like fin boxes used in board design, to the buttons on some of his clothing line being produced from recycled waste material.

That willingness to learn and experiment underpins all of the ongoing endeavours at Haydenshapes and a host of other projects that seem to branch out at differing angles from the ‘mothership’. 

While projects like his high-end surfboard sculpture collaborations with contemporary artist Daniel Arsham contain an obvious link to surfboards, his work with the likes of  SP01 on the ‘Refract’ resin furniture concept seem significantly further removed from the surf – at first glance at least.

“It's funny that although some people might think my projects can be somewhat of a departure from one another, they are all actually linked by a common thread,” he says. 

The furniture is a perfect example, with the custom formulated surfboard resins used in the construction, the result of 25 years of working with resins in surfboard manufacture.

“I had learnt a lot about custom formulation of resin for the application of casting,” Cox says of initial experimentation with resin for applications other than surfboards.

“Through a lot of trial and error, our factory designed our own manufacturing processes and we’d become quite skilled in working with the material in this form. 

“The way that each piece is designed and how the resin intersects between the pieces was very intentional in how it would interact with light. Unlike glass or perspex, resin absorbs and refracts light in its own unique way so the design very much speaks to this interaction. They perform in their own right.”

Cox makes it sound simple, but like the development of the FutureFlex technology all those years ago, it is all a result of an ongoing process of experimentation. Playing it safe has never been part of the equation.

“There’s no point in me just doing what I did last time, even if what I did last time turned out great,” he says. “It’s a matter of continually trying to do better.”

This often involves a rigorous process of trial and error, but again, fear of failure has no place in the process of innovation and expansion.

“If you aren't making mistakes, you probably aren't trying new things,” he says, and to Cox that’s a situation that makes no sense at all.

True to his word, Cox has also applied his unique approach to great effect with interior design projects – from the spa at Crown Sydney in collaboration with Blainey North, to last year’s interior installation at the Gallery of New South Wales shop with Kelvin Ho and architects Akin Atelier as part of the SANAA designed Sydney Modern development. 

Both large-scale interior design projects that seem a world away from paddling to catch a perfect wave on a Haydenshapes board and yet make complete sense when seen in context.

“I personally love the uniqueness of resin for interior design I’m keen to continue working within this space,” he says, relishing the opportunity to keep exploring what is possible as he pushes the boundaries not just of his own expertise and experience but also of the materials he has worked with for so long.

But experimenting with new materials is just as rewarding for Cox and is also leading to new and better approaches to longstanding ‘accepted’ ways of doing things. His work with Australian designer Dion Lee on the humble wetsuit has again challenged the status quo. Called Haydenshapes Rubber by Dion Lee, the range of wetsuits not only bring a much needed flair to an item that has changed little in decades, but also employs Yamamoto limestone rubber instead of a petroleum-based product. 

Cox has also been working with The Woolmark Co. to incorporate Merino wool into a range of clothing lines, including into wetsuit design as an internal insulation material. The natural breathing properties of fine Merino wool make perfect sense for such an application, and once again show Hayden’s willingness to come at an existing situation from a different angle. Utilising a fine material like Merino wool into surf clothing and wetsuits also increases the value proposition, producing items that as Cox says, are 'designed to last a lifetime' and not be victim to passing trends.

That process of constant experimentation leading to innovation is just an obvious part of the equation to Hayden Cox – hardly surprising given that his first love and the very reason for Haydenshapes was and is the sea. It’s all about constantly moving forward.

“To me the idea of being stagnant is worse than giving something a go multiple times before you get it right.”

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