Industrial design and architecture are intimately linked. The goal of any successful and visionary designer is to beautify progress: to take advances in function and form them in a palatable way. Some of the world’s most legendary industrial designers (Massimo Vignelli and Aldo Rossi, to name a few) were architects by training who went on to apply their architectural mindset to typography, interior design, and in countless other capacities. The common goal of those straddling the architect-designer axis is to beautify their world because of a sense of civic duty. Tinker Hatfield had another idea in mind.
Tinker Haven Hatfield, Jr. (b. April 30, 1952) graduated from the University of Oregon in 1977 with a degree in Architecture. Hatfield has neither a designer line nor a New York atelier, yet his designs appear on the red carpets of events worldwide, from charity balls to the Oscars. The fruits of his labor appear alongside Rolex watches and made-to-measure tuxedos. Knock-offs of his designs sell for five times more than the genuine articles, and in 1998, Fortune magazine named him one of the 100 Most Influential Designers of the 20th Century. How does Hatfield make his living? He designs athletic shoes.
Hatfield got his start designing shoes in 1981, when he, a corporate architect at the time designing buildings for Nike’s Beaverton campus, was asked specifically by higher-ups within the company to take a crack at shoe design. During this time, Nike was tweaking its first iterations of what would become its world-famous “Air” technology. Inspired by the exposed interiors of the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris, France, then-architect Hatfield designed the Air Max 1 around a window in the heel intended to showcase the sole’s “Air” technology. The resulting shoe would become one of the most influential athletic shoe designs ever.
Hatfield’s aptitude for functional yet elegant design was quickly recognized, and he was assigned to one of Nike’s largest accounts—the Air Jordan line. The Air Jordan, due to its highly-public showing on the feet of “His Airness” himself, had to be aesthetically attractive while maintaining its on-court performance. Hatfield’s first design, the legendary Air Jordan III, was released in 1988. The AJIII introduced a bold new idea to the world of performance footwear: a shoe could fit the needs of professional athletes and still look good doing it. This standard was reinforced when Michael Jordan went on to win all six NBA championships in Hatfield-designed basketball shoes. Massive, unprecedented, nation-wide sneaker advertising campaigns highlighted both Jordan and his namesake sneakers, and the first ever mass market collectible sneaker phenomenon was born.
Hatfield would go on to design Air Jordans IV through XV, XX, XXIII, and XXV, along with non-Jordan brand shoes like the Nike Air Trainer. Hatfield refers to himself as a “futurist” who focuses jointly on form alongside function – a nod to his architecture background. His designs function in front of millions of adoring fans, and form the modern perception of what an athletic-casual fashion piece should be due to both their looks and championship pedigree. How his designs have transcended their athletic role is due in part to formerly-contrasting, now-harmonic influences: hip hop culture and haute couture.
New York City has long been the heart of American sneaker culture, rising from its roots in playground basketball leagues and neighborhood sports shops to department store windows and international flagship stores on Fifth Avenue. An explosion of interest in hip hop culture in the late 1980’s brought the “b-boy” breakdancing culture and hip hop artists like Run DMC to the forefront of the national conscience, bringing with them the cultures’ shared emphasis on sneakers. Having a pair of clean sneakers that no one else had was a point of pride to a 1980’s New Yorker; it meant you had the best source, were the savviest shopper, and had the resources to buy brand new shoes. Breakdancing, hip hop, and sneaker culture were all intertwined. By the end of the decade, Run DMC had signed an endorsement deal with Adidas that included the group’s own limited edition “Superstar” sneaker, produced by Adidas and distributed nationwide. Hip hop was here to stay, and sneaker culture was right there with it.
Hip hop artists shouted out sneakers in songs and wore brand new pairs of sought-after shoes on stage. From the old school (Boogie Down Productions, Nas, Jadakiss, and Ghostface Killa) to current artists (Jay-Z, Kanye West, Rick Ross, RiFF RAFF, and Pusha T), lyrics referencing Jordans or Nike Airs demonstrated the link between hip-hop and Tinker Hatfield’s desirable sneakers. While Hatfield had created visionary design objects, his shoes were as-so-far only associated with their function. Jordans and Air Maxes were worn by artists in “hip hop clothing” outfits that were often what the artists had worn before their rise to fame: baggy jeans, camo prints, and hooded sweatshirts. Worn like this, Hatfield’s designs were more status symbol, evidence of newfound wealth that allows one to buy expensive basketball shoes, than fashion piece (shown on rapper Nas, here, in 2010.) Two major influences would guide the transition of Tinker Hatfield’s shoes from a purely athletic sneaker to a runway fashion piece: Kanye West and the A$AP Mob.
Kanye’s 2009 transition to modern, haute couture-influenced streetwear left many long-time hip hop fans baffled; drapey, goth, ninja-esque outfits from high fashion houses seemed to contradict everything the genre stood for as a voice for the inner city voiceless. Even as leather kilts and crystal masks replaced his trademark pink polos, West incorporated Air Jordans into many outfits (pictured here on a runway at Paris Fashion Week 2011 in Hatfield-designed Jordan VI’s).
West’s own sneaker collaboration with Nike, the ultramodern Air Yeezy, draws inspiration from the Nike Air Trainer and Air Jordan VI–both penned by Tinker Hatfield. His later sneaker collaboration with adidas draws inspiration from the Air Yeezy (750) and Roshe One (350).
In New York, the upstart rap collective A$AP Mob was making high fashion part of their image from the very start. The group’s most visible member, rapper A$AP Rocky, is frequently seen dressed in pieces by designers Rick Owens and Raf Simons, coupled with Air Jordans (specifically, Hatfield’s Jordan IV’s as shown) on his feet.
As perhaps the ultimate compliment, luxury knock-offs of Hatfield’s designs by the Japanese brand Hender Scheme cost as much as $1000—five to seven times what the original sneakers cost at retail price. Hatfield’s forward-thinking designs created shoes that not only perform athletically, but also fit seamlessly into high fashion contexts as well.
Tinker Hatfield’s designs are more at home on a basketball court than on a Paris runway, yet they are a natural fit in either environment. His shoes designed for basketball’s most legendary player have become staples of both music and fashion. In many respects, his designs have transcended their original contexts to become way more than athletic shoes; yet, if called upon, every Air Jordan, Air Max, and Air Trainer produced could still aid an athlete in the way they were intended. Form and function, perfectly synthesized. That is the legend of Tinker Hatfield. Happy Air Max Day 2016.