There is no greater franchise in the history of Nike sneaker tech than Air Max. The inception of Visible Air in 1987 completely flipped the script on how cushioning was viewed – literally. Since then, the big bubble fam has enjoyed constant innovation thanks to Nike’s obsession with one-upping the line-up year-on-year. Stepping away from convention once more, the Air Max 270 is the first member of the club designed purely to provide comfort through the daily grind. Time to break down the 270 design one revolution at a time.
Material Matters: Nike's Next-Gen Air Max 270
Date: March 13 2018
By: Adam Jane
Before we get too deep into the particulars, we’ll tease out a bit of historical context. Going back to the mid-70s, the concept of air cushioning was originally developed by NASA engineer Frank Rudy. Redirecting his space-age knowhow from the Apollo project to running shoes, Rudy’s vision of bouncy air soles was co-opted by Nike, who tucked the tech away inside the foam midsole of the Tailwind runner in 1978.
Air would remain invisible for close to the next decade. Famously inspired by the exposed workings of Paris’s Centre Pompidou, Tinker Hatfield’s Air Max 1 design from 1987 was the first to let the juicy bubble peek out from its foamy confines.
Year after year, Visible Air evolved. The Air Max 95 introduced multiple bubbles. The Air Max 180 exposed the gaseous membrane the whole way around the outsole in a 180-degree arc. The Air Max 93 wrapped around the heel, while the Air Max 97 stretched all the way from the toe to the heel without interruption. The Air Max 360 did away with foam midsoles altogether, using a radical cage system to harness the bed of air. In 2017, the ultimate statement arrived. VaporMax presented a platform that was pure, unadulterated airbag. Throughout decades of linear progression, Nike never lost sight of the heritage of Air as they blazed into the future.
From an archival perspective, the Air Max 270 bears a striking resemblance to the 180 and 93, affording it a comfortable familiarity at odds with its futuristic proportions. Design-wise, the sleek, sock-like upper takes its cues from the stretchy inner sleeve that first appeared on the 180. The bulging heel was inspired by the Air Max 93, which pioneered a new blow-moulding manufacturing process to deliver the prominent rear-mounted cushion.
According to Dylan Raasch, who spearheaded the Air Max 270 design team, the biggest challenge was simply engineering such a towering heel unit. In previous iterations, cushioning was geared toward speed and performance so it was preferable to keep the foot closer to the ground for max stability. Since the 270 was all about max comfort, it required greater displacement beneath the heel for a heightened degree of cush. The mountainous bag Raasch came up with is an imposing 32mm tall – a full 15% bigger than any previous Air Max. The result is a trampoline-like ride that allows for a more pronounced transition between heel and toe.
Another interesting factoid is that Nike produce their 270 Air units alongside VaporMax at their own production facilities in Oregon and Missouri. Not only does it keep particulars of their production wizardry secret, future applications of the sole tech are also designed in partnership with the facility, which means super fast turnaround and better end product.
Of course, a good shoe is about more than just the sole, even if it is the rock star component. The 270’s upper does away with traditional stitched paneling, opting instead for the application of zonal-mesh. The dashed design is lightweight and breathable, and also reduces the chances of bulging seams. The diagonal orientation allows for more comfortable dynamic movement, while exaggerated heel counters and fused toe protectors keep the foot secure in all the right places.
No doubt there’s already a team of dreamers toiling away in Beaverton, conjuring up the next big Air Max innovation. It’s impossible to say exactly what that might look like, but it’s safe to say that it will follow the example set by the 270 and continue to push Nike’s proprietary cushion tech to new frontiers. The revolutionary Air Max has found another firm foothold as it presses on to change the world – one step at a time.
Material Matters is our weekly tech section where we peek behind the mesh curtain and examine the building blocks of the industry. Recently, we’ve looked at Denim Dissected, Nike Flyknit and Nike React vs. adidas BOOST.