The History of Air Max

March 25, 2022 by Joey Birch

The History of Air Max

Nike’s Air Max lineage is one of the biggest, most subversive, lines in the history of footwear. Challenging technological norms while being able to inspire and transcend generations; the lineage was, at its inception, met with negative responses by Nike.

In 1978, NASA engineer Frank Rudy approached the founder of Nike, Phil Knight, with the idea of adding a lightweight air cushion (officially known as the Air Unit) into the midsole of their sneakers. The lightweight design and comfort hugely surpassed the foam technology previously used in Nike’s Cortez and Blazer models and changed sports footwear forever. 

OG Nike Air Tailwind, 1978

While the Air Unit was initially debuted in the late ’70s with the Tailwind, it's the progressive work of Nike’s Air Manufacturing Innovation (Air MI) team that was able to create Air in Air Max with three facilities based in Oregon, Missouri and most recently, Arizona. 

Before joining Nike officially, Air MI was known as Tetra Plastics, a St. Louis-area plastics manufacturer founded on four major principles: quality, service, innovation and engineering. Tetra started working with Nike on Air-Soles in 1981.

Air Unit within the Air Max 1

In 1986, the firm developed the Visi-Air tubing that made the Air Max 1 possible and from 1989 to 1991 pioneered the blow moulding of Air Units, a process that has allowed for increased cushioning in visible Air shoes. By 1991, Nike had acquired Tetra.

However, it wasn’t until 1987 that the Nike Air Max line took the shape we know today. Before becoming one of the most prolific footwear designers of all time, Tinker Hatfield studied Architecture at the University School of Architecture, Oregon. Following his graduation in 1981, Hatfield went straight to Nike and spent his early years designing office spaces, showrooms and stores leading him to believe that architecture was the path he wanted to stick too.

However, by 1985, he was appointed to work exclusively for Nike’s footwear division. A decision that would lead to greatness.

The Centre Pompidou, Paris

Two years later, Hatfield released a sneaker that set in motion a phenomenon that the world had never seen before. During a trip to Paris, Tinker visited The Centre Pompidou, the National Museum of Modern Art, which is located in the centre of the city. Designed by Renzo Piano and Richard Rogers, the building’s controversial and innovative design takes all the workings of the building and puts them on the outside. 

The Centre’s design stands in conjunction with the rest of the city's classic Parisian architecture, with bright colours as well as an intricate design, the building sparked the idea for the visible Air Unit within the Nike Air Max 1. 

“I’m fully convinced that had I have not seen the building, I might not have suggested that we actually expose the Air Bag and make it visual and actually let people see inside the shoe”, Tinker says while reminiscing about the inspiration behind the design in the ‘Respect the Architects’ documentary from 2006.

Using a larger Air Unit for additional support required Nike to think outside of the box on how they could fit the integral piece within the midsole of a shoe. It was at that time that Hatfield showed his first sketch of the Air Max silhouette. Allowing consumers to see the Air they were walking on was not only a huge technological advancement and risk, but it was also functional. With some consumers and industry officials not understanding what the ‘Air’ in the Air Unit was referring to, having the visible Air Unit would allow them to see the inner workings of the shoe.

In addition to the technology within the sneaker, the original colourways of the AM1 were also inspired by the Centre Pompidou. Each section of the construction of the building features bright colours on the pipes, frameworks and elevators. Hatfield wanted to release the new running silhouette in two eye-catching colourways that could be seen from afar, much like the architectural landmark that inspired them. 

“They had painted everything in bright colours because they wanted those features [the key architectural features] to be visible from a distance, to be striking and to maybe shake people up even a little bit more”. 

At the time the sample was showcased, many individuals at Nike were completely against the design. “It was widely discussed that I had pushed it too far. People were trying to get us fired”, Tinker discusses when looking back at the initial rollout of the first sneaker to include ‘visible air’ in the Netflix documentary ‘Abstract: The Art of Design’.

OG Air Max 1, 1987

However, thankfully, Hatfield had the backing of Nike’s Director of Cushioning Innovation at the time, David Forland. With this, the Air Max 1 was released as part of a collection of sneakers titled ‘The Air Pack’ featuring the Air Max 1, Air Sock, Air Revolution as well as the Air Trainer 1 which has seen a retro this year (2022) in addition to a possible Travis Scott collaboration releasing later in the year.

The Air Max 1 opened the gates for Nike’s innovation and has since captured a moment in time. Many remember the ‘80s as a time of rebellion with the likes of the cold war and the Berlin Wall collapsing. The Air Max 1s disruptive design language spoke to this movement and further disrupted the industry creating a ‘new normal’.

OG Air Max 1 Advert, 1987

The adverts for the Air Max 1 had people wanting to get their hands on a pair. Following the release, the new lineage was beginning to take shape with the follow-up silhouettes in the form of the Air-Walker Max in 1988 and the Air Max Light in 1989.

However, it was in 1990 that Tinker Hatfield once again made huge waves within the history of sneakers. The Air Max 90, then known as the Air Max 3, was considered one of the greatest releases of its time and still to this day holds the same mantle. The idea of motion was key to the design of the Air Max 90 with the more streamlined toe box blending smoothly up into the upper of the shoe.

OG Air Max 90, 1990

With the streamlined design came newer, more interesting materials. Clean white mesh layered with soft grey overlays and a black leather mudguard gave the silhouette a new, more complex look surrounding the ever-larger Air Unit in the heel of the shoe. Bright red hits were featured throughout the shoe creating the first ‘Infrared’ colourway continuing what Tinker aimed to do with the Air Max 1 creating an eye-catching colourway that would stand out against any other sneaker. 

By this point, Hatfield was on a role. Just one year later, the Air Max BW (Big Window) and the Air Max 180 were released further pushing the boundaries of the Air Unit and continuing to create innovative, exciting, designs.

Evolution of the Air Max BW

The BW promoted an even larger Air Unit. Titled the ‘Big Window’, the advert read ‘Air Even More Max’ to promote just how far Nike was willing to take the technology as well as keeping the disruptive anti-establishment feeling the Air Max line held up to that point. The BW quickly became the sneaker that would encapsulate ‘Gabber’ culture. 

Gabber was the first truly Dutch style of electronic music. In the Netherlands in the 1990s, Gabber wasn’t just a sub-genre of hardcore techno, it was one of the country’s most significant youth culture movements. “And with that style of house, there came a uniform, a tracksuit and some BWs” says Edson Sabajo, co-founder of Patta, in Nike’s 2020 Air Max Day mini-documentary, ‘The Story of Air Max: 90 to 2090’. 

The BW had a huge cultural impact within Europe, later re-imagined by Skepta in his Air Max BW/97 collaboration in 2018. 

While the BW provided a larger Air Unit in the midsole, it was the AM 180 that, once again, provided a glimpse at the future of footwear. For the 180, Hatfield drafted in another legendary designer from Nike’s archive, Bruce Kilgore - the designer of the Air Force 1.

OG Air Max 180, 1991

Following on from the Air Max 90, the 180, as the name suggests, provided double the Air. Utilising an Air Unit that seemed to cover half of the midsole, it was the first Air Max silhouette in which the bubble touches the ground. 

However, unlike the previously released Air Max 90 and the soon to arrive 95’s that were on the horizon, the AM180s didn’t seem to take off until their later collaboration with Rei Kawakubo as part of the SS18 COMME des GARÇONS collection.

Ralph Steadman Air Max 180 Advert, 1991

Instead of using their usual art direction from Dan Wieden and David Kennedy of Weiden & Kennedy Art Directors, who still create some of the most renowned Nike adverts to this day, the advert for their latest addition to the Air Max lineage took a more modern art approach taking inspiration from artists including Ralph Steadman who later got this own collaboration on the 180 in 2018.

OG Air Max 93

1993 saw the next innovation in the Air Max lineage with the Nike Air Max 93. While the 180 provided a larger Air Unit that touched the ground, the 93 showcased a full 270 Air Unit that wrapped around the heel of the sneaker which was supposedly inspired by the handles on milk jugs. The added Air was designed to assist runners with further comfort for long-distance running with the OG colourway releasing in the now-classic ‘Methol’ colourway.

OG Air Max 94, 1994

1994 saw Tinker Hatfield work on his last Air Max silhouette, the Air Max 94, before his focus shifted to Jordan Brand’s, at the time, growing line of signature sneakers for Michael Jordan.

The larger 270 Air Unit was carried over onto the widely forgotten Air Racer Max, released in 1995 which featured a similar upper design to the 180, but used a breathable mesh. However, the Air Racer Max had big competition as 1995 saw Sergio Lozano take the mantle that Hatfield had left behind.

 Sergio Lozano

Before his time in Nike’s Air Max sector, Lozano was designing for ACG in the Michael Jordan building on the Nike campus, designing sneakers including the Air Mada Lo which recently saw a 2022 retro, with his office overlooking a lake. A source of constant inspiration not only for him but for future Air Max designers. 

It was here that Lozano got his initial inspiration for the Air Max 95 (also known as the 110s in the UK due to their £110 price point when they first released). A sneaker that has since become one of the greatest in Nike’s catelogue. 

After looking out of his office window, Lozano began to imagine the effects of erosion on the earth from rain. “From that thought, I made a little sketch of a shoe that had striations very similar to what you see on the walls of the Grand Canyon”, said Lozano, in an interview with Sole Collector, “Layer after layer after layer that are slowly revealed over time. I quickly finished the sketch and stuck it into my idea drawer.”

It was here that the idea of the layered effect on the sneakers upper was introduced. 

As the design began to take shape, he was guided by his predecessor, Tinker Hatfield: "I remember something Tinker Hatfield used to always bring up while working on other projects, he would say, 'Okay, so that’s a great design, but what’s your story?' He was always asking 'why,' so I asked myself the same question. I wanted the shoe to guide people through my thought process" Lozano tells Sole Collector.

Original Sketch of the Air Max 95, 1995

Similar to the Air Max 1, the 95’s were initially met with a a negative responses due to the never before seen silhouette as well as the lack of any Nike branding with the original design not featuring any branding whatsoever. However, Lozano kept his focus and further developed his plan. 

The midsoles design was inspired by the human anatomy, namely the spine with the lacing system being inspired by the ribs. Encasing what was made to look like a full-length Air Unit, the 95, once again, pushed the boundaries of what Air Max could be, and would be. Split into three sections, the sneaker featured the larger 270 style Air Unit on the heel with added pockets running down the forefoot. 

However, it wasn’t just the updated Air Unit that Lozano introduced on his debut Air Max silhouette. The addition of a speed lacing system provided a faster, tighter, fit to the sneaker. Perfect for runners who needed to get the shoe laced fast and firmly. While the lacing around the upper was inspired by ribs, there was netting around the laces that took inspiration from muscle fibres.

Original Sketch of the Air Max 95, 1995

Finally, the iconic ‘Neon’ colourway took its design language from its eye-catching cousins with the hits of fluorescent green, keeping the rest of the sneaker a darker, tonal, palette - a first in the Air Max roster. This was due to the rain in Oregon, where Nike’s main campus is situated and in turn where the shoe was designed, creating a lot of dirt which Lozano wanted to assist runners in hiding when they would run in the sneaker.

OG Air Max 96, 1996

The following year, Lozano went on to use his time from ACG further with the Air Max 96. Inheriting the same Air Unit design as the previous year's 95, the OG 96 was inspired by the waves of the ocean, seen with the panels running up the medial and lateral sides of the upper. While the Air Max 96 was not one of the biggest releases within the Air Max lineage, they were lovingly restored and redesigned as part of their 20th anniversary in 2016 with the release of the Air Max 96 II. 

While Lozano’s time working on Nike’s Air Max lineage was shorter than that of Tinker Hatfields, he had a huge impact not only within Nike but sneaker design as a whole. Creating a sneaker that would receive the same recognition as the 95 was a big task. However, in 1997, the challenge was met, with the introduction of Christian Tresser, the designer behind the Air Max 97.

Before his time at Nike, Tresser’s roots originally lay in creating football boots at Reebok, using their innovative ‘Instapump’ technology.

Upon his shift to Nike, Tresser was based in Montebelluna, Italy, which is deemed the location of the brand's master craftsmen to this day with a focus on football boots. It is here that the first ‘Mercurial’ was produced. Created from a single piece of material. The boot, once again, proved the designer's ability to push the boundaries.

Following Tressers standout success with his work in Nike’s football branch, he was then drafted in for this take on the Nike Air Max.


OG Air Max 97, 1997

The AM97 brought a brand new take on what an Air Max could be. With the key inspiration taken from the Japanese Bullet train, reflected within the shape of the upper. 

Tressers' time at ACG came into play when designing the main configuration of the shoe, the waves cascading around the upper, inspired by water droplets. "The nature of it was water dropping into a pond. “The water would drop and radiate out to the Air Unit" Tresser describes when speaking about his inspiration.

OG Air Max 97, 1997

While the shape of the sneaker was inspired by the Japanese Bullet train, Christian Tresser describes how he was inspired by the colour of mountain bikes for the OG ‘Silver Bullet’ colourway, telling Nike: "Mountain bike components and mountain bikes at the time had metal on metal finishes like aluminium and polished titanium".

As eye-catching as the Air Max 97 was during the day, it was in the night. Featuring layers of 3M piping surrounding the upper, the shoe light up when hit by light. Utilising the speed lacing system debuted with the Air Max 95, the 97 encapsulated the speed of the Bullet Train.

MSCHF x INRI Air Max 97 Custom, 2019

While the design of the silouhette made its mark in history as one of the most iconic sneakers of all time, it’s the further advancements in the Air Unit technology which the 97 is arguably best known for. Providing a full length ‘bubble’ underfoot, it was as if the wearer was walking on air. A concept later interpreted by the Brooklyn based design label ‘MSCHF’ with the INRI Air Max 97 Custom.

OG Air Max 98 TL, 1998

The following year, Nike released three new additions to the Air Max line, with Lozano returning to design the Air Max 98 and 98 TL. However, it was the newest designer to take their approach on the Air Max that created yet another silhouette that is still widely popular today. 

In 1997, Nike brought in Sean McDowell, a designer who went on to create the Air Max Plus, later coined the TN thanks to the TN on the heel and outsole standing for ‘Tuned Air’. 

Following his introduction at Nike, McDowell began work on a nascent project for Foot Locker, looking at what the future of Air Max may hold. The original inspiration behind the sneakers design came during a holiday McDowell was on: “I hung out on the Florida beaches and just thought and sketched — it was one of my most creative times,”. “One evening, it was turning to dusk, so the very blue sky was starting to fade to dark blue, and the palm trees were blowing in the wind…I sketched that out, and I thought, ‘It could make a quarter panel like you could hold your foot down with those palm trees,'” he discusses in an interview with Nike. This was the key inspiration for the intricate design on the sneaker's upper which has been interpreted as looking like sharks thanks to the deep blue colourway.

Air Max Plus (TN) Sketch, 1998

The name of the project was originally titled ‘Sky Air’. The name of the project reminded McDowell of the sky he had seen in Florida, which later went on to inspire the colourways of the sneakers looking like the setting sun. 

Featuring a lightweight mesh upper and shank plate in between the two outsole sections inspired by a whale's tail, the TN became a cult classic in Paris and London. “The Air Max Plus is really the one that represents us [residents within the Parisian streetwear scene] and that has rocked with us throughout our childhood” says Bishop Nast, a designer and photographer in Nike’s “The Story of Air Max: 90 to 2090” documentary.

OG Air Max Plus, 1998

While the TN didn’t act as the next step in the technology of Nike’s Air Unit, it did introduce the Pebax-built Tuned hemispheres, providing low pressure cushioning at the heel, allowing for natural foot-landing while providing the stability of the Air Max.

OG Air Tuned Max, 1999

This newly introduced addition to the Air Max was furthered by the release of the Air Tuned Max in 1999. Taking the tuned hemispheres and spreading them out throughout the midsole, the Air Tuned Max was seen as a huge technological advancement at the time, with the Beatle colourway later going on to inspire Skepta's Air Max 97 collaboration in 2017. 

While further releases within the Nike Air Max lineage did continue, with models including the Air Max 2003, it wasn’t until the 19th anniversary of Air Max that the next big step in the innovation of the lineage took place. 

OG Air Max 360, 2006

Releasing in 2006, the Air Max 360 was the first sneaker in existence to be completely cushioned by Air. A large, full length, Air Unit ran from the heel through to the toe sitting upon a rubber tread. Released in the original red and white colourway of the Air Max 1, the 360 was the first of its kind.

To further honour the history of Air Max, the Air Max 360 was released as part of an 8 part ‘History of Air’ pack which included the key silhouettes previously released, which can be seen printed on the insole of the 360.

Throughout 2014-2015, Nike would go on to merge two of their performance running lines with the Flyknit Air Max in 2014 and the Air Max 2015, in 2015, continuing to utilise the full-length Air Unit that the 97 and 360 introduce and developed.

Air Max Zero, 2015

In addition, in 2015, Nike released the Air Max Zero. A silhouette that was found by Nike when going back through Tinker Hatfield's original designs of the Air Max 1. After being scrapped in 1987 due to Nike believing the design was too innovative for the audience at the time, the sneaker was eventually released 29 years later. 

Fast forward to 2017, the 30th anniversary of Air Max, the next stage of Nike’s Air Innovation was released in the form of the Nike Air VaporMax. Furthering the work The Swoosh had done with their Air Max / Flyknit blend, the VaporMax was made of two key components: the sock-like Flyknit upper and the outsole made completely of air. 

OG Air VaporMax, 2017

The VaporMax outsole mould is composed of over 39,000 components, making it more complicated than a high-powered car engine. Due to the Air Unit being attached directly to the material upper, the shoe was in development from around 2010. 

The creation of the shoe was taken on by two people: Zach Elder, Cushioning Innovation Designer and Tom Minami, Footwear Innovation Designer. The ethos behind the design was going to back to the roots of Air Max, and take what the abstract idea of its time was trying to bring to the present day. 

“The philosophy behind VaporMax is really about optimisation over maximisation, how do we get back to the original promise of air?” says Elder, in Nike’s ‘Behind the Design’ mini-doc for the sneaker. 

In 2018 and 2019, Nike turned to create Air Max sneakers for lifestyle purposes as opposed to the strict performance designs they’d used previously. While audiences had been adopting Air Max as part of their daily uniform, Nike wanted to have a nod to them, as well as Air Maxes past and present.

OG Air Max 270, 2018

Releasing in 2018, came the Air Max 270. Featuring a 32mm high, 270 Air Unit in the heel, the Air Max 270 provided additional cushioning with the inclusion of the new flat lacing seen on the VaporMax. 

In 2018, the 270 was turned in the 720. A bold, brash, sneaker that took the idea of a large bubble and ran with it. Standing on a 38mm high Air Unit, it stands as the largest of all time on any shoe. Taking a futuristic design, the upper is constructed of predominantly mesh with the hidden fast lacing system introduced on the AM97.

Air Max 720 Collection, 2019

Each colourway is inspired by movement and flow, and funnily enough the Air Tuned Max. Natural phenomena including lava flows, the Northern Lights, the Milky Way and sunsets and sunrises inspired each colourway. 

“The world is a chaotic and challenging space right now,” says Courtney Dailey, Nike’s VP of Color Design, in an interview with Sole Collector. “Despite people's feelings of powerlessness in some of our leaders, there’s a youthful optimism that feels really strong and resilient to make the world a better place.”

In addition to its futuristic design, the 720 is showing what the future of sneakers could look like. With every Air Unit being made of 75% recycled manufacturing waste, the Air Max 720 is also highly sustainable. 

By the time the 720 was released, Air Max didn’t have the same mass appeal that it did during the 90s and early 2000s. A time that many people believe to be the lineage’s golden years. However, in a conversation with Sole Collector, Dylan Raasch, Senior Director of Air Max recalls getting the cosign from the godfather of Air Max himself, Tinker Hatfield: 

“The other day we spoke about the 270. He was underwhelmed about how things have been going in the past few years,” he says. “And this [the Air Max 720] is one of the few things that have rekindled his faith in the hope that there’s some newness that’s happening, and that it’s not so predictable.” 

2020 saw the 30th anniversary of the Air Max 90. As well as re-releasing the OG Infrared colourway of the world-renowned silhouette, Nike also reimagined the design, bringing it into the future and reflecting their future predictions into its DNA.

OG Air Max 2090, 2020

With the 2090s, Nike began by taking the features of the AM90 that people loved, including the tag on the heel of the shoe and cassette-style Air Unit in addition to the extended mudguard running up the medial and lateral sides of the sneaker blending into the upper. 

However, inspired by the future of transportation and futuristic cities, Nike edited the key features loved within the Air Max 90, doubling the size of the Air Unit and streamlining the upper with a light polyester vamp material. Switching out the tread on the outsole to Nike’s 2020 performance tread, the sneaker aimed to be the next generations Air Max 90. 

Additional details on the sneaker kept the design grounded, recognising the iconic silhouettes that inspired it and paved the way for its existence. Features including the hit of colour on the outsole underneath the toe box resemble the same design seen on the OG Air Max 90 as well as the bright blue and red stitching on the sneakers upper providing a bold deconstructed aesthetic, similar to that of The Centre Pompidou, the building that kicked off the Air Max lineage.

OG Air Max 'Pre-Day', 2021

The following year, on Air Max Day 2021, Nike debuted a brand new silhouette - the Air Max ‘Pre-Day’. Designed to connect generations of innovation, as stated by Nike in their promotional material, the Pre-Day takes its key inspiration from Nike’s golden years of jogging shoes, namely the Nike Daybreak released in 1979. 

While the Air Max 720 provided the largest Air Unit, the Pre-Day showcased Nike’s first disconnected Air Unit, making it seem like it was almost floating within the midsole. 

The Pre-Day didn’t just showcase the future of Air Max but also Nike’s move to sustainability. Utilising a 100% recycled polyester vamp upper, suede toe box overlay, 75% recycled Air Unit all sitting atop the outsole which was constructed using 15% of Nike’s ‘Nike Grind’ material.

Air Max Dawn, 2022

While the innovation of the Nike Air Max line has yet to captivate in the same way that it did during the ‘90s and early 2000s, The Swoosh has released another brand new silhouette for 2022. The Nike Air Dawn. Taking their inspiration from vintage running shoes, the AM Dawn’s feature a partially exposed Air Unit in the heel as well a polyester vamp and suede upper made of around 20% recycled materials by weight. 

While the future of Air Max is yet to be seen, its impact on the sneaker industry in past, present and future cannot be overstated. With each release representing its own space in history, time will tell which silhouette will capture the future generation.