While it may seem simply like a savvy marketing ploy by PR people at Nike, the Swoosh has attempted and succeeded at creating a holiday of sorts for their storied Air Max silhouette. Celebrated each year on March 26 since the inaugural soiree in 2014, Air Max Day is every bit a nostalgic reminder of what innovation looked like decades prior, as it is a visual representation of just how far the boundaries can be pushed in a contemporary sense.
Prior to the historic launch of the Air Max 1 in 1987, Nike as a company found itself torn between a past which had piqued the public's initial interest, and the pressure and demand of the neon '80s to deliver on "cool." Kids simply weren't enamored anymore by the waffle sole that was conjured up by Bill Bowerman while on the campus of the University of Oregon. They needed something else.
Enter Tinker Hatfield. While today his name rings out in the sneaker community like an oracle capable of achieving things in design that others wouldn't even dream of, his initial employment at Nike positioned him to be just another guy at the growing brand whose job it was to conjure up the environment for commerce rather than make the products on the shelves.
In 1981, Hatfield was a corporate architect who designed office buildings on the Nike campus, apparel showrooms and retail stores throughout the country. Although he ran track at the University of Oregon for Bill Bowerman - and notably placed sixth in the 1976 Olympic Trials for the pole vault - there was little to no evidence which suggested that he had a future in footwear design.
"Architecture is, by nature, pretty broad. It’s both technical and creative, and rich in cultural education," Hatfield says.
At the time, Nike only had nine sneaker designers. Whether they saw something innate in Hatfield, or merely didn't have the bandwidth at the time, he was eventually brought into the fold to try and reenergize a design team that saw the competition creeping up on them.
"I was designing some very unique buildings and offices and things at the time and people were like that guy should be doing shoes," Hatfield says. "I wasn't pushing for it but, quite frankly, I knew it was inevitable and when it finally happened I was like 'yeah, let's roll.' Even as a young architect I was always the lead architect, even at the beginning I always had the creative process down and packed."
When Hatfield segued from architecture to sneaker design, Nike was positioned to become a billion dollar company. Yet, the competition was quickly catching up on them and they were losing ground in virtually every athletic footwear category besides basketball which was buoyed by the Air Jordan 1 at the time.
"As an architect I had the feeling I could bring something new to the table in terms of design especially compared to the shoes that were in the marketplace at that time," Hatfield says. "So, I began working on a renegade set of shoes that were not part of a design brief or marketing drive: the Air Max 1."
While other designers might have looked at something like a cheetah or another fleet-of-foot animal for inspiration - given the very nature of how Nike was trying to empower consumers to run and jump higher - Hatfield's approach was decidedly different and harkened back to his own roots as an industrial inventor.
"A lot of us at Nike have traveled extensively to try and be inspired and to understand people from all over the world in different cities, cultures and religions," Hatfield says. "I had known about this very interesting and very innovative and very controversial building called the Georges Pompidou Centre. It's one of my 'must-sees' when I went to Paris. Coming into the plaza surrounding the centre, you can see the stark contrast between the traditional French style of mansard roofs, small windows and row housing. And then to see this large, almost machine-like building sort of 'spilling its guts to the world.' In other words, you could just see everything. You could see the escalators and the heating and air conditioning and the levels of the different parts of the museum. You could see people. It really inspired me because it shook the world of architecture and urban design. It changed the way that people looked at buildings."
The building itself was opened in 1977 following a six-year build period. Prompted into action by then President Georges Pompidou who decided that the vacant site of the Plateau Beaubourg should be used for the construction of a multidisciplinary cultural center of an entirely new type, he inevitably turned to architects Renzo Piano of Italy and Richard Rogers of England who had beaten out 681 entries as part of a design competition.
Rather than attempt to mimic the surrounding architecture from the Second Empire and Beaux-Arts period, the duo decided to create something that unveiled the inner-workings of the structure. Whereas in the past, designers did their best to hide what made the building inhabitable, Piano and Rogers decided to actually embrace it.
For those that have seen the Centre Pompidou, it appears from many different angles to be an unfinished structure as if one day the laborers suddenly quit.
"On the Piazza side, and outside the usable volume, all public movement facilities have been centrifuged," Piano said. "On the opposite side, all the technical equipment and pipelines have been centrifuged. Each floor is thus completely free and it can be used for all forms of cultural activities- both known and yet to be discovered.”
An article in French newspaper, Le Figaro, wrote of the finished building, "Paris has its own monster, just like the one in Loch Ness" and added another quip by calling it "a cultural King Kong."
In the days leading up the official opening of the Centre, The New York Times reported that, "Richard Rogers was gazing at his creation in the rain when an elderly lady offered him shelter under her umbrella and asked what he thought of the building. 'I am the architect,' he beamed, whereupon she hit him over the head with her umbrella."
When Tinker Hatfield went to work on the Air Max 1, the exposed inner-workings of the Parisian structure figured prominently in his vision which married his current position with his past work as an architect.
“The shoe was designed to breathe, be flexible and fit well but the fact it had the air window in the sole and the frame color around it meant it looked a lot different than other shoes in its day,” Hatfield said, while also adding that shoe wasn't "over designed.”
The Air Max series has gone on to boast other notable silhouettes like the Air Max 90, Air Max 180, Air Max 93, Air Max 95, Air Max 97, Air Max 2003, Air Max 360 and Air Max 2015 - all of whom relied on the visual air unit which was inspired by the Pompidou Centre.
According to The New York Times, "After the Pompidou Center was finished [architect Richard] Rogers was without work until he got the Lloyds commission in 1979. He taught in the United States and prepared to become a cab driver in London: 'I thought that maybe my architectural career was over.' The reason for his dry spell was simple, he says: 'No one really wanted another Pompidou.'"
See how we're celebrating Air Max Day.