Nike Air Max Day is upon us, this year marks the 30th anniversary of one of the most iconic stories and sneaker lines. It’s hard to believe that 30 years has passed since the Air Max technology was first introduced, but its relevance and impact on contemporary footwear is unquestionable. Not only has the Air Max technology been influential in everything that has come after it, it’s also been a style staple throughout the years and will continue to be so with its rich story adding even more character. “Air Max” has got its own day on the calendar dedicated to celebrating its history and how the technology and design transcended footwear.
Nike has always had an eclectic palette from which their design inspirations have been drawn from, so it’s no surprise that Tinker Hatfield’s inspiration for the Nike Air Max line was the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris. Originally hired as a corporate architect designing office spaces, showrooms, and stores, Hatfield was asked to become a part of the shoe design team.
Hatfield himself said that all elements of design, architecture and shoe design included, are a culmination of art, science, and culture. On a visit to Paris, France, Hatfield came across one of the most controversial buildings in the French capital; Centre Georges Pompidou. This machine-like structure looked like it was inside out, everted with everything exposed. The building was also brightly colored so it could be noticed from far away and stand out. This beautiful disaster that Renzo Piano designed would become the inspiration that Hatfield would take back to Nike’s Beaverton Campus and then put the wheels in motion for what would be called, Nike Air Max and the iconic visible air unit.
Nike’s Air technology was already integrated into their shoes, but was hidden beneath the midsole materials and was not visible. Tinker Hatfield thought that as an industry leader and pioneer, Nike’s designs and Nike running shoes in particular, were being dictated by the market rather than breaking barriers and paving the way. What Hatfield sought to do was shake up the world of design and the way people looked at shoes.
The way Tinker Hatfield would go about doing this was to take the functionality and performance of the Nike running shoes and represent it in an aesthetic way. This is where the striking idea of the window feature and the visible air unit inspired by Piano’s Centre Georges Pompidou came into play.
As with anything that is against the grain, or anything that deviates from tradition there was a wave or critics and detractors who were not as enthusiastic about the design, even higher-ups within Nike were skeptical. The idea that the literal inner workings of the sneaker were to be exposed felt like the idea was too progressive and post-modern to many.
Although Tinker Hatfield was the one who designed the ‘window feature’ and visible Air-Sole unit, David Forland, the Director of Cushioning Innovation, was already working on improving the Air-Sole technology. Former NASA engineer Marion Frank Rudy is credited with actually creating the Air technology. It evolved because Forland found that he could add more air by rotating the bag that enclosed it; eventually giving birth to the ‘Air Max’ which was able to hold more air then any of its predecessors.
Forland was able to innovate and inject more air into the Air-Sole unit to give more cushioning, and also lessen the foam in the midsole as much possible without sacrificing the sneakers durability and performance. Gradually the visible Air-Sole unit was extended and able to be extended to the forefoot of the shoe as well as the heel, and then even further to the entire sole, and then even further with the complete elimination of foam and a full-length Air-Sole unit. Quite literally, you were running and walking on air.
The Air Max 1 featured an air sole unit with a visible window. Iconic first. Air sole unit in forefoot wrapped in foam and wasn’t visible.
The third installment of the Air Max line became so iconic it skipped a number and became known as the Air Max 90, on account of its debut year. The window got bigger, the upper's overlays got split, and a classic was born.
Larger Air unit, larger window. Air sole unit in forefoot wasn’t visible.
Air sole unit and outsole join without disruption, air sole was visible from the bottom.
Blow molding is introduced. Air-Soles could be created without the need for air pressure. Air-Soles could now take the shape of the shoes forefoot; meaning they could introduce blow-molded Air-Sole units at the forefoot.
Air sole unit visible at the back, blow molded forefoot air-sole unit introduced but not visible.
Inspired by human anatomy, the Air Max 95 featured a visible Air Unit at the front for the first time.
Full-length Air-Sole unit.
Full-length Air-Sole unit with no foam!
Many people credit the Air Max 1 as being the first in the illustrious line of Nike Air Max shoes to feature the groundbreaking visible Air Unit. A little known fact, however, the Air Max Zero was in actuality designed before the 1’s - only to be put on hold. Tinker Hatfield knew that this revolutionary innovation and design would be hard for some to wrap their heads around and admire, and although he wanted to take his radical idea as far as he could, even he admitted that the Air Max Zero was a step too far.
Hatfield felt that there were too many progressive ideas infused into the shoe that would make it too drastic a first step. Incredibly, almost 30 years later the shoe was released and few would have felt that the shoe was designed in 1987. This is a telling tribute of the ingenuity of Tinker Hatfield, a visionary years ahead of his time.
So, the Nike Air Max Zero was placed on hold only to be officially released in 2016. The Nike Air Max 1 then would become the first commercially introduced running shoe that featured the Nike Air-Sole technology with Visible Air unit. The next step was bringing this revolutionary technology to the people. Nike was a marketing machine and already had phenom, Michael Jordan, donning their NBA-banned Air Jordan 1 silhouette as well as their Air Force 1’s (that’s a whole other story). Nike definitely had the pull power to influence the youth and athletes alike. Many would consider the Nike Air Max 1 to be the first mass marketed shoe.
Nike utilized the talent on their roster and created an ad campaign around the Air Max and visible Air-Sole unit. The visible air-unit was a window, a gateway to the future, a symbol of Nike’s unrivaled research and engineering in sportswear. For their now famous TV 1987 Nike Air Max 1 ad, Nike would use Beatles’ hit record, ‘Revolution’ as the soundtrack, fitting considering it resonated with the revolution that the Nike Air Max 1 was leading. This was also the first time that a Beatles song was used in an ad, making the commercial all the more powerful.
Nike’s Air Max release would kick off a sneaker sub-culture. With each release of a Nike Air Max silhouette, they would add more Air to their shoes, taking away the foam midsoles and replacing them with the ability to walk on ‘Air’. More Air meant greater cushioning upon impact, more spring, less stress, and the upper hand in competition for those that wore Nike Air Max shoes.
Any athlete rocking the Nike Air Max’s wasn’t wearing just a shoe, they were part a movement, a movement that transcended the innovation of air in shoe for greater cushioning. The appeal of the shoe wasn’t only the revolutionary technology Nike had integrated into the styling, but also the sneakers ability to look good with so many different color combinations. This customizable and personal feel to the shoe made it even more popular, it’s hard to think of any color that an Air Max model has not been dressed in.
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