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History of (Nike) Air

Posted on Mar 19, 2019 in Nike

While there won’t be any major release for Air Max Day this year, it’s always a good thing to look back and celebrate one of the most innovative technologies ever made. One name that should be synonymous to Air is Marion Franklin Rudy. A former aerospace engineer, Rudy wanted to provide creative solutions for other industries. He placed tiny air bags in the soles of sneakers to soften impact. He was rejected 23 times until he presented to Nike’s Phil Knight. In 1977, Knight too a test run around the Nike campus in Rudy’s shoe and experienced a smooth ride. Thus the birth of Nike Air.

The Air Max wasn’t the first shoe to feature Air cushioning. It was in fact the Tailwind (1978). Even before the hype or quickstrike programs, you can say the Tailwind’s first release caused the first frenzy. Nike decided to release 250 pairs of the Tailwind and sent them to 6 running stores in Hawaii in time for the Honolulu Marathon. In less than 24 hours, the shoes sold out despite its $50 price tag, a hefty amount back in the 70s.

Sure, you can say that hype drove the sales of the first sneaker with Air. But researchers at the University of Tennessee asked 10 runners to run on a treadmill using the Tailwind. It turns out that these athletes used less energy running in them versus conventional running shoes. Science and athletes definitely validated Air. Then came the Tinker Hatfield era.

Air in the Eighties

Tinker Hatfield, the revolutionary designer behind the Air Max 1 had these memories of the era that fueled the Air Max:

Nike had risen to the pinnacle of sports design during the ’70s with a straightforward, utilitarian approach to product — all-purpose and high-performance shoes that had never been made before. At some point in the ’80s, that sort of plateaued. People were looking for something different, not just in what Nike was doing, but all around the world.

Music was changing. Disco had gone away. I’m not even going to describe how it was shifting, because I had three little daughters at the time, and I wasn’t listening to much music. But I knew some weird stuff was going on. 

The same thing was happening in art and design. The mid-’80s was a period of transition from a more formalized hierarchy to a looser, street-based, more inspirational form. We at Nike were part of that wave, and I just happened to be a designer doing it from a footwear perspective when nobody else was.

It was a happy accident that the transition was happening just as Nike was losing a little mojo. There was a bigger appetite for trying something new and different, and that was squarely connected to the creative sparks all around us. 

All that led to visible Air and other innovations, setting the stage for 30 years of reinvention of the platform, connecting sport engineering and design culture into one.

Air in the Nineties

Big windows. Forefoot Air. Full-length Air! Tuned Air. These were some of the astounding changes to both the make and aesthetic that put the Max in Air during the ’90s, and its evolution mirrored the tenor of the decade.

The era had a new soundtrack. Hip-hop was expanding, Brit-pop dominated the charts and new iterations of dance music were speeding up BPMs and helping to welcome sportswear into raves around Europe. 

Streetwear was born — or at least hit stride — in the ’90s convergence of sport and culture. The audacious look of Air Max models, from the 90 to the Air Max Plus, helped lead a transformation in dress, each shoe equally big, bold and colorful.

New technologies were also changing the way people interacted. The World Wide Web became a reality in 1991, and by the time the iMac hit in 1998, the emergent platforms (including an inventive, digitized auction service in 1995) shifted how people created communities and bought and sold goods. This digital revolution helped sneaker collecting transition from a word-of-mouth niche lifestyle to a global phenomenon. 

Air Today

40+ years

500+ utility asset patents

Approximately 700,000 combined-square-feet of dedicated U.S. manufacturing 

While its history is rich, Air’s story is never about then. Longstanding borderline-cultish crushes on specific models mean Air, in almost every iteration, is about the now. And the continual reinvention and imaginative spirit behind it means that the platform is never far from what’s next.

Creating the Nike Air Max requires cooperation, camaraderie — an esprit de corps. 

The process begins with Air Manufacturing Innovation. The folks there get to imagine possibilities — the forms, feels and structures of Air — and spark inspiration for future design. Their engineering breakthroughs allow other teams to unlock the keys to a softer, bouncier, more flexible ride.

This launches a cascade of creativity, involving all facets of Nike’s design organization — color, concept, digital, footwear, graphic, material, print, pattern and several more disciplines — to drive innovation for Air Max shoes, such as the new Air Max 720. Tapping ingenuity from every discipline, and ensuring those ideas gel together, is essential for an ideal final product, says Courtney Dailey, Nike VP of Color Design. “For example, color needs to strike a balance between amplifying the tech and making its own statement.”

The synergistic approach and unrivaled teamwork allow Nike to push new paradigms again and again. For Air, it means fresh shapes, news sensations and a continuously bold future.

Most simply, Air is always at the vanguard — a defining element of the zeitgeist from ’87 to infinity.