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A Conversation with Tinker Hatfield

Ahead of the release of his debut NFT project, legendary designer Tinker Hatfield spoke with Bobby Hundreds about form, function, and the future of sneakers.

I knew Tinker Hatfield before I knew Tinker Hatfield.

My first introduction to the fabled designer was when I was in the fourth grade. I was spellbound by the Air Jordan IV, a basketball sneaker that more resembled a fighter jet or a modern superstructure. I couldn’t decide which one I loved more – the deft black ones or the clean white cements. There were more Jordans to chase after that (my parents refused to indulge me with any) like the 6s, the 11s… It wasn’t until I was starting The Hundreds that I realized much of my design language was distilled from Tinker Hatfield creations like the Safaris, Huaraches, and of course, the Air Mag from Back to the Future.

If you’ve been affected by streetwear in your lifetime, then you must pay respects to sneaker culture. And if you’re acknowledging shoe design, then we must give it up for Nike and Tinker Hatfield. There’s a tight index of designers, artists, and visionaries who’ve dictated our history and movement over the generations. Tinker Hatfield is seated rather high up at the table.

That’s why I’m so excited by his joining the NFT conversation. With Tinker’s work and point-of-view shaping so much of our history, how will his involvement in Web3 impact the future of design? We’re about to find out. On February 20, 2022, Tinker Hatfield will be releasing 120 of his first NFTs – Flying Formation – on the Ducks of a Feather NFT platform. The project is a collaboration with the Oregon football team and comes with a limited-edition Nike Air Max 1 (yes, another Tinker Hatfield design!). 10% of secondary sales will go to a Division Street fund that provides support across all U of O athletic programs.

This is another Tinker milestone for me. In 2011, I was one of the first people to leak images of the Air Mag to the world when Nike invited me down to Universal Studios for the Back to the Future press event. Today, I have the exclusive honor of debuting his first NFT:

And here, a rare interview with Tinker Hatfield himself on two topics that have cast my career and worldview: Sneakers and NFTs…

BOBBY HUNDREDS: I’ve gotta say, it’s not that I never expected you to introduce an NFT, it’s just that many of my design heroes have been a bit slower to adopt, let alone embrace. So, I’ve gotta ask: How did you get in and what has inspired you to launch Flying Formations?

TINKER HATFIELD: I really didn’t know much about NFTs until Phil Knight asked me to do one for Oregon’s top football player Kayvon Thibodeaux. It just so happened that I was already working on an art piece with him in it anyway. How Phil knew about NFTs I do not know but it’s pretty damn cool that, at his age, he’s still one of the most progressive thinkers and decision-makers around. Period.

I immediately called a very bright young Innovator at NIKE. His name is Bobby Legaye.

He coached me through some of the rudimentary aspects of Cryptocurrency, blockchain transactions and then I flew into action. After I completed the digital art, Bobby minted the image, got it authenticated, created a wallet for me and then off it went to Kayvon.

After that project, I started thinking about taking yet another project that I had been working on which I called DUCKS COME IN ALL COLORS. I essentially drew up a bunch of ducks in multiple color combinations and developed a plan to put them on t-shirts and shoes and then disperse them to all OREGON Athletes.

A super talented graphic designer and artist named Vincent Clervi and the amazing Innovator Elizabeth Brock-Jones were executing the plan along with my very sharp and organized administrative assistant Kendal Bagby when Division Street CEO Rosemary St. Clair, called and suggested that we turn them all into NFT ART and SNEAKERS. Rosemary being the fabulous get-it-done leader of Division Street helped refine the language into BIRDS OF A FEATHER and the FLYING FORMATIONS collection.

I’m telling you; this team is the best I’ve ever worked with, and I think it shows. I’m super excited to work with them and a handful of others. We are going to change many athletes’ lives for the better and help lead this new revolution. What could be better than that?

Tinker, you’ve forged a prolific design career by taking risks. And you’ve never been afraid to challenge people. In fact, it’s a prerequisite! In 2018, you stated, “When you’re in the disruptive, trying to do new, and different, and better zone of creative work, it makes people nervous. It makes them frightened.”

The NFT is a new tech model and perspective that is inspiring as many people as it makes uncomfortable. What are you seeing that doubters might be overlooking?

When we try new and innovative design work and venture into the unknown with unique communication there have always been and will always be some doubters – as in every time.

I’m used to it by now and have learned how to forge ahead anyway. Well, usually. It’s also in my natural state to be a disrupter always with good intent and reasons.

Doubters are often people who are fearful of losing or making mistakes that lead to losing. It’s a natural condition for many people, especially in the business community.

I think they are missing the very essential point, which is new ideas, and the accompanying risk is an essential part of getting better and winning”. The famous coach John Wooden said and I quote; “the team that makes the most mistakes wins”. Phil Knight always has said to “fail faster”. We learn from fearlessness, risk, and mistakes.

We get better.

Much of your shoe design process is derived from problem-solving, whether it be for hardcore athletes or everyday consumers. How do you see NFTs and Web3 technology alleviating friction in the world?

I’m not sure that NFTs and Web3 are going to save the world, but I do think that opportunity and growth through new technology have been obvious ever since the industrial manufacturing revolution in England, Europe, and the USA in the late 1700s.

I think we may be at the cusp of a new revolution that is less about creating real objects but may improve our lives through virtual products and processes. Think about it….TV is a virtual source of entertainment and information. You can’t grab what’s in a TV, but there’s value in the content. Content, in the form of virtual education, entertainment, design, one-of-a-kind objects and the process of creating all this content can make us wiser and feel better. Be better.

They may seem unlikely cousins, but your architecture background informed your shoe design. Do you see both now informing your approach to NFT design?

I’ve said it before; Everything I have done, seen or experienced in my life up to this very minute contributes to my creativity and design solutions.

In the last several years, Nike has been more obvious in leaning heavily on technology. To me, the convergence was not only anticipated but natural. Yet, there are those who believe technology can be antithetical if not corrosive to art and human creation. As a futurist, you’ve always appreciated how technology and innovation amplify better design. Can you speak on how you see NFTs and Web3 enhancing design language and being additive to the culture?

Speed. All this new tech makes me smarter, but it really helps me be faster. Speed, as in being first or at least early is a big advantage in just about any endeavor.

The first NFT collection on Ducks of a Feather’s NFT platform is your Flying Formations. The project is not only inspired by Oregon, but gives back to the students of U of O. It strikes me how central Oregon is to your personal narrative, Nike’s DNA, and sneaker design as we know it. What is it about Oregon that rings so special to you and your work?

The University of Oregon gave me a great education. The state of Oregon is a special place. I’ve traveled all over the world and interacted with very interesting people. In short, I’ve lived a fortunate and amazing life up to this point……I have to be true and helpful to the place and the people that molded me. Not to mention that NIKE was invented in Oregon.

I come from a streetwear background and if I were to point to a singular force who most impacted culture and trends in our space over the last couple of generations, it’d be Nike. That’s also why I’m so bullish on Nike in the Web3 space because I know how much your work can shape the NFT narrative. How do you foresee both Nike and Tinker Hatfield setting up the framework and moving the needle for the NFT space?

I’m always optimistic that there will be a new PHIL KNIGHT out there protecting the Innovation Process. I don’t really have all the answers for creating the framework, I’m just hopeful smarter people than me will see the need to support creative thought and actions.

My favorite Tinker designs are the Air Tech Challenge III, Huaraches, Safaris, Jordan 4s, and 11s…. but as the world’s biggest Back to the Future nut, the Air Mag is king. Tinker, you imagined future fashion decades in advance. There’s much discussion now around fashion in the “Metaverse” (however we define this). How do you envision fashion, footwear, and design in this next frontier? What might it look like, and will its purpose and function change?

I believe in the famous quote from the American, turn of the century architect, Louis Sullivan, “form follows function” and I like to say, “form for form’s sake is art and can be quite beautiful, but form that enhances ‘future improved performance’ can be even more so.”

Finally, Tinker, I’ve gotta ask – do you own any NFTs? If so, which ones are you fondest of?

I do not own any NFTs, at this point, because I swear, I’ve been too busy trying to understand them and creating them.

I think I’ll be ready, very soon, to own some. Ya got any ideas?

Well, there is only one that comes to mind…