Ricardo Vestuti got his start in the sneaker industry in the mid-1980s as a designer for Saucony, and since then he has worked for both Nike and Reebok. In the first part of our interview (along with Natalie Espinosa, Manager of Communications & Marketing at the American Federation of Arts), we discuss how his creative upbringing in Venezuela and art-school training at the Rhode Island School of Design led him to the world of sneakers.
Kirstin Purtich: Did you have any particular connection to sneakers growing up, or is this something that came along later in life?
I was always interested in art—drawing and design—and sports. These two things always ran parallel. I was interested in the equipment involved in sports in the eighth grade, which would have been around 1970—1968 or so. I was drawing all the time, and I was drawing shoes—I started really, really early. I kept at it off and on, drawing skateboards and bikes and equipment associated with certain sports. And then in high school in Venezuela I started to collect the shoes for the sports I was doing. I also started to modify some shoes that I had, because you could find shoemaking and cobbler equipment there more easily than you could in the United States.
KP: So you were making shoes yourself?
I was modifying them, sanding them, taking the bottoms off and buffing them, and putting different soles on the shoes. I wasn’t really making the uppers, but I would unstitch parts of the shoes and ventilate them with hole-punches. I was getting into the craft of shoemaking, but only in a light sense, not knowing then that there was a field associated with that.
KP: Did you have anyone teaching you, or were you out on your own?
I was self-taught. At the same time, I was interested in a lot of things—a bit of music as well. I started making musical instruments in Venezuela. To get information about that, I needed books, which I had people bring back from the States. As an expat, when I wanted something that wasn’t available in South America, that’s how I would get it. If you wanted certain foods, or jeans, you would ask people to bring them back for you. This was pre-pre-pre-Internet, so information was hard to find back then. But you could easily ask around in the city, among people who were in the arts, or music, or sports, and find out who was making something—for example, is there anyone locally making violins? I could find that person and talk to them. Caracas was really a great place, because it was a large city, and you could find things relatively easily. At that point I was figuring out how to work with materials like wood and plastic to build instruments.
A violin Ricardo built during his high school years in Venezuela
There was also a whole parallel world, which was my interest in sports and art, so I was exploring where these two intersected—music and art, sports and art. I was thinking about college, and at one point I was going to pursue musical instrument building. I had built a number of instruments, and I thought, “This is an interesting career path, possibly.” But at a certain point I thought, “I don’t think I can do it—it’s too conservative, it’s too narrow a field for me to specialize in.” I stepped back and said, “Well, I’ve got to explore more in the design and art world before I really latch on to something.”
KP: Do you still have any of the stuff you made back then, or is that long gone?
I’ve kept a lot of the instruments—not all of them. For years I have been collecting drawings, sketches, and models—things that I built when I was young. I grew up immersed in the arts. My parents were both in the arts: my father was an architect and my mother was a fine artist. My sister was very artistic too, so I was always exposed to some sort of art. Caracas had really interesting art galleries and the art community was very small, so we knew a lot of the people involved. We spent a lot of time going to shows. So yeah, that was a good place to grow up in the arts.
An electric guitar Ricardo built with a mahogany body. Mahogany was plentiful in Venezuela, and he carved the holes in his freshman year of college, thinking the guitar needed something to make it more unique. The neck is a hardwood—maple—which he borrowed from his sister¹s dorm room bed frame. As a musician and artist herself, his sister didn’t mind, especially since Ricardo ended up replacing the slats on her bed with mahogany. His parents were likewise fine with his use of recycled materials when he told them what he’d done several years later. As Ricardo says, “All¹s well that ends well!”
Natalie Espinosa: Caracas is a city that’s literally covered in art. I remember landing from a flight and seeing the airport floor tiles by Carlos Cruz-Diez, and driving around seeing sculptures everywhere. It is very art-infused.
Yes, it is, it is!
KP: From Caracas, how did you wind up at the Rhode Island School of Design?
My older sister went to art school in Boston, and we had been looking at different schools when she was looking at colleges. From high school in Venezuela there was limited access to information on art schools in the United States, so the only ones that we really knew were the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, RISD, Pratt, and Parsons—the big ones.
RISD was always out there as an iconic American art school. It was mostly through my parents that I learned which ones were the bigger art schools. My dad grew up in New Haven, so he knew the New England school scene. I didn’t know really what I wanted to study, but I knew that RISD was probably a good place to go. I had toured the school very quickly with my sister in 1976, I think, and I thought Providence was a nice-size town to study in—not too overwhelming. I think we went to Pratt as well, but it was kind of a tough time for New York, and it was an overwhelming city. To go from Caracas to New York was a step up in terms of a frenetic and chaotic environment.
NE: And it was a bankrupt city at that time, right?
Yeah, it was not a great time. So that knocked New York off the list, but RISD—it was a good situation there.
NE: Did you major in industrial design? Was that a major that was offered?
No, I actually didn’t. I thought that I was going to pursue illustration, but first I started in graphics. I had a couple of graphics jobs over the summer prior to college and in my freshman year, and I thought, “I don’t think I can do graphics”—it wasn’t going to be satisfying. So I quickly transferred and notified the school I was going to go into illustration. I spent a year in illustration, and it was not for me. It was overcrowded—
NE: I think it still is!
Yeah, it still is. There wasn’t much connection to the professors because of the scale. The goals were also a little bit ambiguous, and it wasn’t for me. My other interest was in cycling, bike racing, and the associated equipment, so I decided to start learning to illustrate that equipment, and also learning to work with materials like metals and plastics.
I had worked with metals and plastics on my own through woodworking and instrument-building—making skateboards and things like that. But the thing I really wanted to learn was metalwork. I had taken an industrial design class and I wasn’t really thrilled about that department’s curriculum, so I decided to go into light metals, which meant jewelry and metalsmithing. My focus going into product was from the fine arts school, but I wanted to apply those skills to more utilitarian products. I wasn’t interested in jewelry, but I was interested in the material. Light metals was a great department because it was very, very small, and you had access to the professors all the time. It was a really good place.
NE: When I was at RISD I did furniture design, but it was for the same reasons. I really wanted to learn the materials, and it was a small department. It wasn’t that I was so into furniture, and that would be my only thing.
Right, I think whatever you pick up there, you’re basically acquiring problem-solving skills.
NE: How did those skills from light metals transfer over to designing mass-produced objects like sneakers?
When I was in metalsmithing, I mostly designed forks, knives, and spoons. My interest was working with metal, but with a utilitarian bent. I really wanted to focus long-term on products that people use—rather than jewelry, rather than ornamental products. I didn’t want to spend time in the industrial design (ID) department because it was a five-year course for the most part, and at the time they were making chainsaw models out of cardboard, and medical equipment. I looked at the things they were studying, and I knew that a lot of the folks in that department ended up in ID consulting firms, which for some reason didn’t attract me. I mean, I knew they were sweatshops—that’s my take on it! [laughs]
I wanted to do something that was a bit more disciplined, so I focused on making fine art pieces that were functional, as well as very tight industrial design. At the time there were a number of flatware manufacturers in Providence, and that industry was still in the United States. Even though they were doing a lot of colonial and historic patterns, I was thinking that maybe there was room for contemporary pieces.
When I left school, I had a portfolio full of different concepts—of course knives and spoons—and people in the industry told me, “This stuff is great, but you might be disillusioned by our industry and the things that we do.” It was nice that they warned me, but I had to find a way to turn what I’d done into something else. After I graduated, I spent about a year redoing a lot of my portfolio, and I went to the career services office, where they used to have this giant Xeroxed notebook of companies looking for certain designers, mural painters, stitchers, and so on. In that book I saw solicitations for footwear designers in the Boston area, and that’s when it dawned on me—I hadn’t realized that footwear was a potential job avenue.
In that book I think I saw New Balance, and Nike still had an advanced research and development office up in Exeter, New Hampshire. And Saucony, which was kind of an older small U.S. brand—they were up in Cambridge. I went to Saucony, I interviewed, and I got the job, because by then I had things that I was working on in my portfolio, now knowing that footwear could be a career path. I had technical drawings of track spikes and speed skates, things like that—these were sports that I was involved with myself, so I had knowledge of the footwear. I talked to the guys at Saucony and I said, “Look, I don’t have an ID background, so there are a lot of aspects that I need to learn on the job.” And they said, “No problem, it’s a pretty quick learning curve.” And so that’s how I got into the field without having to go back to school.
NE: So you started in the sneaker world at Saucony?
Exactly, from 1984 to ’86. Saucony exposed me to everything—running shoes, fitness shoes, aerobics, cleated footwear. It was a very, very small company, and I was one of two designers. At one point I was the only one for a while. From Saucony I turned to toys, working at Hasbro for five years. I decided to work with Hasbro because I wanted to learn about injection molding, which was basically what they did. Rather than going back to school, I was learning on the job. After that I took a year off. I traveled, thinking that I might move to Europe. Mostly I traveled in Europe, and then I came back to the United States and started working with Reebok in 1989–90.
KP: That would’ve been right around the time that the Reebok Pump came out, right?
Exactly. I started around 1990, and I worked in a number of categories until ’95 or ’96, when I was recruited and went out to Nike for two years. At the time I was kind of frustrated with Reebok, so Nike was a good experience and a very interesting place—a big, big company. After two years, Reebok called again and said, “We want to start an office in Portland, Oregon,” and I said that I’d love to help set it up. So I left Nike, but I had to sit out for a year because of a non-compete clause in my contract.
Nike Air Turf Raider, originally released in 1997 and retroed in 2013
NE: The “garden leave” as they call it?
Yeah—it wasn’t a bad time. I did have to spend part of that year in court fighting the validity of the non-compete, which was a little bit stressful, but it was a year off nonetheless. I got to travel and go to shoe shows, this and that.
After that I started up the office in Portland and worked there for about two years. Then they closed the office and I moved back to Massachusetts and Rhode Island, and I’ve been here since. It’s been twenty-three years with Reebok, two with Nike, two with Saucony, and five with Hasbro. And then one or two years in there freelancing and doing some odds and ends.
See the second part of our interview here!
A trail running shoe for Reebok, 2001
A prototype for an RbK (Reebok) basketball shoe, 2007
A men’s casual shoe prototype for Reebok, 2008