‘To the art of working well, a civilized race would add the art of playing well,” philosopher George Santayana said.
For those with means, pursuing leisure can involve the finest components. Beautiful materials and craftwork can take these items into the realm of art.
“The market for these high-end sporting items is extremely fractured. No one is authentically showcasing these exceptional artisans in a way that celebrates their superior craftsmanship,” says Pippa McArdle, co-founder of Bespoke Global, which sells custom-made home furnishings and accessories.
So what does play look like, at the luxury end of the spectrum?
WATER SPORTS: As journalist Tom Brokaw said, “If fishing is a religion, fly fishing is high church.” Aficionados appreciate the craftsmanship of Willow Reels, started in Clarkston, Mich., by Chris Reister. He makes classic fly fishing reels out of aircraft-grade aluminum, brass and ebony, redwood or maple burl. You can buy the reels laser-cut with scroll, tribal or flower motifs, or have your own design inlaid. ( www.bespokeglobal.com)
In Blue Ridge, Ga., Bill Oyster’s eponymous company makes supple bamboo fly rods that he sells worldwide. Former President Jimmy Carter has one. The reel seats are hand-engraved, the cane is flamed to add spring and resilience, the finish guides are bronze and the hardware is blued, an electrochemical process that protects against rust. (www.oysterbamboo.com)
And then there are boats. Nick Schade, a designer and boat builder in Groton, Conn., draws inspiration from early Inuit and Aleut designs, crafting kayaks and canoes from a variety of cedars, fiberglass and carbon-Kevlar cloth. His Night Heron kayak is in the Museum of Modern Art’s permanent collection. ( www.woodenboats.com)
Plying the waters in a human-powered vessel requires a fine paddle; Sanborn Canoe, a Minnesota-based outfitter, offers some elegant ones, with names like Minnetonka and Gitchi Gummi. Made of woods like cedar, aspen and black walnut, they’re painted with striking graphics that might leave you wondering whether to dip them in the water or mount them on the wall. ( sanborncanoe.com)
LAND SPORTS: Are teams chasing balls more your thing? Weekend gridironers might like one of the footballs or baseballs made by Leather Head Sports, started by Cooperstown, N.Y., homeboy Paul Cunningham. Rawhide-laced, in colors ranging from classic tawny caramel to royal blue and red, the balls are made of leather from the Horween company in Chicago.
Leather Head also makes the Lemon Ball Baseball, inspired by the original 19th century lemon-peel-style ball.
Hit a home run with one of Jamey Rouch’s bats made of pieced cherry and walnut that comes from near his studio in Three Rivers, Mich. (Leather Head and Rouch: www.bespokeglobal.com)
Kara Ginther’s hand-tooled bike seats and saddle bags elevate cycling to another level. Leaves, fronds, Scottish knitting patterns and even zodiac patterns have inspired her designs. ( www.karaginther.com)
The look and feel of California 1950s surf culture can be found in purple heart, mahogany and walnut beach racquet paddles, outfitted with leather grips and loops. ( www.artemare.co)
Remote-control vehicles at the luxury end are more like mini versions of real cars, with quality elements like titanium shocks, steel gears and leather seats. Retailers offer off-road vehicles, slick sports cars and speedboats, including several from high-end maker Traxxas which zoom at speeds up to 100 mph. ( www.trendtimes.com)
AIR SPORTS: Once the sport of kings, falconry has developed a modern following in groups like The North American Falconers Association. Ken Hooke of Winnipeg, Manitoba, may be falconry’s pre-eminent craftsman, making hoods for the sporting birds.
The hoods are placed over the birds’ heads to calm them. Hooke makes them out of calf, goat and exotic skins such as ostrich, iguana and red monitor lizard. ( www.bespokeglobal.com; www.falconryhoods international.com)
TABLE SPORTS: Alexandra Llewellyn was introduced to backgammon by her Egyptian step-grandfather. It became a lifelong passion, and she now designs eye-catching sets with photographic images of pheasant feathers, antlers and vintage female portraits.
“Growing up in the country, I’ve collected pheasant feathers for years. The peacock feather design was inspired by the game’s Persian roots, and the carnival and nude women evoke gambling and nightclubs in the 1920s,” Llewellyn says.
She recently made a custom backgammon set that documented a couple’s life together. “Their first date, where they lived and their nationalities inspired the artwork,” she says. “The leather compartments were embossed with hand-written quotes from their love letters, and the playing pieces were engraved with the places they’ve traveled over the years.”
She also offers custom game pieces made of malachite, rock crystal, lapis lazuli, turquoise or jasper, encased in brass. ( www.alexandralldesign.com)
Hattrick backgammon sets, popular with professional players, are offered with white, blue, red or green leather playing fields, marbleized acrylic playing pieces and gold-plated case locks at www.zontikgames.com .
Chess fans know how dismaying it can be when an ongoing game gets jostled. Hammacher Schlemmer offers a wall-mounted board complete with acrylic shelves and rosewood and boxwood pieces that will keep the action safe for days or weeks. ( www.hammacher.com)
Foosball is for more than college pubs. High-end Italian game-table maker Teckell offers crystal, walnut and even 24-karat gold in their collection. ( www.teckell.com)
Billiard Toulet has designed the Lambert pool table, crafted of sleek stainless steel, with a top that slides on when play is over. A soundproofed ball return and tournament-grade cloth are part of the package, but you can add an LED light set as an option. ( www.quantum-play.com)
The makers of the chess set used by 1972 champions Boris Spassky and Bobby Fischer also make a range of other board games, including Scrabble, Monopoly, Trivial Pursuit and Risk. They’ll create custom games using exotic leathers like alligator with stingray, nickel, gold or even diamond finishes. ( www.geoffreyparker.com)
And for armchair speed demons, consider Stock Car Racing Simulator, which puts you at realistic controls to zoom around one of 21 legendary courses, including the Daytona International Speedway. ( www.hammacher.com)