Published on June 18, 2012  |  Written By Justin Lintag

Lace up and walk with us for a moment here. Once upon a time in 1989, there was a footwear and apparel company who ran an ad campaign with the tagline, “Delivered From The Future In A Cardboard Box”. The name of that company was Nike, and 23 years later in 2012 that statement could not ring more true. With the most technologically progressive arsenal of footwear materials and methodologies, Nike is an undisputed leader in pushing ideas of innovation for both sport and fitness. Harboured within that renowned berm enclosure of their headquarters in Beaverton, Oregon, works a remarkable designer who has proven his worth many times over as a valuable cog in the machinery of Nike Inc.

His name is Nate VanHook, a name reminiscent of a mad scientist perhaps, and a job title that bears some similarities in many ways – he is Senior Footwear Designer of the Nike Sportswear division. Born and raised 20 minutes outside of DC, graduate from Philadelphia University’s program for Industrial Design, Nate made his humble way to Beaverton in 2008 and has been shaping his own legacy amongst the elite designers at Nike ever since

I always like to bring some of Nike’s rich DNA into a shoe. You have this great history of products from 1972 to the present that you can sample through like a DJ.

His track record thus far? Quite impeccable. The first shoe he ever had his hands in creating was the Nike Aina Chukka, a piece of footwear that took the woven work that Nike’s perfected into a more suitably wearable silhouette. From then on, each project that he has spearheaded has been received with instant adoration from avid sneakerheads far and wide – the ACG Lunarwood, Meriwether, Macleay, Woven Footscape Chukka, Lunar Flow, to name just a few. All of which culminate to his most recent addition to the list, Kanye West’s signature Air Yeezy II, a project that marries the immaculate taste of a pop culture icon with the level of craft and performance that only Nike could bring to the table. It is the intangibles of Nate’s personality that make each of his creations special, especially his latest collaborative assignment with Mr. West. His meticulous eye, his aesthetic connection to the Nike consumer and his healthy obsession for the brand’s innovative pursuits old and new are likely the traits that afforded VanHook the opportunity to be lead design hand for Yeezy’s second coming.

We had met Nate on one of NSW’s previous team field trips to Vancouver and he so graciously welcomed us to visit him at the Campus the next time we were in Oregon. So on the brink of releasing arguably one of the most culturally iconic pieces of footwear in the last decade (next to the Nike MAG), the roadways of 1 Bowerman Drive opened up to us once again so that we could meet face to face with the designer of the moment. We got a peak at the multiple sketchbooks, the detailed notes and spoke with him about his personal upbringing, design ethos, thought processes and how he continues to help Nike deliver the future one cardboard box at a time.

What was the road like going from getting your degree in Product Design to working up to becoming a Sr. Footwear Designer at Nike, NSW?

After graduating from Philadelphia University in Product Design, I was an Art and Design Teacher for a year. I later freelanced as a furniture designer in Los Angeles, which evolved to designing wetsuits and design direction with a surf company for five years. I enjoyed surfing and the culture while traveling in California and Australia. It was a great experience designing performance products that were very utilitarian and adhered to the adaptability of the environment. We became very driven towards researching less environmentally impactful materials, manufacturing and processes.

While living in LA I started creating street installations and artwork for gallery shows in the US and Europe. I was interested in pursuing it full time, and was accepted to Central St. Martins in London to get my Master’s of Fine Art. During the same time I had noticed the great work NSW was doing, and seeked out opportunities with Nike as well. Fortunately a door opened at Nike and I was packing my bags for Portland instead of London.

The title, Senior Footwear Designer at NSW, is a moniker revered by both aspiring designers and sneakerheads in general. In a nutshell, what does your current role actually entail?

In my role I work together with a talented team of designers and help shape the products that release each season under NSW. Our goal is to create product that is lightweight, seasonally relevant, and very wearable. We challenge ourselves to create new products that help solve a problem with design by using new materials and techniques. By offering feedback and learning from one another we are able to create something fresh and new.

Can you speak on the culture and talent enveloped in the Nike Campus in Beaverton, Oregon?

The Nike Beaverton campus is very diverse with talent traveling from all over the world to work at Nike. It is truly amazing. I am constantly inspired by seeing what others are working on and learning about how they approach certain problems. You constantly grow and evolve as a designer when you are exposed to what others are doing, taking bits and pieces here and there to add to your experience and expertise.

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As a designer, I’m not interested in other brands because that’s not going to help me create anything new [...] I am really interested in new methods of making.

The notion of “crafted quality goods” has almost become a trend in many ways. What is your perspective on the relationship between innovation and classic design or futurism versus heritage?

Heritage and Innovation are hand in hand, you can not build something new without knowing the past. When designing I always like to bring some of Nike’s rich DNA into a shoe. You have this great history of products from 1972 to the present that you can sample through like a DJ.

You have adopted the phrase “It’s A Process” and the “Methods Of Making” into your vernacular as a designer, can you expand on those two notions?

The process that goes into designing a product is what it is all about. All the mistakes and learnings constantly build upon each other to make each future project better. The process that went into each piece is as interesting as the final product.

I like that there’s less branding with many of the shoes that you have designed.

That’s a design aesthetic used for certain models, I like to play up the design and integrate the branding in a subtle way.

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We understand that Japan has been influential in shaping your thought processes in design. What are the advantages for you in travelling to experience their culture and injecting that into your own work?

Japan has had a huge influence in my design process. Just in the way of thinking, the attention in detail, and the level of pride that is taken in every task. It’s engrained in culture. It’s truly fascinating to go to Tokyo, a place with 12 million people and there’s no trash on the sidewalk.

I’m curious to know if there are any other footwear brands that you like and/or pay attention to.

As a designer, I’m not interested in other brands because that’s not going to help me create anything new. I’m looking at futuristic architecture, furniture, fine art, and sculpture, and things that are around me everyday. I am really interested in new methods of making. We’re working in the future; this stuff is “delivered from the future in a cardboard box”.

If there were only one shoe that you could wear for the rest of your time, what would it be?

It would be the Nike Woven Footscape Chukka. It’s super breathable and there’s nothing added– just bare bones, while having performance cushioning and flexibility in it’s midsole.

Although this may not be in your foreseeable future, when all is said and done, how do you want people to describe you and your career as a designer?

If I am remembered for being a good dad and husband that is cool with me. As a designer I want people to look at what I have created and hopefully enjoy some of it; realizing that I took some risks and thoroughly enjoyed what I was doing.

Words & Interview by Justin Lintag
Design & Photographs by Mario Soriano

Nate’s Notables – An abbreviated timeline of some of VanHook’s most memorable designs throughout his tenure at Nike Sportswear.

Nike Lunar Wood

“The idea behind this whole collaboration with Wood Wood was how to bring Nike innovation in the form of the Lunar Glide midsole and making a waterproof shoe meant for urban trail.”

Nike Aina Chukka.

“This is the first shoe I worked on in NSW. Aina is a Japanese word associated with the earth, beauty and joy. It was a progression from the Nike Toki that focused on a sophisticated breathable silhouette.”

Nike Lunar Macleay.

“If I hadn’t been traveling to Japan I don’t think the Nike Macleay would exist. The more and more you travel, the more experiences you have. The Macleay blends a little of Japan with Portland.”

Nike Lunar Orbit.

“The ultimate airport shoe.”

Nike Lunar Flow

“Lunar is the Air of our generation. The Air Flow was so ahead of its time, and marries up well with Lunar and Fuse.”

Nike Zoom Meriwether.

“For a normal conventional boot you’ve got to lace and unlace, I feel like you’d need to have a stool by your front door. With the Nike Meriweather you’d never have to.”

Nike Manor.

“That little hidden notch in the midsole shows you that you’ve got something a little special in there. You can wear these shoes all day, everyday.”

NSW Woven MayFly Summer 2012

“Just Released”

Air Yeezy II

“The anaconda textured side panel, the toe overlay, the articulated tongue, the enscribed lace toggle – everything was truly looked over by [Kanye] – crafted specifically for him.”