A History of Inspiration: Air Max (2024)

The Air Max line is a favourite for plenty of sneakerheads, having changed the landscape of the footwear world with just about every release. As varied as the shoes themselves are, so too are the stories behind them. Ever wondered how they thought up the Air Max 97, or why Nike thought to put air into soles in the first place?

Scroll down to find out the inspiration behind some of the classics, as well as a few slightly more obscure versions.

A History of Inspiration: Air Max (1)

1978: Nike Tailwind

Long before the visible Air unit arrived on the scene, Nike had been cushioning the soles of their shoes with the gaseous goodness. Frank Rudy was the man who had the idea of putting air in a shoe, his inspiration for this came from the work he was doing for NASA. Frank was an aeronautical engineer employed by the space program when he approached Nike with his idea. We’re not too sure if NASA would allow that kind of tech sharing these days.

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1987: Nike Air Max 1

Father of the Air Max, Tinker Hatfield, found his inspiration for the inaugural design in the architecture of the Centre Pompidou during a visit to Paris. Hatfield, who was trained as an architect, was taken by the building’s inside-out approach ­— with its structure wrapped around the building’s exterior. From this came the idea to expose the inner workings of the shoe, and the visible Air window was born.

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1988: Nike Air Walker Max

Nike may have a long history of running kicks, but walkers were important, too – especially back in the 1980s. With that in mind, the Swoosh added a walking shoe to the newfangled Air Max lineup in 1988. Simply dubbed the Air Walker Max, the kicks were essentially a heavier, more supportive take on the Air Max 1 that went all-in on the structure of a leather upper while its aesthetic was one part AM1, one part Air Revolution – a strapped, high-top basketball sneaker that shared tooling with a little silhouette called the Air Jordan 3.

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1989: Nike Air Max Light

While 1988's Air Walker Max went the heavy duty, supportive route, 1989 saw Tinker Hatfield trying to craft an even lighter version of 1987's original Air Max runner. The resulting Air Max Light improved on the OG in a number of key ways and shed weight through the use of a new two-piece midsole that ditched the polyurethane of the original in favour of Phylon.420 Denier Mesh also improved the runner's breathability while thermoplastic straps made sure that support and stability weren't sacrificed. The AM Light ultimately laid the groundwork for the Air Max 90 and saw its successor utilise a new take on those aforementionedthermoplastic straps, as well as the variable width lacing options they provided.

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1990: Nike Air Max 90

For the Air Max 1's 1990 follow-up, designer Tinker Hatfield wanted to hit the ground running and highlight the new silhouette's bigger Air bag. Thus, he gave the kicks fluid lines throughout, while perfectly highlighting the Air window with bold 'Infrared' accents. The result is a shoe that looks like a masterpiece in motion, even when it's standing still.

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1991: Nike Air Max BW

Just like the Air Max 90 before it, the Air Max BW went even bigger and bolder. It may have used the same Air-Sole unit that appeared in the Air Max 90, but new construction techniques meant that Hatfield and company could better highlight the unit with an even 'Bigger Window'.

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1991: Nike Air Max 180

While 1991's Air Max BW built on the success of the Air Max 90, the year's Air Max 180 took things in an entirely different direction as Hatfield teamed up with Air Force 1 creator Bruce Kilgore. Their resulting collaboration was highlighted by a seemingly absurd 180-degrees of visible Air-Sole cushioning, making the silhouette ripe for an advertisem*nt campaign that tapped a bevy oflegendary cartoonists, special effects masters, and movie directors.

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1992: Nike Air Max ST

Stability was the name of the game for Nike's Air Max 180 followup and, to that end, the Swoosh introduced the Air Max ST in 1992. One of the most underappreciated gems of the storied Air Max lineup, the ST built on the success of its predecessor by employing a number of similar design elements, including a moulded and oversized external heel counter, not to mention a comfy neoprene tongue. And while they didn't feature 180 degrees of Air-Sole cushioning, theydid feature the Swoosh's biggest Air-Sole to date and even coupled it to a forefoot unit by way of the brand's Footbridge tech.

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1993: Nike AirMax 93

With each Air Max release, Nike was exposing more of the air unit, so it was only a matter of time before the bubble wrapped its way around the heel. The inspiration for the design that achieved this came from an unlikely item: a plastic milk jug. The blow moulding used to produce the 270-degree visibility quickly changed what Nike could do with air, and it wouldn’t be long before the world saw a shoe with a forefoot cushioned in the same fashion.

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1994: Nike Air Max 94

There were actually two different versions of the Air Max 94. While many sneakerheads are probably more familiar with the Air Burst-like low-top, the 'main' flagship AM94 was actually the silhouette pictured above. A clear nod to the Air Max 93 and its milk jug-inspired aesthetic, the AM94 employed a similar slip-on bootie, but added more padding to the collar while adopting a far more aggressive aesthetic – a look that extended all the way from the upper down to the tooling.

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1995: Nike Air Max 95

Tinker Hatfield often challenged the designers at Nike to tell him the story behind a design. One rainy day in Beaverton, 95 designer Sergio Lozano was staring out of the office window into the trees. He imagined the water eroding the landscape and unearthing the strata below. The image of the layers resonated once more when he considered the anatomy of a foot, layered with muscle fibres and flesh. The gradient of panels on the upper of the Air Max 95 is the manifestation of that very thought progression.

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1995: Nike Air Racer Max

The Air Max 95 wasn't the only Air Max silhouette to drop smack dab in the middle of the 90s. While the AM95 saw the series continue in a more lifestyle-inspired direction, the Air Racer Max was geared specifically toward competitive runners. As a result, the racing flat sported a predominately mesh upper in the lightweight tradition of the early Air Maxes while its sole was decidedly flatter while positioning the foot closer to the pavement. The colourway even recalled that of another Air Max icon: the Air Max 180 and its signature 'Ultramarine' paint job.

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1996: Nike Air Max 96

Nike designer Sergio Lozano must have been an outdoorsman at heart. It’s pretty easy to see the inspiration in the receding mesh panels along the side of the 96, the waves of the ocean.

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1997: Nike Air Max 97

Air Max designs are built for speed. What else is fast? Bullet trains. As folk lore goes, the Air Max 97 was designed with a Japanese bullet train in mind, hence the ‘Silver Bullet’ moniker given to the OG colourway. But recently, Nike 'Behind the Design' states otherwise. The mind behind the 97, Christian Tresser, explains the layered uppers are representative of ripples of water in a pond, and that the silver colouration was actually inspired by the 'metal finishes like aluminum and polished titanium' on BMX bikes. Go figure!

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1998: Nike Air Max 98

1998 saw Nike take the Air Max bulk to new heights with the Air Max 98. A stark contrast to 1997's bullet train-inspired Air Max 97, the AM98 took on a heavily padded upper of mesh and leather while retaining the 97's tooling. Despite the bulk, though, the AM98 had a panel-laden upper similar to that of the 95 and 97, which designer Sergio Lozano had previously said was inspired by the striations on the walls of the Grand Canyon.

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1998: Nike Air Max 98 TL

Before 1998 was up, Nike sought to give the bulky Air Max 98 a sleeker, speedier makeover. The resulting Air Max 98 TL featured a similar overall silhouette, but modified the tooling in favour of additional segmentation while the upper featured sweeping lines and mini Swoosh branding at the toe.

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1998: Nike Air Max Plus

The Air Max 98 was essentially a chunkier, less fluid version of the Air Max 97, so the Air Max Plus easily stole the show in 1998. For his entry in the iconic Air Max lineup, industry vetSean McDowell took cues from his Florida stomping grounds to clad the Plus — which debuted the Swoosh's new Tuned Air technology — in palm tree-inspired moulded overlays and gradient executions that looked like the Sunshine State's beautiful sunsets.

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1999: Nike Air Max Deluxe

European rave culture was at its height in 1999, and the Air Max Deluxe perfectly captured the zeitgeist with its avant-grade aesthetic. The in-your-face design even went so far as to channel the bold colours and wild prints favoured by ravers to decorate its upper, marking the first time Nike had put an all-over digital print on neoprene. A moulded Foamposite heel also recalled the kicks that were dominating on the hardwood at the time.

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1999: Nike Air Tuned Max

We’re only speculating, but it looks like the team behind this one wanted to close out the 90s with a tribute to the most offensive trends of the era. They basically channelled 10 years of tribal tatts, ill-fitting rave fashion, and chunky skate shoes into one silhouette, which clearly hasn’t stood the test of time. The Air Tuned Max was the first to have a full-length Tuned Air system, one year after the technology first appeared in the Air Max Plus (aka TN). As hard as it is to look at, if Nike were to retro this one we’d be tempted to cop — there really is no other shoe quite like it.

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2003: Nike Air Max 2003

Maximum cushioning was the name of the game in 2003 so, as a juxtaposition to the maximalist principles on display with the Air Max 2003's full-length Max Air cushioning, Nike went the minimalist route with its upper. Instead of the bold colours and out-there designs of past Air Maxes, the Swoosh utilised aTeijin performance material that was similar to those employed in elite track spikes and football boots. The result? A lightweight Air Max that didn't even require any break-in time.

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2006: Nike Air Max 360

The Air Max 360 is the culmination of 19 years of visible air development. It was inevitable that Nike would drop a shoe cushioned entirely by air, and it came in 2006 in the form of the Air Max 360. As a tribute to its heritage, the OG 360 dropped in a colourway paying homage to the Air Max 1.,

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2014: Nike Flyknit Air Max

Much like 2006's Air Max 360, juxtaposition was the name of the game for 2014's Flyknit Air Max. The tooling came in the form of thedynamic, flexible, ultra-comfortable Max Air cushioning that debuted in 2013, while the upper was constructed from lightweight and breathable Flyknit for a minimalism-meets-maximalism design that was actually the perfect marriage of two flagship Swoosh technologies.

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2015: Nike Air Max 2015

After 2014's Flyknit Air Max, Nike could have seemingly been at a dead end; after all, where was the company supposed to take the Air Max next? Naturally, the Swoosh came up with the perfect solution, subverting expectations by ditching the Flyknit in favour of engineered mesh with reversed Swoosh logos to boot. The 2015's lasting legacy, however, is thehorizontal tubular construction that was used for the full-length Max Air unit itself, and coupled with flex grooves throughout the outsole, making it the most flexible Air Max to date — and one that laid the groundwork for the most recent Air Maxes.

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2015: Nike Air Max Zero

The one before the one, this shoe demonstrates that sometimes you just need to step away from an idea to clear your head — even if it takes 29 years. The Air Max Zero was created after the team at Nike uncovered a sketch Tinker Hatfield had done when thinking about the Air Max 1. Dismissed at the time for being too innovative for the general public, the shoe dropped in 2015 to an audience who were finally ready.

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2017: Nike Air VaporMax

Rightly billed as ‘the pinnacle of Air’ upon its 2017 debut, Nike’s breakthrough VaporMax unit acted as both midsole and outsole as new technologies allowed Nike’s designers to incorporate the air and exterior layer into a single holistic unit that could maintain its form with elasticity. That flexible 360-degree unit was then paired with the slickest Flyknit upper to date, creating the sleekest Air Max offering of all time.

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2018: Nike Air Max 270

Sneakerheads adopted Air Maxes as a lifestyle staple long ago, and Nike finally alluded to this with the first-ever Air Max that was intended specifically for casual wear from the get-go. Standing a whopping 32mm tall, the Air Max unit in the kicks paid homage to those employed by the likes of the Air Max 180 and Air Max 93, while Nike further emphasised maximum cushioned comfort with a new-school-meets-old-school upper that was decidedly modern while also nodding to the classics.

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2019: Nike Air Max 720

2019's Air Max 720 represents yet another lifestyle Air Max entry, and the first such shoe to ever feature a full-length unit. Essentially an evolution of 2018's 270, the 720 ups the ante with the most spring of any Air Max shoe ever thanks to a foot-cradling unit that stands 38mm tall. As for the shoe's upper, Nike took cues from nature, 'specifically, the organic radiating movement of energy in different natural wonders'. Thus, initial colourways have been nods to everything from sunsets andlava flows to the Northern Lights and the Milky Way.

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2020: Nike Air Max 2090

In 2020, while Nike celebrated 30 years of the Air Max 90, they took the DNA from their iconic silhouette and crafted the futuristic Air Max 2090. While keeping some of the OG features of the AM90 – such as the heel logo, cassette, mudguard and cropped Swoosh – they completely upgraded the Air unit by adding a 200 per cent larger window than what you’d been used to. More flexibility was also added, taking the OG tread lines and updating it for performance use in 2020. And because the Air Max 90 was inspired by Italian sports cars, the first few Air Max 2090 colourways took cues from ‘the future of transportation’.

Words by Adam Jane and TS Fox.

Check out more of Sneaker Freaker's top features of 2021 here.

Air MaxAir Max 1Air Max 93Air Max 95Air Max 96Air Max 97Air Max 360Air Max ZeroAir Max 270Air Max 720Air Max 2090Top Features of 2021

Greetings, fellow sneaker enthusiasts! As someone deeply entrenched in the world of footwear design and innovation, it's a pleasure to delve into the fascinating history and evolution of the iconic Nike Air Max line. My expertise extends beyond casual knowledge—I've studied the intricate details, design philosophies, and historical contexts that have shaped these legendary sneakers.

Let's unravel the stories behind some of the most beloved Air Max models mentioned in the article:

1. Nike Tailwind (1978): Before the visible Air unit, the idea of cushioning shoe soles with air originated from Frank Rudy, an aeronautical engineer working for NASA. The inspiration came from his work for the space program.

2. Nike Air Max 1 (1987): Tinker Hatfield, an architect turned designer, drew inspiration from the inside-out approach of the Centre Pompidou in Paris. This unconventional design approach led to the exposed inner workings of the shoe, introducing the visible Air window.

3. Nike Air Walker Max (1988): A walking shoe version of the Air Max lineup, drawing inspiration from the Air Max 1 and featuring a heavier, more supportive design.

4. Nike Air Max Light (1989): A lighter version of the original Air Max runner, with improvements in breathability and weight reduction through a new two-piece midsole and 420 Denier Mesh.

5. Nike Air Max 90 (1990): Designed by Tinker Hatfield, it featured fluid lines and emphasized the larger Air bag with bold 'Infrared' accents.

6. Nike Air Max BW (1991): Building on the success of the Air Max 90, it went even bigger and bolder with an 'Bigger Window' showcasing the Air-Sole unit.

7. Nike Air Max 180 (1991): Collaborating with Bruce Kilgore, Tinker Hatfield introduced a silhouette with a 180-degree visible Air-Sole cushioning, inspired by metal finishes and cartoonist-led advertisem*nt campaigns.

8. Nike Air Max ST (1992): Focused on stability, featuring an oversized external heel counter and a forefoot unit with Footbridge technology.

9. Nike Air Max 93 (1993): The design, inspired by a plastic milk jug, introduced a 270-degree visibility of the air unit, wrapping around the heel.

10. Nike Air Max 95 (1995): Designed by Sergio Lozano, inspired by the layers of eroded landscape and human anatomy, featuring a gradient of panels on the upper.

These are just a few highlights from the extensive Air Max lineup. If you're ready to dive into more, feel free to ask about the evolution of specific models or any other aspects of sneaker design and history!

A History of Inspiration: Air Max (2024)


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