"When People Get Out of My Way, I Can Create Magic:" The World According to Steven Smith

Collage by Lia Kantrowitz

Dan McQuade

Steven Smith has designed sneakers at nearly every major shoe company. He worked for New Balance on the iconic 574 and 1500 models, as well as for Adidas and FILA and even KEEN, the Oregon-based sandal company. He spent 10 years at Nike. Since 2016, he’s been a Design Director at Yeezy Lab. (He told me he had about “8 to 11 percent” of a hand in the design of the recent Yeezy QNTM basketball sneakers.)

But from 1989 to 1997, Smith was at Reebok. It was there he designed the Instapump Fury, a colorful, minimalist sneaker that still looks futuristic, even decades later. Originally a running sneaker designed to be light and simple, the Fury has since become a canvas for collaborations over the years.

I talked with Smith about his approach to design, and what it took to get the Fury to market.


How did you first come to Reebok?

[Steve Burriss, who I knew from our time together at New Balance] put together this new team called Advanced Product, which eventually became the Reebok Advanced Concepts Group. He was calling me every couple of weeks, like, "Hey, you know, I'm going to do this thing up here at Reebok. I think you'd be the perfect guy for the design side of it." 

At the time Reebok didn’t have the most incredible performance reputation, like New Balance or the original Adidas. And I was like, "Yeah, I don't know—fitness? Aerobics?”

But I went up there and I interviewed with Paul Brown, who was the head of design. And they made me a really good offer a week later. And, Stoughton [Reebok headquarters, in Massachusetts] was so close to where I grew up. I just moved back in with my parents and started out. 

[When I got there] they were still trying to decide the final layout of what this new team was gonna look like—because they had never existed before.… I did basketball for two weeks. And then they put me in cross-training just to wait. Then boom, they moved me over [to the Advanced Concepts Group].

It was a think tank. It was myself, Peter Foley and Paul Litchfield. And both of them had development and physiology backgrounds, and degrees. So that's where it kind of made sense—you've mixed art and science together. 

When I got there, Pump was just launching and they were still trying to fix a few things. So I would run around with Litch learning as much as I could, seeing the issues and complexities, seeing what we could solve and fix and where we could move [the pump unit]. 

I did this series of sketches while I was still in cross-training, on the down low: I drew the Pump 1 and I took away parts of the upper. The pump system was so compelling, and it was just kind of weird how we were making an entire shoe and then slipping this thing into it [after the fact]. 

First I cut out some windows [out of the shoe] and did some sketches. And then I was looking at [Paul Litchfield] like, “Well, why don't we just get rid of the upper?” We saw some companies that were making things like emergency life vests for airplanes. They’d laminate fabric on it to contain the air in a shape. And [we thought], “ Well, we can do that and make a shoe: Get rid of all the foam, all the other junk.”

I did this whole series of whacked-out futuristic sketches and people are like, "What is wrong with this guy? Look at this crazy-ass shit." And you know, one of those was kind of the earliest vision of what the Fury could be. I did the original Graphlite Road with the first “potato chip” piece that had carbon fiber [the Reebok Graphlite had a piece in it that looked a bit like a potato chip], but I drew the Fury first and I was like, “This! This is what we should do.”


What was it like to work at Reebok when the Pump first released?

It was pretty incredible. When I got there, they were still trying to troubleshoot a few things and Litch was like, “Come help me with this.” It was pretty epic. People forget at that point: Due to the launch of the Pump, we passed Nike as number one—only for a few months— but we were the biggest and Nike just like lost their shit, you know?


The Pump was such a big pop culture phenomenon.

It was massive. Everybody was like, "Oh, you can't sell a shoe that expensive." The make-or-break on it, for us versus Nike, when they came out with the air pressure, they looked at it as though it were only good for basketball. [Nike designer Bruce] Kilgore did an interesting design. But Nike looked at it purely from the sport point of view.

We looked at it from the total consumer point of view; the Nike one was very destination-focused. [With Nike] the pump came in the box and you were supposed to bring the whole kit to the court, put this thing on like equipment, and pump it up. But if you lose the pump, it’s gone. You're screwed. It was a beautiful design. I don't take anything away from it. I love Kilgore—he's a friend and he did the Sock Racer, which is my all-time favorite Nike shoe.

But [with Reebok’s] you always had the Pump with you, because it was on the tongue, so you could never lose it. That was the epic difference between the two, between success and failure for those two styles. The Nike one kind of disappeared into ancient history and the Pump went on to become this sensation. 


How long did it take to create the Instapump Fury?

That thing was like a Herculean effort. It took almost two years from the first concept and thumbnail to get it to market. The first of anything is so hard [but then] everybody looks at it like, “that's amazing.” And that's the beauty of good industrial design; you make it look so simple, yet it was so complex. The other thing that we did—that Nike's innovation team at the time wasn't doing—is that we went outside for materials vendors. The Pump itself came from Dielectrics, [a company] that made life vests and medical devices. The carbon fiber came from aerospace. The guys we worked with on the carbon fiber arch pieces worked in the Skunk Works [an elite division of Lockheed Martin] on the stealth planes.

We were kind of the first to really use carbon fiber in the sneaker business; before that, it was in Formula 1 race cars and stealth jets. And the Hexalite was actually a derivative of a Nomex honeycomb found inside of helicopter blades. It’s designed like a honeycomb structure for lightweight strength. When you put the top and bottom film on it, you create these little capsules of ambient air pressure pods. But those capsules—combined with how the structure collapses of the sidewalls of the Hexalite—gets you a cushioning effect. They [the Nomex Honeycomb company] were kind of confounded: “Why do you want to do that? That will collapse.” We were like, “It's exactly what we want! It's controlled collapse, you know?” It’s very funny where all of these [design elements] came from; it wasn’t the sneaker business.


What was the reaction when it finally came out?

Think about that shoe on the wall in a store. Everything else was a very traditional white base, and then that thing comes out. And people were like, "What is this?" You know, it just looked like nothing else. It still kind of doesn't look like anything.


Absolutely. It’s still a unique shoe.

Even then, though, when I first was showing it around Reebok, outside of our team, people were like, “Dude, what drugs are you on?”

But you know, part of what that shoe embodied for me in my industrial design training is: I'm a Bauhaus loyalist in my approach to design. You know: reducing it down to the minimum; less is more; good design should stand for itself; the form should follow the function and tell the story. The traditional shoe had over a hundred pieces in it, with all the reinforcers and stitching, overlays, foams, and backers. We took all that shit out and we got the thing down to like 20 pieces total for the whole shoe. Now, if you look at the Fury and take one piece off it—it won't work anymore. 

It was all holistic; each component did something. See, doing that component reduction allowed us to take the money that all that fluff and crap and padding cost and spend it on the higher-quality space-age materials that were in what the Fury became, allowing us to sell it at a fair market value of $125, which was like medium- to high-end at that time. It wasn't like a $200 Pump shoe. 


Do you think that’s what has helped it last?

I think so. There's a purity to it. What we wanted it to do dictated what it looked like. I say I'm an old punk rocker now, but then, I was kind of a young punk rocker and that shit was like, "fuck you,” in your face. The design, the aesthetic—it's Sex Pistols. It's Never Mind the Bollocks. That's what it represented to me. This is in your face. 


How do you feel that the Instapump Fury is still for sale today?

It's pretty epic, you know? In a lot of ways, I believed it was the right thing to do. And I fought with a lot of upper management there to get it out, because I knew it was right. They fought it tooth and nail because it was disruptive. It was different. It made them uncomfortable. But a real design breakthrough should make you uncomfortable... I'm just a cool, goofy, goofy, goofy kid from Massachusetts, but I had a vision and I'm good at something. When people get out of my way, I can create magic.

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