The story of how Tinker Hatfield used inspiration derived from a building in Paris – the Georges Pompidou Centre – as the point of reference for crafting the very first Air Max is but one of only a hundred sneaker origin tales which rely on unlikely source material.
The very best footwear designers don’t limit themselves to the confines of fashion. Rather, they absorb, reappropriate and redefine what a shoe looks like by looking at just about anything else.
Whether it’s the animal kingdom, high-octane machinery or more mundane designs that actually proved the most impactful in all of sneaker culture, there is no limit to what will inspire the next “big thing.”
For budding designers, here are 10 of the most unexpected sneaker influences in history.
Shoe: Nike Waffle Trainer
It would be blasphemous to start exploring unlikely design references and not lead with Bill Bowman’s legendary waffle iron which literally forged the Nike empire.
At the time, Bowerman was the track coach at the University of Oregon. The running surface at Hayward Field had been switched from cinder to an artificial-surface and he wanted to explore using a type of footwear that didn’t require metal spikes – which at the time were a fixture on track footwear.
Bowerman’s wife, Barbara, recalled that fateful morning in 1974 when her husband had that billion dollar eureka moment that would result in the creation of the Nike Waffle Racer.
“As one of the waffles came out, [Bill] said, ‘You know, by turning it upside down — where the waffle part would come in contact with the track — I think that might work. So he got up from the table and went tearing into his lab and got two cans of whatever it is you pour together to make the urethane, and poured them into the waffle iron.”
For the better part of 40 years, Nike executives had tried to track down the piece of equipment to no avail.
However, this waffle maker in question was discovered by Bowerman’s daughter, Melissa, in 2010, after finding it poking out of the ground. She then remembered that her father often buried junk because their house sat atop a steep slope and garbage trucks didn’t visit.
The waffle iron is currently in Nike’s possession after they agreed to donate money to build a pole-vault pit at Condon-Wheeler high school where Bill Bowerman’s grandson, Conlan, ran track.
Shoe: Air Jordan XI
The Air Jordan XI has endeared itself to sneakerheads for its diversity; with the ability to play ball and then attend a black tie event without having to switch footwear. Thus, one would think that the origins for the sneaker lay in something sleek like a black panther or elegant like a sports car.
But when it comes to Tinker Hatfield, he’s not looking at things the same way we are.
“It was a push mower but it was designed beautifully and it really provided some of the inspiration for the Jordan XI because the lawn mower has to be really rugged,” Hatfield said. “You have to push it through the grass. You’re bumping into the house. You’re bumping into the fence. And it’s got to be real tough around the edge. Maybe the top of it doesn’t take so much abuse, so you can have a little more fun with color, and that’s exactly what this lawn mower design did. Then I finally came across this higher quality patent leather that actually was not only shiny, but was also tough, scratch resistant and it would flex without cracking. It reminded me of that lawn mower, how the bottom edge of that lawn mower was really tough and designed to work in the conditions of mowing the lawn. I located [the patent leather] around the whole bottom third of the shoe for all those same reasons. It was actually an appropriate material to use on the shoe for basketball. So I was then able to justify bringing shininess into a basketball shoe, because this particular material made it all work. I brought this design back to Michael, and the first thing he said out of his mouth was ‘Yeah, now we’re talking. Now you got it.’”
Shoe: Nike Roshe Run
When it debuted in 2012, the Nike Roshe Run was the perfect blend of Nike innovation and the move toward more lifestyle-driven products.
Designed by Dylan Raasch – who was energized by the challenge of meeting both aforementioned needs at a lower price point – he looked toward his own life as a source of inspiration.
“Since I was young I have practiced meditation, so the concept of Zen and simplicity plays a big part in my life,” he said. “The inspiration and name comes directly from the word ‘Roshi,’ which is a title given to a Zen master. And to me, nothing really epitomizes simplicity better than a Zen master. For legal reasons, we had to change the ‘i’ to an ‘e,’ but it is still pronounced the same so it worked for me. From there, I designed the shoe to be as simple as possible by keeping only what was absolutely necessary. For a running silhouette, it turns out you don’t need much: quarter support, heel support and some cushioning. Once the unnecessary elements were removed, it was an exercise of sculpting and refinement. I pictured the Zen master meditating in his Zen garden and used the shapes and color for inspiration. The bottom of the outsole uses the Nike natural motion waffle pattern, but I wanted them to look like stepping stones in the garden. The insole was designed to mimic a freshly raked Zen rock garden. The original iguana colorway played off the natural dark green moss and leaves and the off-white rocks of a Zen garden. Even the midsole profile of the medial and lateral side is slightly different to create a juxtaposition of seriousness and playfulness.”
Shoe: Nike Air Max CB94
Charles Barkley famously reminded parents that he was not a role model for their children in 1993 – four full years before he launched a guy through a plate glass window.
Known for his tenacity, Barkley’s signature shoe, the Nike Air Max CB94, featured elements meant to represent the straps on a straitjacket which played up his “unstoppable” image on the court and Barkely’s own design challenge to present better lockdown on the forefoot that was achieved with reinforced lace locks and teeth-like outriggers.
Shoe: Nike Air Max 95
Nike footwear designer, Sergio Lozano, looked toward the anatomy of the human body when conceptualizing the Air Max 95 in an attempt to add a “story” to his stated desire to present forefoot visible air.
“All I had to do was pick the links that made the most sense,” Lozano said.
Drawing from attributes like human ribs to create the lace loops, vertebrae in the form of the midsole, and muscles and skin represented in the mesh elements, the shoe has a distinct bodily feel without feeling overdone or over designed.
Water skiing boots
Shoe: Nike Huarache
There are few basketball images as everlasting as that of the Fab Five dressed in their baggy shorts and neoprene-infused Nike Huarache’s which were designed by Tinker Hatfield and Eric Avar in 1992.
Like previous sneakers, Hatfield found unlikely inspiration – choosing to even disregard land as elements that figured into the design process.
“So the Huarache concept came out of a singular experience I had,” recalled Hatfield. “This doesn’t always happen this way. But I was water-skiing one day, and I was sitting in the water slalom skiing. Both feet were actually in these neoprene booties, and you’re strapped in. So I’m getting ready to get pulled out of the water, and I got yanked up and either the boat wasn’t going fast enough or I wasn’t doing something right, but I crashed. So I’m sitting there, waiting to get pulled up again, and I’m looking down, and I’m just kind of waiting, and I’m looking at how these neoprene booties sort of fit nicely around [my feet]. They just sort of conform around anybody’s ankle. The neoprene bootie in a water ski fits a bunch of different people, so I’m thinking, ‘That’s kind of cool,’ and then … whup! In the middle of that thought, all of a sudden I’m skiing again. So afterwards, I skied on, and then I got out of the water, and I was just looking at the booties, and I’m just going, ‘That’s one of the problems we have with shoes, they don’t really conform to different shapes of feet very well,’ and I said, ‘Neoprene does that.'”
P-51 Mustang Fighter
Shoe: Air Jordan V
Although the “teeth-like” flame pattern on the midsole of the Air Jordan V could simply be perceived as a flourish stemming from the mind of Tinker Hatfield, his design process has always dictated that story elements explain various choices.
In this case, the design references patterns found on the nose of Boeing’s P-51 Mustang Fighter which proved instrumental in helping the Allies win World War II.
In the book Driven from Within, Hatfield explained, “[Michael] would be floating around the edges of the game and come out of nowhere to attack. The British Spitfires and American fighter planes from World War II had nose art on them. The pilots would paint flames or tiger teeth as a way to frighten the enemy a little bit, but also to individualize their efforts.”
When it came time to put his plans into motion, Hatfield and the other designers were initially baffled how to achieve the effect, stating “the developers were all irritated because it was so difficult to create a midsole that had flames on it. We literally didn’t know how to it at the time.”
Shoe: Air Force 1
Whereas Tinker Hatfield looked to the aforementioned Georges Pompidou Centre in Paris to conceptualize the visible air unit in the Air Max 1, Nike designer, Bruce Kilgore, also looked to another storied Parisian structure when trying to figure out how to make the Air Force 1 more stable as an athletic shoes.
Initially, the air unit in the shoe made the midsole higher than it should be – thus unstable – and unable to meet Nike’s stated desires to make performance shoes as opposed to more lifestyle oriented designs we see today.
Kilgore was inspired by the base of the Notre-Dame Cathedral to understand how to angle the midsole properly.
Shoe: Nike Foamposite One
During a meeting in 1997, Nike footwear designer, Eric Avar, noted a molded sunglasses case on the table which ultimately served as the radical design example for the Foamposite One which would arrive that same year and mimicked the one-piece EVA foam capsule that he saw.
“We were like, ‘Wow, wouldn’t that be great if we were able to do a shoe like that?’ It was one piece, it was seamless design and it just conformed around the object,” Avar said.
Shoe: Nike Air Zoom Generation
Known colloquially as the “LeBron 1” as it was King James’s first game shoe, Eric Avar was influenced by his mode of transportation at the time – the Hummer H2 – when crafting it.
The shoe features a Hummer-style “bumper” on the rear and is perhaps a subtle dig at James’s detractors who threatened his amateur status while in high school after he was seen driving around in a Hummer H2 in the streets of Akron.
- Featured/Main Image: Flight Club