Air Max 1

Inspired by a unique piece of architecture.

Nike Air Max 1
© Nike

A revolutionary technology

When a former NASA engineer by the name of Marion F. Rudy stepped into Nike’s offices in 1977, he carried with him a special new technology: Air cushioning. Phil Knight quickly realised that he had a game-changing innovation on his hands and worked with Rudy to create an athletic trainer with a pocket of encapsulated Air in the sole. Just one year later, the Air Tailwind debuted at the Honolulu Marathon, advancing athletic footwear and beginning the era of Nike Air. Professional and amateur athletes alike could enjoy the feeling of running on air for the first time, and the concept soon took off. By the mid-80s, this lightweight, responsive cushioning had appeared in tens of models, but none could match the invention of what was to come next: the groundbreaking Nike Air Max 1. Created by an unlikely designer, this shoe changed the fortunes of the brand at a critical time and launched one of the most iconic sneaker lines of all time.

© Nike

Searching for alternatives

Having achieved excellent growth throughout the 1970s, Nike found the early 1980s somewhat challenging. Facing increased competition, the brand’s designers attempted to innovate on the running shoes that had made them so successful while also trying to expand into new areas, such as hiking footwear. One of their most forward-thinking plans was to reveal the Air cushioning that now resided in the sole unit of many Nike designs, but nothing they came up with seemed to work, so it was decided that fresh talent would be required to achieve this goal. Rather than drawing on the wealth of footwear experts at their disposal, Nike’s executives looked elsewhere in the hope of finding someone with a different perspective who could bring new ideas to the table. That someone was Tinker Hatfield.

An untested designer 

Tinker was a skilled designer in his own right; not of shoes, but of buildings, which he saw as being the perfect blend of art and science. Originally hired by Nike as an architect in 1981, he had so far been charged with drawing up plans for the company’s offices and stores – quite different from shoe design. During his time studying architecture at the University of Oregon, he had trained in track-and-field with Nike co-founder Bill Bowerman, where he excelled as a pole vaulter, so he did have some notion of the footwear an athlete might need, but, ultimately, he had no experience of creating shoes. Nevertheless, in 1985, Nike asked him to join its team of footwear designers, and he jumped at the chance to take on an exciting new challenge.

© Nike

Breaking new ground

Nike began by assigning Tinker to a team without a specific design brief who were attempting to break new ground for the brand. One of their main aims was to make a shoe that revealed its Air cushioning, but Nike’s engineers still struggled to solve the problem of how to do so without compromising its structural integrity, and it was thought that Tinker’s unconventional background might allow him to see something they had not. It helped that the designer himself was a fan of the project, his belief being that it would help customers to fully understand the value of Nike Air. In order to get the edge on the competition by encouraging him to come up with a shoe that was boldly innovative and even radical if necessary, Nike gave Tinker free reign, sending him to Paris to find inspiration.

An inspirational building

Sending Tinker to the French capital was a masterstroke as the city’s stunning buildings, which include styles from every period of the past 1000 years, naturally sparked the young architect’s imagination. One in particular drew his interest, though it was not of the Gothic era that Paris is so famous for. It wasn’t a piece of Renaissance or Neoclassical architecture either, nor was it built in the Art Nouveau style of the Belle Époque. In fact, it was a much more recent structure; one that exemplified the contemporary approach of high-tech architecture. Known as the Centre Pompidou, this building was the perfect example of the high-tech style, which aims to expose the underlying architectural and functional elements of structures so as to display them to the public rather than hiding them away behind walls and facades. On its completion in 1977, the Centre Pompidou was the first building of this magnitude to present its internal components on the outside as its circulation pipes, electrical wiring, plumbing and other such systems that are normally concealed were completely exposed on its exterior. Despite not being popular amongst the locals, this eye-catching building captured Tinker’s imagination, and, while he wasn’t instantly driven to create a shoe based on it, the concepts behind its design would stick in his mind, eventually forming the basis for the Air Max 1.

© Nike

A window to the sole

On his return to the United States, Tinker sketched out an idea for a running trainer using some of the tenets of high-tech architecture he had seen on the Centre Pompidou. Specifically, he had in mind the glass front of the building, which, in line with the principle of transparency favoured by the design movement, served to uncover its internal workings, making them visible from the outside. By cutting away a small portion of the shoe’s midsole, Tinker found that he could achieve the same effect, allowing the wearer to view the airbag positioned below the heel. While this was just a preliminary drawing, the rest of the team could see the potential in his idea and work began on the first sneaker with a window to its sole.

© Nike

Early prototypes

It was not, however, all plain sailing as Tinker began to realise why Nike’s footwear designers had thus far failed to create a visible Air shoe. One early sketch of the potential Air window shows the “visible bag” and the “stability wing” above it where the midsole wraps over the upper to help stabilise the structure. This design was added to a futuristic-looking prototype that pushed the boundaries of Nike’s technological capabilities too far and was scrapped as a result. Undeterred, Tinker continued to strive for perfection, eventually landing on a sole unit with a larger airbag and a broader window than his previous concepts. Rather than being stabilised by just a piece of the midsole extending upwards above the window in a linear fashion, the Air unit was held in place by an altogether deeper midsole. This can be seen in another of Tinker’s original drawings dated 23rd July, 1986, which shows a red and white sneaker with a distinctively curvaceous mudguard accompanied by a note suggesting to make it sleeker as the “samples that were sent over are too thick.” Other labels demonstrate the designer’s attention to detail, with comments such as “Refer to original lacelock w/ smaller holes, better and more rounded outline” on the TPU eyelets in the front of the collar and “Change collar detail except keep symmetrical collar and slightly notched back tab” to avoid it being “too similar to Air Control” – a Nike football boot with Air cushioning. Another interesting note states that “All changes would also occur on women’s version”, thus highlighting the brand’s commitment to creating great running shoes for both men and women.

© Nike

A close call

This later prototype is much closer to what the Air Max 1 looked like when it was finished towards the end of 1986 and, though it can be looked at now in the light of history as a great design, back then, it was nearly rejected outright. Even though Tinker had reigned in his ideas to go from futuristic but unworkable designs to this more modest yet admittedly still avant-garde one, there were those at Nike who were unconvinced and others that felt he had taken things too far. It is rumoured that some were even calling for him to be sacked – an almost unthinkable prospect given the fact that he went on to become one of the greatest shoe designers in history. Fortunately, Director of Cushioning Innovation, David Forland, who had been involved in the production of a structurally sound Air Max unit, lent his support to Tinker, saving the project and allowing the team to continue their work undisturbed.

Perfecting the Air Max unit

With a release date now set for early 1987, Tinker took his colleague, Mark Parker – a skilled footwear designer who had been with Nike since 1979 – around Asia in search of the best materials to be used in the manufacturing process. They ended up choosing mesh for the upper and synthetic suede for the overlays, thus conferring both breathability and durability on the sneaker. The Air Max unit itself consisted of an airbag placed in the heel of the midsole that was revealed by a large, oblong-shaped window in each side. It went through many iterations during the design process as wear-testing revealed issues with the size of the airbag and the materials used. Working in concert with Nike Labs, who refined the technology from a scientific standpoint, Tinker used trial and error to effectively blend performance with style as he arrived at an Air Max unit that looked and felt great. On top of giving the shoe its unique appearance, the visible airbag also had a functional aspect since it removed the constraints placed upon it by the walls of the midsole, thus providing the urethane pocket with more room to expand as the foot pressed down onto it. This improved the cushioning effect and returned even more energy to the wearer as the airbag recovered its original shape when the foot was lifted up again.

© Nike

A last-minute adjustment

All of these attributes made the AM1 a great running shoe for the time, but as the cold of winter set in, a problem arose. As had been feared by some of Tinker’s detractors, it was discovered that, in low temperatures, the airbag would break as the window was too large for such conditions. With production already underway and tens of thousands of pairs already made, the launch had to go ahead as planned and, when the first run of Air Max 1s went on sale on March 26th, 1987, they had a much larger midsole window than the design that people came to know and love over the decades that followed. Fortunately, the warmer spring weather meant that those who bought the early version of the shoe did not experience any issues, and, in the meantime, Tinker and his team hastily put together an updated model with a smaller window. Though it showed off less of the Nike Air inside, it was far more stable and wouldn’t break in the cold. It was no less captivating to sneaker fans either, who didn’t seem to notice the difference as they continued to flock to stores when this new version came out.

Air Revolution

When looking back at the marketing campaign for the Nike Air Max 1, it is possible to see that the original silhouette had a much larger Air window as most of the adverts were made before its size had been reduced. One of these was an early TV commercial called Air Revolution that featured a montage of both amateurs and professionals playing various sports, including running, swimming and cycling. Tennis player John McEnroe and basketball legend Michael Jordan made an appearance in between shots of the new Air Max sneaker cushioning an athlete's foot as it hit the ground. As well as being a great piece of promotional material for the shoe, this advert broke new ground in its own way, albeit quite controversially. At the time, if an advert used a famous song, it was never the original track, but rather a cover. However, Nike rebelliously went ahead and used The Beatles’ own recording of their 1968 hit, Revolution. The agreement had been arranged through Yoko Ono, who thought that it would help bring the band’s music to a new generation, but the plan backfired as their label, Apple Records, took Nike to court over it. The two companies eventually settled out of court, and Nike stopped airing the advert in early 1988, but it changed the industry’s view on music in adverts, opening up a future for original tracks to be used and allowing artists to promote their songs.

© Nike

Advertising the Nike Air Max

Alongside this memorable commercial, Nike created a series of print ads to show off its new innovation. One of these presented a man running in a vast landscape, the long, open road stretching far off into the distance behind him, suggesting that he had come a long way in the Air Max 1. The caption read “Cushioning that lasts forever and ever. Amen.”, and below the ad, more detailed information stated that “The Nike Air Max is the world’s best cushioned running shoe”, going on to declare that it “never wears out” and will “absorb shock from here to eternity.” It ended with the words “it’s a revolution in motion.” Beside this was a picture of four of the initial colourways to be released, each one coming in a simple white and grey palette with a singular colour on the mudguard, swooshes and branding. Two of these, the blue colourway and the red one were also advertised in another, more extensive magazine piece outlining the shoe’s other great qualities. Over an image of a pair of white and red Air Max 1s with light shining through the window in the heel, were the words “The Run. Redefined.”, once again highlighting the brand’s aim to change how people saw the running sneaker.

Alongside this was a page of text giving an insight into its performance features. It described the Nike Air Max as “A running shoe specifically designed to meet the requirements of those who, having experienced the cushioning benefits of NIKE-Air, got greedy and wanted more. Without sacrificing control.” It then explained how the Air cushioning system had been radically redefined by “increasing the overall size of the Airsole” and “reconfiguring its shape as well.” A graph with “Loss of Cushioning” presented against “Minutes of Impacting” showed how the cushioning quality of normal “Molded EVA” dropped very quickly on repeated use, while Nike Air maintained its integrity over time. Also highlighted were the fact that there was “three times more Air under the heel area where peak impact forces occur” and that “a separate Air-sole, positioned under the forefoot, provides further cushioning to the metatarsal area.” This cushioning was said to last forever, “no matter how many miles you put on it” and a new “Contoured Footbed” improved comfort even more by cupping “the heel and forefoot, while supporting the medial arch.” The use of “a patented BRS 1000 Waffle outsole” was also mentioned, which added even more cushioning and durability while “enhancing the road feel of the shoe”. Just like the other advert, it declared the Air Max to be “the best cushioned shoe in running history. And a stable one at that”, showing a pair of the red and white “Men’s Air Max” and the blue and white “Women’s Air Max”. It finished with the words “The harder you push, the better we run”, emphasising that it is the passion and drive of the runners themselves that pushed Nike’s tech forwards.

© Nike

A grand beginning

With such powerful advertising behind it, the Air Max achieved great things in its first year. So popular was it, in fact, that Nike decided to base a whole sneaker line on it. It also launched the shoe design career of Tinker Hatfield, who would go on to create some of the brand’s most iconic silhouettes, including the Air Max 90 and an array of classic Jordan basketball trainers. As for the Air Max 1, which only had the number added to its name when subsequent models were released, it kept coming back again and again over the years and is still one of Nike’s most collectible icons despite being more than three decades old.

© Nike

A constantly evolving sneaker line

The position of the Air Max 1 amongst all Nike silhouettes did not come about immediately though, as sneaker enthusiasts moved on to the plethora of innovative designs that were released as the brand built on the first model’s success. Each new iteration represented an evolution of the Air Max lineage, with updated versions of the airbag that improved both its comfort-giving properties and its style. Over the history of the line, Nike Air has been formed into cushioning pockets of all shapes and sizes, culminating in a full-length sole unit entirely filled with Air on the Nike VaporMax, which celebrated the 30th anniversary of the Air Max 1 by giving fans the ultimate feeling of walking on the air.

© Nike

An early collaboration

As its successors took the sneaker line to new heights, the Air Max 1 remained in the background with retro releases in 1992 and 1996, before the early 2000s delivered some stunning collaborations that brought it back into the mainstream. The first was with Japanese sneaker boutique atmos, whose Safari colourway was released in 2002 to help celebrate 15 years of the famous silhouette. Its chestnut brown overlays and animal-print mudguard referenced the Nike Air Safari that had come as part of the 1987 Air Pack alongside the Air Trainer, Air Sock, Air Revolution and of course, the Air Max. This collaborative sneaker was so sought after that it was rereleased in 2016 – an incredibly rare occurrence in the world of collaborations – and still receives special mention on the atmos website, as do the brand’s subsequent Air Max 1 designs: the 2006 Animal Pack and the 2007 Elephant.

© Nike

A Dutch connection

In the years following the release of atmos’ Air Max 1 Safari, Nike teamed up with a number of other brands and creative individuals to make yet more unique versions of the silhouette. In 2005, Dutch artist Pieter ‘Parra’ Janssen brought his distinctive use of colour to the Air Max 1 while also honouring his hometown of Amsterdam by putting a special emblem on its heel. Later, in 2009, Nike became connected with the city once more as the brand partnered with fashion boutique Patta to create the refined Chlorophyll colourway. This was just the beginning for the two companies, and they have since crafted a whole collection of Patta x Air Max 1s, many of which are highly sought after to this day. In fact, Nike and Patta joined up with Parra to form a powerful creative trio in 2010, producing one of the most desired of all Air Max 1 colourways: the richly toned Cherrywood.

© Nike / Patta

Celebrating the Air Max

Throughout the 2000s and beyond, Air Max 1 collaborations became ubiquitous. Some of the most notable ones include those with British designer Ben Drury, San Francisco skate brand Huf, Hong Kong streetwear label CLOT, toy producer Kidrobot and music industry stars DJ Clark Kent and Travis Scott. These partnerships helped to reinvent the silhouette for each new generation, carrying its name into the future and transforming its image from technical running shoe to fashionable lifestyle sneaker. By 2014, the Air Max line had become such a phenomenon that Nike established Air Max Day as an annual celebration. In honour of the Air Max 1, the date for the event was set as March 26th, with the inaugural release being a version of the OG red and white colourway that incorporated a bright Volt midsole and had “3.26” embroidered onto its tongue label. It even came in specially designed Air bubble packaging that revealed what was hidden inside, just like the Air Max sole.

© Nike

The Air Max Zero

For Air Max Day, 2015, Nike did something even more surprising by bringing one of Tinker Hatfield’s early Air Max 1 prototypes to life. The model was called the Air Max Zero, and the specific release dubbed The One Before the 1, while its construction mirrored the more futuristic shoe that had been rejected back in 1986 for being too hard to manufacture with the technology of the time. Things had moved on enough by 2015 that the Air Max Zero could be successfully reproduced, and dozens of colourways came out in the late 2010s, showing Tinker to have been ahead of his time, even with his lack of experience.

© Nike

From sketch to shelf

Even some of Tinker’s preliminary sketches and ideas have been used to make new Air Max 1s, including those in the 2019 Sketch to Shelf Pack, which consisted of two traditional versions of the sneaker covered in design notes taken directly from his 1986 drawings. On one colourway, the text included things like “Big Window” written onto the mudguard and “Air Max Sketch” printed over the airbag, while the second had more technical details, including “10mm Swoosh Out” on the sidewall logo and the patent information for Air cushioning – “Nike Air: US4183156A” – on the mudguard.

© Nike

The Big Bubble

The release of these designs expanded the rich history of the Air Max 1, helping to tell the story of a true sneaker icon, but perhaps one of its most notable moments was yet to be remembered. In 2023, this all changed with the release of the Air Max 1 ‘86 Big Bubble, which memorialised the very first edition of the silhouette via the large window in its midsole. The Big Bubble was, in fact, an exact replica of the actual OG Air Max 1 as Nike used a CT scanner to map out the design of an original pair to recreate the previously unworkable design. With new technologies strengthening the large Air window, cold was no longer an issue, and the heritage look of the Big Bubble made it popular on its comeback. Since then, new releases of the Air Max 1 have been split into the ‘86 edition, which follows the proper OG design, and the ‘87, which features the smaller window associated with the classic silhouette and normally has upgraded materials or an alternative colour blocking style. Meanwhile, those that simply carry the name Air Max 1 tend to have both the classic look and a more traditional tonal setup. 

© Nike

An icon of sneaker culture

Today, the Nike Air Max 1 remains one of the most culturally resonant sneakers around. Its remarkable history still captivates people all over the world, proving that Nike’s gamble on Tinker Hatfield was an excellent one. The legendary designer himself took many risks in creating the Air Max 1, pushing the boundaries of design, overcoming a number of setbacks and nearly losing his job along the way. Eventually, though, his hard work paid off, thus paving the way for an astounding career in shoe design. Without this, many other of Nike’s most popular silhouettes may never have existed, not least his remarkable run of Jordan basketball trainers. For this reason alone, the Air Max 1 can be called a hugely influential design and a vital part of Nike’s success as a brand. Ultimately though, it is the shoe’s trailblazing visible Air Max unit that makes it so compelling and affirms it as a standout icon of modern sneaker culture.

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