February 9, 2017
Material Matters: Tuned Air and the Air Max Plus
There’s no denying that the Nike Air Max Plus (aka the TN) is a cultural phenomenon. Adopted by subcultural tribes the world over, its hyper-aggressive form is as loved by those who rock them as it’s reviled by the general public. With such a dedicated cult following, there must be something special built into that Tuned Air sole.
Photo by Phil Aylen
The story of Nike’s Air Max has been told over and over again – in 1987 Tinker Hatfield draws inspiration from the Pompidou Centre and voilà, the world meets the Air Max 1. By the time the Air Max Plus introduced Tuned Air to the world in ’98, the Max line was already more than a decade old. The revolutionary cushioning properties of the translucent bubble were well known by runners everywhere, and it was time for Nike to reinvent their own tech – lest it grow stagnant. The mentality so far had been all about ‘bigger is better’ – just look at the progression from the Air Max 1 to the AM 180 – but the TN was about to change all that.
In the early days, Nike’s Air units were made with a blow-moulded elastomeric material that was filled with a gas – stuff with scientific names like monochloropentafluoroethane – and pressurised to anywhere between 5–50psi. In the mid-90s, Nike began using a new layered-membrane made from two different polymers, laminated with a hydrogen bond. One of the most ingenious things about the combo of a membrane and inert gas is its ability to inflate itself. The materials that the membrane is made from will allow oxygen and nitrogen to pass through, while the larger molecules of inert gas remain trapped inside. Thanks to oxygen’s need to be everywhere, it will seep in over time until the levels have balanced inside and out. As you can probably tell, the whole deal is pretty technical, but sometimes it’s the small changes that make all the difference.
The Air Max Plus bubble
Nike’s big idea for the TN was centred around hemispheres – structural elements that could be added for stability – resulting in a sole that could have the varied support that an all-air one couldn’t. If you flip over the TN you’ll notice the round red bits on the inside of the heel – those are the hemispheres. They add stability after impact so that your foot doesn’t roll inwards, lessening the pronation and helping you get the most out of your stride. This meant that Nike could dial down the pressure in the heel, allowing for more cushioning underfoot without sacrificing stability.
The Air Max Plus was an instant hit – not just due to the new tech but also because of its aggressive design. People were taken by the upper’s colour gradient, as well as its thermoplastic vinyl exoskeleton, small Swoosh and the new lacing system – the design was a winner. Although Tuned Air has become synonymous with the notorious TN, the line continued to evolve over the coming years. The Air Max Plus family expanded annually until its tenth iteration in 2008, with each release seeing newly designed uppers and varied hemisphere properties and configurations. The TN tech was even dropped into some rogue releases like the Air Tuned Max, which had a full-length air unit and hemispheres that went all the way from the heel to the forefoot.
By the time the final AM Plus dropped, the Air Max 360 had hit the market with a sole that was just one big air unit – nothing but a big bubble with a bit of a cage built around the sides for support. Getting rid of the foam made the 360 far more flexible and subsequently the Tuned terrors were seriously overshadowed. Still, we’ll take a pair of the OG design any day of the week.
Material Matters is our weekly tech section, where we take a peek behind the mesh curtain and break down the building blocks of the industry. If you’re fiending for more TN, check out the On Feet Recap.
Nike Air Max 360