The Birth of Air: A History of the Air Max 1
The Birth of Air: A History of the Air Max 1
- Words Pete Forester
- Date December 18, 2017
When Nike began as Blue Ribbon Sports in 1964 it was all about innovation. The Waffle Racer Bill Bowerman created in those first years put product focus on the athlete, creating sneakers that were first and foremost about performance and in dialogue with the sportsmen who wore them. But in 1978 Nike introduced its largest innovation to date with the Air Tailwind. Bowerman and Phil Knight were investigating better ways to have the shoes respond and they knew it would come down to the sole. So instead of just pouring rubber into waffle molds in their kitchen they incorporated air into the sole. The result was the Air program.
M. Frank Rudy helped develop Air for Nike, shopping his technology all over time and Nike wasn’t the first place that he went with his invention. Everyone else turned him down until he knocked on The Swoosh’s doors, who let him in. (This is the opposite story of adidas’ BOOST that was shopped to Nike first and rejected.) Thanks to his years at NASA, Rudy figured out how to take inert gas and pump it into a bubble that could be slotted into the sole of a sneaker. Nike took Rudy on and put the first Air bag in the Tailwind.
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From the outside, the Air Tailwind looks like any other running sneaker from the late 1970s, but hidden inside the off-white midsole is a pocket of air that extends most of the length of the shoe, providing bounce and response to the runner’s stride. It was a huge change and offered a unique experience at the height of running popularity. Customers grabbed pairs as quickly as they could be made, and the Tailwind family has survived to this day.
“AIR” is so synonymous with Nike and Jordan that just those three letters (in the right font) open a whole world of cultural understanding. You need only look to Virgil Abloh's "The Ten" collaboration between Nike and Off-White to see how that one word can catch the imagination and transform expectations and conventions into product at the height of the sartorial discourse. The “AIR” was about more than just a smoother ride, but about taking something that seemed impossible (“Bubbles? In the shoe?”) and turning it into a readily available product for a daily jog. It was magical.
The Tailwind put air in the sole, but Nike wanted to go further. They wanted the sole to be even lighter, even more responsive. The only way that would happen is if they took out entire sections of the sole and replaced it with nothing. Or, rather, more than nothing. They had to replace it with “AIR”.
So that's what they did.
Runners could feel the air, and they loved that, but Nike needed to do more than just put some bubbles in the shoes. As Nike designers created larger Air bags and placed them in new locations, the shoes were getting lighter and runners were liking the product more and more. But they wanted to do more. So they tapped an architect friend of theirs to change the game. That architect was Tinker Hatfield.
Hatfield was at the beginning of his career with Nike, a career that would ultimately reshape the entire landscape of sneaker design. This was years before he stepped in to take over the entire product line at Jordan for more than a decade, and before he had really worked with footwear at all. Hatfield joined Nike in 1981 as an architect to build out Nike spaces, a far cry from putting together tiny sculptures that live on customers’ feet.
Hatfield’s bosses came to him with a new mission: they wanted him to help create an entirely new class of sneakers, the Air Max. His directives were broad, so he began his journey broadly and skipped the pond over to Paris with the intent of searching out inspiration.
While wandering around Paris, Hatfield came across the Centre Georges Pompidou (aka The Pompidou Center), a multicultural complex finished in 1977 and generally reviled by Parisians at the time. Like all new things, the French hated the Pompidou Center when it first appeared, but over the last 40 years have come to cherish the building. This is a very typical French (and Parisian) response; a lot of Americans don’t realize the French even hated the Eiffel Tower for years (and it was originally red!).
What Hatfield saw in the Center was how the building’s designers, Renzo Piano, Richard Rogers and Gianfranco Franchini, had put all the internal workings of the building on the outside. Everything from plumbing, to the electrical work, to staircases, are placed on the outside of the building - each of these being elements that are typically hidden away (plus, they were all color coded so spectators can identify what each pipe and wire is for). Hatfield fell in love with the idea of revealing the magical inner workings of the building, and he decided that he had to show off the air bubble that made the Air program what it was. It wasn’t enough to have a bubble inside the shoe: we have to see it.
He packed up his sketchpad and returned to Oregon with his big new idea, and—like the museum he was inspired by—everybody at Nike hated it. Hatfield even told Netflix that he had coworkers who wanted to take his job. But he found an ally in the Director of Cushioning Innovation, David Forland, and they got to work.
The result wasn’t just an air bubble that was visible, but that window to the bubble added to the shoe’s function—the air bubble was no longer constrained by the foam around it, instead it could expand into the open holes and change its response to the runner—it shifted the relationship between crash and bounce and changed expectations of how much technology customers get to see.
That visible air bubble was a huge moment for Nike, but totally in line with Nike’s history. It was an audacious move that no other brand was willing to try, and it paid off—making the impossible possible always does. But the inspiration from the Pompidou Center didn’t end with bringing the inside out. The colors of the pipes also spoke to Hatfield. It wasn’t enough to make the air bubble visible—Hatfield wanted to make the shoe recognizable from far away. So he went flashy with the colors: red and blue. On their face, those two primary colors may not seem like too prescient a choice, but the original two colorways of Sport Red and Varsity Blue are so recognizable that often “Sport” and “Varsity” are forgotten and they’re just known as the Red and Blue Air Max 1s even as dozens of Air Max 1s in those colors have come after.
(We now know that the Air Max 1 wasn't the first design that Hatfield created inspired by his trip to Paris. He refined and balanced a totally different design for the upper but the technology didn't exist at the time to make manufacturing possible, so it was scrapped. That shoe would eventually show up three decades later as the Air Max Zero, but until then the design was lost to all but Nike insiders. Yellow, the third primary color with red and blue, appeared as the first colorway for the Air Max Zero, completing the fraternal trio.)
Over the years that the Air Max was developed (it wasn’t called the Air Max 1 until later models followed), the design continued to evolve and it evolved even after the initial release. When the shoe made its first debut the bubble looked more like an open flesh wound with torn stitches than it did a carefully crafted and designed sneaker element. But the shoe popped off. Nike changed the foam, they made that window a little more elegant, and the sneaker entered the pantheon of the most iconic shoes of all time.
For the most part.
If you’ve read previous Dry Clean Only Master Classes on Nike footwear you know that a Nike shoe doesn’t really take off for the better part of a decade, after The Swoosh decides to take a second look at it. The Pompidou Center was described by National Geographic as “Love at second sight,” because it took so long for the French to fall in love. Like its inspiration the Pompidou Center, when the world started getting their second taste of the Air Max 1, the hunger truly began.
In 2017 it’s nearly impossible to imagine a sneaker having a full life outside of re-releases and collaborations, but for the Air Max 1 that’s precisely what happened for decades. Nike didn’t bother retroing the sneaker until 1992 (even then it was in different materials). After that original retro, Nike began playing with the design in small ways. First, in 1996 they introduced a Jewel swoosh that replaced the original. The following year, a mini swoosh was embroidered onto the toe that stuck around for a few years. These two elements now come and go depending on the colorway or project that the Air Max 1 is involved in.
It wasn’t until 2002 that Nike was willing to open up the Air Max 1 to collaborators, and although the intervening 15 years has seen an incredible array of special colorways and unique takes on the shoe there are really only three names you need to know when it comes to the Air Max 1 collaborators: Japanese retailer Atmos, Dutch retailer Patta, and Dutch artist Parra. Although plenty of other collaborators have left their mark on the shoe (notably CLOT (2006, 2013), DJ Clark Kent (2008), and Kid Robot (2005)), the most sought after pairs across the board come from one of those three.
2002 saw the first collab on the shoe with Atmos’ “Safari,” a sneaker that became an instant classic and has demanded incredibly high resell prices since then. In a rare (but increasingly common) move, Nike brought the collaborative colorway back in 2016 with a few material adjustments but if you squint your eyes they look pretty similar. Atmos followed up the Safari pair with a brown and purple “Viotech” colorway in 2003, and then the “Supreme Animal Pack” in 2006. They hit again in 2007 with an elephant print and baby blue sneaker, a colorway that also returned to the masses in 2017. In 2013, Atmos played on the Air Max 1 once again with two very brash colorways that included a mash up of camouflages and animal textured leathers.
Parallel to Atmos’ work, Parra got the opportunity to create an Air Max 1 with Nike in 2005 and used the chance to create a sneaker inspired by his hometown of Amsterdam. Brown, burgundy, teal, and pink skate across the shoe in leather, suede and mesh—this one was rare, and gets rarer every year. Patta struck gold with the “Chlorophyll” Air Max 1s in 2009 that featured the same colorblocking as Hatfield’s originals but replaced the red and blue with green suede. Later that year Patta did it again, this time with purple denim. Then, in 2010, Patta and Parra teamed up on a pretty simple burgundy Air Max 1 with hits of teal, red, and yellow on the heel.
Every year Nike releases a bevy of special edition colorways, and with the establishment of the annual “Air Max Day” that celebrates the first release of the Air Max 1 on March 26th, these should only get more frequent. And for good reason. The Air Max 1 kicked off a family of sneakers that has reached from the 1, through the 90 and 180, all the way up to this year’s Air Vapormax. It’s still growing. The Air Max 1 alone celebrated its 30th anniversary this year, and aside from a blowout celebration and sneaker roll out coninciding with Air Max Day honoring Air Max models past and present, the 1 was given center stage—combining its history as a canvas for collaboration with the Air Max 1 “Master” mashup sneaker.
Cutting that tiny window in the sole of the first Air Max was a gamble for Nike, one that almost cost Hatfield his job. 30 years later we have a shoes whose entire soles are a bubble. Innovation is a process of exploration, huge ideas and risk couched in incremental change. The Air Max program has gone on to sell millions of sneakers and inspire obsessions for thousands of collectors, but it started with a bad idea and a couple pen lines on paper in front of Paris’ least favorite building.