Tinker Hatfield x Sneakers Magazine – Interview

Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on pinterest
Share on email

Tinker Hatfield is something like the Thomas Edison of sneaker history. And even though there were sneakers long before the Swoosh was born, there’s some truth to this sentence. Not only did he give us several immortal classics like the Air Trainer, numerous Jordans or the Air Safari, he taught a whole industry how to tell stories with shoes. One of them began in Paris, where the former architect took the Centre Gourges Pompidou as an inspiration for the Air Max. And because the shoe is more legendary than ever, we interviewed Tinker right there in the French capital. Here we go.

Tinker, when was the last time you were actually here in Paris?

The last time I was here was for the French Open about three years ago. My young daughter had just graduated from the Cordon Bleu School in Paris and we came for her graduation.

What’s it like to come here? What is Paris to you?

Paris is one of my favorite cities in the entire world. I enjoy the energy but also of course the beautiful architecture and nowadays I enjoy the people too … (laughs) that’s a joke!

When we talk about the Air Max 1, how long was the initial design process?

The first one was a fairly long process. And I should point out that Mark Parker, our illustrious CEO, was the developer of the shoe. So, I did the original sketches and came up with the idea of the window, if you want to call it that, on the side of the shoe, based on a trip to Paris many years ago, when I came to see the Centre Georges Pompidou. It was interesting for me because it was radically different architecture – hated by many, loved by some. It was provocative … it was different. And it had changed the way people looked at architecture and I thought that since we were developing new air technology at the time that it was a great opportunity to, like the Pompidou, turn this shoe inside out so you can see the technology. And so that process took a while because not only did I have to draw it up, which means going to sketch after sketch, but sometimes I was arguing with Mark Parker about it. But since I was the designer, I would usually win those arguments. But nonetheless it took about three months of sketching and some rough prototyping to develop some kind of a vision for the shoe.

What was it in particular about the Pompidou that inspired you?

The Pompidou was built a few years before I’d come to Paris. It was still relatively new but not brand new. I knew about it and had seen it on photographs and came to Paris specifically to see this building in person. Sometimes I’m inspired by things I see in magazines or in other media but most often inspiration does come just walking down the street.

Tinker7small

A handful of media were invited for the interview. A great intro was done by London’s Charlie Dark from the Run Dem Crew

 

How do you keep track of your ideas? Do you keep something like a scrapbook? 

I have several notebooks that are full of sketches and drawings and Nike archives all of those sketches and they pop up here and there for store openings and presentations. Yes, I do have a lot sketches and I draw a lot, mostly in color, which has been great because I recently switched over to the iPad. I don’t want to sound like an advertiser for Apple but the iPad has allowed me to forego all the sketchbooks and all the paraphernalia for drawing and so I’ve been drawing on it all the time.

Were you working on any kind of particular athlete when you came up with the design of the shoe?

No, not really on this shoe. I work with athletes all the time, whether runners, basketball players or other athletes. But for this shoe I really felt like it was good to focus on a broad cross section of runners. I had a prototype runner in my head but that runner was pretty versatile. I did not have a specific person in mind, no Olympic gold medalist whatsoever. It was really just about people who run and want to be protected  by a big air cushion.

How was this kind of innovation received at Nike at the time?

There were many people inside Nike who did not want this shoe to live. Imagine that. Business people didn’t think they could sell a shoe with a hole in it. There were marketing people who didn’t think they could market it because it was red and white. Most shoes in those days were blue, blacks, whites or greys. There were no bright colors, especially if it wasn’t about racing shoes. So yes, all kinds of people were against that shoe and that included our own marketing group. But Mark Parker and myself were given a little bit of leeway to pursue the project, basically by Phil Knight at the top who said “leave these guys alone” – basically meaning “don’t fire these guys”.

What did you want to achieve with the design of the shoe?

That shoe was not meant to be a new kind of performance running shoe. Up to this day, my role at Nike is to be provocative, to push for change and to piss people off. And if you don’t piss people off, it means you really haven’t done too much. You haven’t pushed the envelope in design or in communication. So that shoe definitely did its job in that respect. There were a lot of upset people and a lot of doubting media. I remember there were a couple of shoe reviewers from England who thought that that was an absurd idea for a running shoe. They were  mostly concerned about its aesthetics. There were a lot of negative comments about shoe.

I’m always really interested in the actual moment when people have a killer inspiration. Can you go into a bit more detail about how the actual idea came about?

 

Tinker1small

After the half-hour introductory interview, it was an open conversation with Tinker Hatfield

 

That’s a great question because oftentimes it takes a couple of reasons to do something, not just one. One reason was that I saw the Pompidou. The other reason was that we were making larger and larger air bags and no one knew what an air bag was – a cushioning system. We were making them larger and larger and I thought if we make it just a little bit larger it’s almost the same width as the entire midsole and it would enable us to cut the midsole and there wouldn’t be a big recess and unsupported part of the shoe . So those two things together made sense to go ahead and do it. And not only did I have the drawings of the Pompidou and some photographs to try to explain the inspiration at the time, but I had science to back me up. Because we were building bigger and better air max bags and the cross sections through the midsole was showing that the bag wasn’t wide enough and we could actually eliminate part of the midsole. So there was some science to back up the provocative part of the storyline.

So the innovation aspect was really important for you, right?

For me it is, yes. I mean, there are many people who are great stylists and they do designs based off of all kinds of inspirations, driven by aesthetics. I like to do that too but what differentiates the way I work is I try to solve real problems for real athletes.

At the time, did you think this shoe would be so popular?

No, not at all, absolutely not. I remember traveling with Mark Parker when we had the very first finished prototype, carefully hidden in our bags when we were sitting on the plane and not wanting anybody to see it. It was funny because we were both looking at each other and saying “do you think we will get fired over this one?” or “will it do what we think?”. Maybe to place this shoe in context, you have to consider that almost all athletic shoes up to this point – and I would like to add that also the Air Max, the Air Trainer, the Air Revolution and the Air Jordan III  were all completed roughly in the same timeframe –, basically all athletic footwear at the time was simple utilitarian design. There was no storytelling. Sometimes athletes would endorse their products, American athletes like Julius Erving or Larry Bird in basketball, but they were simply writing their names on shoes. There was simply no storyline or development of what I like to call “romantic storytelling” behind the design of athletic shoes until this shoe. This was the first one, the visible air story with the Pompidou. Then Nike layered another storyline on top of that, saying “You want a revolution?” and using the Beatles song. And that story line would simply just say that this is revolutionary and that a lot of great things happen because people choose to go against the grain. So all of those things conspired to make this an important product and it was fun to be a part of.

 

Tinker8small

 

Wasn’t it very odd at the time to bring storytelling into footwear at the time?

I had been working for Nike for almost five years prior to this shoe. I was the corporate architect, hence knowing about the Pompidou. And quite often when you design a building, a church for instance, there’s a storyline behind them, which is in that case “god is bigger than you”. You come in and you’re supposed to feel smaller. The building is tall and that is a way to tell a story about a power that is greater than you. So when you walk by a church, that story is reinforced by the very design of the church. You could say that that is true for other things as well, such as locomotives or automobiles, basically for al great designs. The idea just hadn’t come to footwear. It was just about making shoes and giving them to athletes. There was no thought about aesthetics at all. You know, sometimes success in this world is all about being a genius but it can also be about being in the right place at the right time. So there you have it.

 

Tinker5small

 

When you are traveling around the world and you see people wearing the shoe. What kind of feeling is that?

In the beginning I wasn’t even aware of it. I’d designed shoe after shoe and we tend to work one and a half to two years ahead of time. So by the time this shoe hit the market, I had already designed the next Air Max. So I really never spent much time thinking about how these products were being worn or being received  in the marketplace. I knew that they were selling well because the sales people told me. But nonetheless, I wasn’t that preoccupied with that. About four or five years later I had been working on so many shoes for Nike and I was the creative director for clothing at the time. It got to a point where I got sick. I had worked too hard and didn’t get enough sleep. One day Mark Parker just said “you’re a mess, why don’t you take time off”. So I took my wife and we traveled around the world. We came to Paris, we went to the Caribbean islands, to South America, to New York City – to tiny out-of-the-way places and big cities. And what struck me was that I couldn’t go anyplace without seeing something that I had designed – not a single place in the entire world. It’s probably true to this day.

Isn’t that a great feeling?

It was kind of great, yes, I felt pretty cool about it and had the thought that I’d done something important. But then again my wife reminded me that it wasn’t that great.

 

Tinker9small

 

What was it about the design of shoe that made it special?

I think that good design can be timeless if there was a purpose for it in the first place. Not only a purpose, but thinking and science behind it. And it has to be designed with some restraint. Even though the shoe was crazy for its time, if you look at it now it looks good because it’s still not overdesigned. If you look at the history of Air Maxes, there was a point in time a few years ago when they looked like 17 people had designed each one. There were so many molded plastic parts, so many colors … I think it’s hard for those kinds of products or ideas. They don’t stand the test of time very well. Maybe they try too hard or get overdesigned. I think the air max was designed with good lines.

 

Tinker2small

 

READ THE FULL INTERVIEW IN SNEAKERS MAGAZINE ISSUE 20 (October 2013). Thanks Nike for making this happen.

Photography: Holger von Krosigk

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

  

 

Tinker9preview

 

Tinker Hatfield wird gerne als Thomas Edison der Sneakergeschichte bezeichnet. Und auch wenn unsere Zeitrechnung schon lange vor ihm begann, ist etwas dran an dem großen Vergleich. Denn er hat uns nicht nur unzählige Klassiker wie den Air Trainer, diverse Jordans oder den Air Safari beschert, er hat uns Konsumenten und der Industrie gezeigt, wie man mit Schuhen Geschichten erzählt. Eine dieser Geschichten nahm ihren Ausgang in Paris, wo das offene Hightech-Design des Centre Georges Pompidou den ehemaligen Architekten dazu inspirierte, den Air Max zu designen. Und weil der Hype um diesen Schuh mittlerweile kaum zu toppen ist, gab Nike uns und einer Handvoll anderen Medien die Gelegenheit, die große Air Max Eminenz zu interviewen. Hier kommt das Gespräch mit Tinker, das wir in Paris führten und für unsere internationale Leserschaft in diesem Fall auf Englisch gelassen haben. 

Tinker, when was the last time you were actually here in Paris?

The last time I was here was for the French Open about three years ago. My young daughter had just graduated from the Cordon Bleu School in Paris and we came for her graduation.

What’s it like to come here? What is Paris to you?

Paris is one of my favorite cities in the entire world. I enjoy the energy but also of course the beautiful architecture and nowadays I enjoy the people too … (laughs) that’s a joke!

When we talk about the Air Max 1, how long was the initial design process?

The first one was a fairly long process. And I should point out that Mark Parker, our illustrious CEO, was the developer of the shoe. So, I did the original sketches and came up with the idea of the window, if you want to call it that, on the side of the shoe, based on a trip to Paris many years ago, when I came to see the Centre Georges Pompidou. It was interesting for me because it was radically different architecture – hated by many, loved by some. It was provocative … it was different. And it had changed the way people looked at architecture and I thought that since we were developing new air technology at the time that it was a great opportunity to, like the Pompidou, turn this shoe inside out so you can see the technology. And so that process took a while because not only did I have to draw it up, which means going to sketch after sketch, but sometimes I was arguing with Mark Parker about it. But since I was the designer, I would usually win those arguments. But nonetheless it took about three months of sketching and some rough prototyping to develop some kind of a vision for the shoe.

What was it in particular about the Pompidou that inspired you?

The Pompidou was built a few years before I’d come to Paris. It was still relatively new but not brand new. I knew about it and had seen it on photographs and came to Paris specifically to see this building in person. Sometimes I’m inspired by things I see in magazines or in other media but most often inspiration does come just walking down the street.

Tinker7small

A handful of media were invited for the interview. A great intro was done by London’s Charlie Dark from the Run Dem Crew

 

How do you keep track of your ideas? Do you keep something like a scrapbook? 

I have several notebooks that are full of sketches and drawings and Nike archives all of those sketches and they pop up here and there for store openings and presentations. Yes, I do have a lot sketches and I draw a lot, mostly in color, which has been great because I recently switched over to the iPad. I don’t want to sound like an advertiser for Apple but the iPad has allowed me to forego all the sketchbooks and all the paraphernalia for drawing and so I’ve been drawing on it all the time.

Were you working on any kind of particular athlete when you came up with the design of the shoe?

No, not really on this shoe. I work with athletes all the time, whether runners, basketball players or other athletes. But for this shoe I really felt like it was good to focus on a broad cross section of runners. I had a prototype runner in my head but that runner was pretty versatile. I did not have a specific person in mind, no Olympic gold medalist whatsoever. It was really just about people who run and want to be protected  by a big air cushion.

How was this kind of innovation received at Nike at the time?

There were many people inside Nike who did not want this shoe to live. Imagine that. Business people didn’t think they could sell a shoe with a hole in it. There were marketing people who didn’t think they could market it because it was red and white. Most shoes in those days were blue, blacks, whites or greys. There were no bright colors, especially if it wasn’t about racing shoes. So yes, all kinds of people were against that shoe and that included our own marketing group. But Mark Parker and myself were given a little bit of leeway to pursue the project, basically by Phil Knight at the top who said “leave these guys alone” – basically meaning “don’t fire these guys”.

What did you want to achieve with the design of the shoe?

That shoe was not meant to be a new kind of performance running shoe. Up to this day, my role at Nike is to be provocative, to push for change and to piss people off. And if you don’t piss people off, it means you really haven’t done too much. You haven’t pushed the envelope in design or in communication. So that shoe definitely did its job in that respect. There were a lot of upset people and a lot of doubting media. I remember there were a couple of shoe reviewers from England who thought that that was an absurd idea for a running shoe. They were  mostly concerned about its aesthetics. There were a lot of negative comments about shoe.

I’m always really interested in the actual moment when people have a killer inspiration. Can you go into a bit more detail about how the actual idea came about?

 

Tinker1small

After the half-hour introductory interview, it was an open conversation with Tinker Hatfield

 

That’s a great question because oftentimes it takes a couple of reasons to do something, not just one. One reason was that I saw the Pompidou. The other reason was that we were making larger and larger air bags and no one knew what an air bag was – a cushioning system. We were making them larger and larger and I thought if we make it just a little bit larger it’s almost the same width as the entire midsole and it would enable us to cut the midsole and there wouldn’t be a big recess and unsupported part of the shoe . So those two things together made sense to go ahead and do it. And not only did I have the drawings of the Pompidou and some photographs to try to explain the inspiration at the time, but I had science to back me up. Because we were building bigger and better air max bags and the cross sections through the midsole was showing that the bag wasn’t wide enough and we could actually eliminate part of the midsole. So there was some science to back up the provocative part of the storyline.

So the innovation aspect was really important for you, right?

For me it is, yes. I mean, there are many people who are great stylists and they do designs based off of all kinds of inspirations, driven by aesthetics. I like to do that too but what differentiates the way I work is I try to solve real problems for real athletes.

At the time, did you think this shoe would be so popular?

No, not at all, absolutely not. I remember traveling with Mark Parker when we had the very first finished prototype, carefully hidden in our bags when we were sitting on the plane and not wanting anybody to see it. It was funny because we were both looking at each other and saying “do you think we will get fired over this one?” or “will it do what we think?”. Maybe to place this shoe in context, you have to consider that almost all athletic shoes up to this point – and I would like to add that also the Air Max, the Air Trainer, the Air Revolution and the Air Jordan III  were all completed roughly in the same timeframe –, basically all athletic footwear at the time was simple utilitarian design. There was no storytelling. Sometimes athletes would endorse their products, American athletes like Julius Erving or Larry Bird in basketball, but they were simply writing their names on shoes. There was simply no storyline or development of what I like to call “romantic storytelling” behind the design of athletic shoes until this shoe. This was the first one, the visible air story with the Pompidou. Then Nike layered another storyline on top of that, saying “You want a revolution?” and using the Beatles song. And that story line would simply just say that this is revolutionary and that a lot of great things happen because people choose to go against the grain. So all of those things conspired to make this an important product and it was fun to be a part of.

 

Tinker8small

 

Wasn’t it very odd at the time to bring storytelling into footwear at the time?

I had been working for Nike for almost five years prior to this shoe. I was the corporate architect, hence knowing about the Pompidou. And quite often when you design a building, a church for instance, there’s a storyline behind them, which is in that case “god is bigger than you”. You come in and you’re supposed to feel smaller. The building is tall and that is a way to tell a story about a power that is greater than you. So when you walk by a church, that story is reinforced by the very design of the church. You could say that that is true for other things as well, such as locomotives or automobiles, basically for al great designs. The idea just hadn’t come to footwear. It was just about making shoes and giving them to athletes. There was no thought about aesthetics at all. You know, sometimes success in this world is all about being a genius but it can also be about being in the right place at the right time. So there you have it.

 

Tinker5small

 

When you are traveling around the world and you see people wearing the shoe. What kind of feeling is that?

In the beginning I wasn’t even aware of it. I’d designed shoe after shoe and we tend to work one and a half to two years ahead of time. So by the time this shoe hit the market, I had already designed the next Air Max. So I really never spent much time thinking about how these products were being worn or being received  in the marketplace. I knew that they were selling well because the sales people told me. But nonetheless, I wasn’t that preoccupied with that. About four or five years later I had been working on so many shoes for Nike and I was the creative director for clothing at the time. It got to a point where I got sick. I had worked too hard and didn’t get enough sleep. One day Mark Parker just said “you’re a mess, why don’t you take time off”. So I took my wife and we traveled around the world. We came to Paris, we went to the Caribbean islands, to South America, to New York City – to tiny out-of-the-way places and big cities. And what struck me was that I couldn’t go anyplace without seeing something that I had designed – not a single place in the entire world. It’s probably true to this day.

Isn’t that a great feeling?

It was kind of great, yes, I felt pretty cool about it and had the thought that I’d done something important. But then again my wife reminded me that it wasn’t that great.

 

Tinker9small

 

What was it about the design of shoe that made it special?

I think that good design can be timeless if there was a purpose for it in the first place. Not only a purpose, but thinking and science behind it. And it has to be designed with some restraint. Even though the shoe was crazy for its time, if you look at it now it looks good because it’s still not overdesigned. If you look at the history of Air Maxes, there was a point in time a few years ago when they looked like 17 people had designed each one. There were so many molded plastic parts, so many colors … I think it’s hard for those kinds of products or ideas. They don’t stand the test of time very well. Maybe they try too hard or get overdesigned. I think the air max was designed with good lines.

 

Tinker2small

 

READ THE FULL INTERVIEW IN SNEAKERS MAGAZINE ISSUE 20 (October 2013). Thanks Nike for making this happen.

Photography: Holger von Krosigk

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on pinterest
Share on email