We spoke to three local creatives about their work, their inspirations, and their artistic interpretation of Air Max

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Let it be known, Australia is in the midst of a creative renaissance. The cultural cringe that permeated the 1980s, ’90s and beyond has given away to a vibrant, thriving art scene that is every bit as colourful as it is dynamic.

Three local artists at the forefront of this new movement are street artist Elliott Routledge (aka Numskull), motion graphic artist Joyce Ho, and paper engineer Benja Harney.

Each artist was recently invited to be part of the Nike Air Max Lab in Sydney where they were tasked with bringing the design ethos of Air Max to life.

Their final works will be unveiled on Nike Air Max Day, March 26.

Three local artists at the forefront of this new movement are street artist Elliott Routledge (aka Numskull), motion graphic artist Joyce Ho, and paper engineer Benja Harney

Each of the artists has taken direct inspiration from Nike’s HTM initiative, a collaboration between fragment design founder Hiroshi Fujiwara (the ‘H’ in HTM), Nike Vice President of Creative Concepts, Tinker Hatfield (the ‘T’), and NIKE, Inc. President and CEO Mark Parker (the ‘M’).

HTM has been the creative cog in the evolution of the Nike aesthetic since it was launched in 2002 with the redesign of the iconic Air Force 1. Since then, the HTM partnership has produced 32 new releases and been responsible for technological breakthroughs such as Nike Flyknit.

For their own Air Max works, the three local creatives each took inspiration from one of the original HTM collaborators. We interviewed them at the launch event about their work and how they approached this unique design challenge.

Elliott Routledge

aka Numskull

For his Air Max piece, Numskull was inspired by Japanese musician and designer Hiroshi Fujiwara, but his own body of work exists in a balance between expressive mark making and abstract form. Whether it’s a canvas painting, a handmade sculpture, or a massive outdoor mural, each bold composition reflects his mastery in colour theory.

Numskull has taken his eye-catching art across Australia, and internationally to London, Paris, Amsterdam, Vienna, Tokyo, Singapore, and Hong Kong.

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How old were you when you discovered your passion for street art?

“I grew up skateboarding, and my brother and his friends did graffiti, so I was surrounded by people using spray paint. We explored so many different types of spots, most of which had some type of graffiti or street art. It wasn’t until around 2002 that I tried using paint on walls in different ways.”

‘The main focus of my work is to explore colour relationships, patterns and contrast.’

Talk to us about your colour and pattern choices. Does a lot of planning go into that?

“All of my colours and patterns are very thought out. The main focus of my work is to explore colour relationships, patterns and contrast. Similar to the way a sneaker is made, I choose a variety of different colours, patterns and technologies and create harmonious compositions.”

What’s the coolest building you’ve been given to work on?

“One wall sticks out. In 2014, I painted an eight storey wall located above one of the busiest parts of Sydney city. It was part of the Art and About festival and is the biggest wall I’ve painted to date. It’s also one of the largest murals in the city.

“For me, it’s special because of the sheer scale, but also because it’s in a prominent location in my home town.”

Tell us more about the street art community in Australia. Is it growing? Are there more opportunities for artists now than before?

“I’ve been around the street art community for a while now. I’ve seen people come and go, but it doesn’t seem to be slowing down. As a matter of fact, quite the opposite. There are more people doing it now than ever. There are way more opportunities for artists now than before.”

What was the first feature of the Nike Air Max sneakers that grabbed you?

“Obviously, the air pocket or the bubble, and just the overall design as well. For me, the Air Max was prominent in the cultures I was around. It struck a chord with many people in the graffiti art culture. So that was everywhere and I just followed suit.”

Walk us through the creative process for your Nike-inspired artwork.

“My artwork generally is very abstract, to I take information from visual data I see. Nike gave me the outside of the building to do my work on. Basically, I took visual data and elements that I saw on the Air Max and reconstructed them in my own style. Then I’m going to paint it as big as possible on the building.

“I hope people who see it kind of freak out, because I’m going to paint something that’s pretty abstract, but if you look into it you can see the connection, you can see that I’ve tried to tie in the ethos of Hiroshi whilst also putting in as much Air Max 90 as possible and creating my own style on the wall.

“Hiroshi is a pretty mysterious character, but his ability to forecast trends in a calm yet very informative way is very inspiring to me.

“Really, for my Air Max piece, I hope to shock people because I’m going to do something large and pretty bold for the area.”

Do you remember your first pair of Nike Air Max sneakers or when you were first introduced to the brand?

“I’ve always known Nike since I could start recognising shoes. I didn’t get given shoes, I could choose shoes. When I was a teenager, the first pair of Air Max I got was a 90. I got them because I used to go to a lot of dance parties and raves. And that was the shoe that jumped out at me. It’s comfortable, it’s stylish, it’s perfect.”

What do you love most about the Nike brand and design aesthetic in general?

“Nike is obviously one of the leaders in shoe design. I like their style because it’s simple yet tech. To me, that’s really attractive and something I try and create in my own art. So it strikes a chord with me.”

‘There are way more opportunities for artists now than before.’

Joyce Ho

Art director and motion graphic artist

For her Air Max piece, Joyce Ho was inspired by visual-motion artist Mark Parker. The Brisbane-based art director and motion graphic artist brings art to life by weaving together film, graphic design, and animation.

Using the latest motion technology at her bespoke studio Breeder, Joyce tells stories that push the limits of her audience’s imagination.

Joyce’s work has been featured on sites like Art of the Title, Watch The Titles, and IdN. She’s also done done talks at QMusic and TEDxSouthBank.

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You have an impressive portfolio that spans many genres. What’s been the highlight of your career so far?

“Recently, I creative directed my first title sequence for an American TV show called The Expanse. It’s been nominated for SXSW’s Excellence in Title Design award and it’s an absolute honour just to be nominated.

“Another highlight was working with director Patrick Clair on the S1 True Detective titles, which was not only a fantastic opportunity but I also learnt so much working with him. He’s a genius.”

How did you first begin as a motion graphic artist? Were you passionate about other fields of art first or were you always interested in making film?

“I’ve always been a creative person. When I was little, I sketched and watched a lot of cartoons and TV, so I thought about being an illustrator for children’s books or a cartoonist. As I grew older, I began to take more notice of, and interest in, design. For a while I thought about pursuing graphic design rather than motion because there were just more opportunities.

‘I decided to stick with my first love and take the road less travelled.’

“However, I decided to stick with my first love and take the road less travelled. It’s the emotional response I often get whilst watching a film or animation that I couldn’t let go of. I knew it was an artform and something I was really interested in learning.

“I got into a fine arts course with a major in animation and it was there I first heard about motion design. The tiny difference between motion design and animation made it feel like the perfect path for me – the best of both worlds. In animation, you tell the story through characters, but in motion design, you can tell the story solely through design. I haven’t looked back since.”

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Talk us through the creative process, from beginning to end, in making one of your videos.

“At Breeder, we begin by dissecting the brief to pinpoint the core of the project. Then we like to set a few restraints as it helps narrow down concepts. For example, that could be a colour palette or duration of the video.

“Next, we look for reference material that speaks to the project, and through that research, we’ll find a common thread that runs throughout and try and form a concept around that. Then we create a treatment document for the client to give feedback, and once approved, we head into production. Most of the projects we work on, design is at the forefront and drives what we do.

“The best thing about motion design is that no project is ever the same. Our creative process slightly varies each time, which means it keeps things interesting and it’s always a new challenge.”

What’s one of the most challenging aspects of being a motion designer these days?

“Since it’s such a cross-section of disciplines, you need a really wide breadth of skills – a good sense of pacing and timing, animation, as well as design. It doesn’t hurt to also have a grasp of cinematography and editing.

“It’s really important to find your strength within these motion skills and develop one really well. As motion design is highly collaborative, you don’t have to excel at everything but it’s essential to have an understanding of every discipline so you can work well with your team.”

What was the first feature of the Nike Air Max sneakers that grabbed you?

“Definitely the air bubbles, the little clear window into the sole. That is definitely a standout for the shoe.”

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Walk us through the creative process for your Nike-inspired artwork.

“My artwork has taken inspiration from the Air Max 95 and also air flow visualisations. You’ve seen all those experiments where they blow smoke over airplane wings and they create a cool line-work? I’ve taken that inspiration and also what the shoe designer of the Air Max 95 has said.

“He got his inspiration from looking at water erosion and how water would create all these awesome grooves in the rock and also through the muscle fibres of the human body. So that’s where all the gradients in the shoe comes from. I combined those two ideas and created this projection piece. The design resembles the muscle fibres and the rock grooves and then the motion comes from all the air-flow visualisations.

“I also took inspiration from Nike motion artist Mark Parker. He’s all about innovation and forward thinking, and has been a visionary at Nike. That speaks to my industry of motion design. It’s a new field, a cross-disciplined design industry. We use so many different design tools to create our work, so I think that really relates to what Mark Parker’s ethos is.

“I hope viewers really get lost in my art. It’s going be a huge projection piece!”

Do you remember your first pair of Nike Air Max sneakers or when you were first introduced to the brand?

“Being a ’90s kid, I grew up with Michael Jordan being a big thing and the Air Jordans being so popular at school. I was always the type of kid who never had Nike sneakers. I had to beg my parents to buy me a pair. So I remember my first pair of Nike sneakers were this really bright orange, which is ironic because I wear all black now. I can’t imagine wearing orange. That’s really stuck in my memory.”

What do you love most about the Nike brand and design aesthetic in general?

“The Nike brand is super slick. In terms of the all the motion stuff they’ve put out, it’s amazing. I’m always really excited to watch a Nike ad when it comes out because it’s always really great motion design.”

‘It’s essential to have an understanding of every discipline so you can work well with your team.’

Benja Harney

Paper engineer

Masterful paper engineer Benja Harney has taken his inspiration from paper artist and architect Tinker Hatfield. Able to manipulate a piece of paper into something spectacular, Harney has tackled everything from pop-up books, sculpture and animation, to set design and puppetry.

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What was the route to becoming an artist who works primarily with paper?

“My fascination with paper emerged in 2004 whilst I was in my final year of graphic design studies in Sydney. We had a class in rudimentary ‘paper construction’ techniques and I was immediately taken with paper as a medium of expression. It was a real turning point in my life. When I found it, paper construction was an antiquated and nostalgic artform.

“At the time there weren’t many modern creatives looking at paper with a fresh perspective – you could probably count on two hands the number of people around the world who were pioneering the modern possibilities of paper within this new ‘tangle’ design language that was fast becoming the new worldwide design language. I was lucky to be at the right place at the right time doing something that I was passionate about.

“I saw the chance of a unique creative experience and it ignited a determination in me to become one of the world’s best practitioners. I founded my studio, Paperform, in 2005. Paper engineering isn’t something you can really study so I’ve worked really hard over the years to carve out this niche. It was a challenge for me – how can I push it further? What hasn’t already been done? I’m interested in paper beyond the surface of things.”

‘I think one of the challenging aspects of working with one material is to keep on innovating through your creative practice and not to repeat yourself.’

When looking at a blank sheet of paper, how do you find inspiration for creating art?

“I think one of the challenging aspects of working with one material is to keep on innovating through your creative practice and not to repeat yourself. A blank sheet of paper can often be daunting because I ask myself how am I going to make this next creation different from the last. I have found at the core of this challenge lies inspiration, and through this, ideas tend to surface.

“As a natural material paper has inherent limitations, but over the last few years of my practice I have used these traits to my advantage. I take a lot of my cues from the environment around me – both natural and manmade. It’s really important for me to keep my eyes open and I’m always looking at the world and its details. Ideas can come from anywhere at any time so you have to be open and receptive.

“One of my biggest loves is travel and other cultures – Asia, in particular. In my down time, my hobby is studying language. I’ve found that the different and unexpected vantage points that this affords is a wealth of inspiration.”

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Tell us about some of the paper works you’ve created so far.

“Right from the start of my career I’ve tried to be diverse in the kinds of projects I take on. Most paper practitioners around the world tend to focus on one aspect of it, be it pop-ups or illustration, for example. I’ve wanted to cover every bit of ground I could. I find paper as a medium incredibly inspiring. It has been important for me to be unique.

“The flexibility it offers us as designers is vast and it can be applied in so many ways. My inquisitive nature has meant I’ve wanted to try my hand at everything! I started out with pop-ups but pretty quickly moved into paper illustration and model making, subsequently branching out into product and furniture design, packaging, set design, theatre props, fashion design, puppetry, animation, window displays, interior design, site specific installations and fine art.

“Over the last few years, I’ve been attempting to push my projects further, with a focus on just using paper itself – such as interlocking elements not using glue or tape. This approach has completely invigorated my practice. I try and incorporate this kind out of the box thinking into any projects where it is relevant.”

How much planning goes into each piece? What steps do you take before creating?

“One of the best aspects of working with paper is the relative ease of use it brings as a material when you work with it. Usually in the mock-up stages things move quite quickly so we can get a sense of shape colour detail etc. In this way we can generate a lot of ideas in a short amount of time.

“As with any creative process, we then select the more relevant threads and start to refine those. Each project is like a design challenge that needs solving, and usually the right solution presents itself.

“I have a real focus on precision and in this regard planning is very important – if something isn’t perfect, it doesn’t leave the studio. More and more, as the projects we undertake get larger, we are turning to manufacturing elements and this helps us generate the large quantities we need. However, I sometimes feel that when something is made by hand, there is a certain quiet voice that appeals to people on a subconscious level.”

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Walk us through the creative process for your Nike-inspired artwork.

“It was quite a complex brief that we got given so, for me, I really wanted to reduce it down and bring it back to something that was simple. So I came back to the idea of air: I’m going to create a kind of air factory. And I was given Tinker Hatfield [as an inspiration], who’s a Nike designer very much inspired by the Pompidou Centre in Paris, so that’s the base of my idea as well. I’ve taken that as my inspiration.

“So it’s a simple idea, but paper’s a simple material. We’re going to make it complex with what we’re going to do with it. It should hopefully be quite beautiful.”

What was the first feature of the Nike Air Max sneakers that grabbed you?

“I think probably the colour, I’m really inspired by colour. That’s what really drew me in. Obviously, the shape as well is something that I think is quite beautiful and is an iconic thing. Above and beyond the actual construction, the air element, I think they’re probably the two extra, additional features that are interesting about the shoe.”

Do you remember your first pair of Nike Air Max sneakers or when you were first introduced to the brand?

“I’ve been really drawn to Nike a lot lately because of the bright colours. I’m going through a pink phase, having an obsession with pink. I don’t remember my first pair but that’s why I keep coming back to Nike clothes and shoes – that brightness.

“I’ve travelled a lot in Japan. I’ve studied Japanese for the last three years and I’ve been to Tokyo often. I always go to Nike in Harajuku. It’s the most amazing store. It’s always full of innovation and you can get stuff there that you can’t get anywhere else in the world. So it’s always a destination I hit when I visit Tokyo.”

What do you love most about the Nike brand and design aesthetic in general?

“It’s definitely the innovation. They’re the most modern company in the world, I think. They’re doing the most modern clothes and the most modern shoes. And that’s really inspirational. It’s something that I look forward to seeing – what’s coming next! You never quite know and I think that’s really exciting as a brand.”

‘If something isn’t perfect, it doesn’t leave the studio’

Find out more about the story behind the HTM collaborations through this fascinating interview with all three creatives – Hiroshi Fujiwara, Tinker Hatfield, and Mark Parker.

The final ‘Air’ inspired works by the local Sydney creatives will be unveiled on Nike Air Max Day, March 26.

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