Paul Litchfield, who has a background in exercise science and muscle biochemistry, joined the sneaker industry in the mid-1980s, and until recently served as the Vice President of Advanced Concepts at Reebok. In part 1 of our interview (along with Natalie Espinosa, the American Federation of Arts’ Manager of Communications & Marketing), he tells us about his early career and the pivotal moment when he became the progenitor of the iconic Reebok Pump.
KP: Did you have a connection to sneaker culture when you were growing up?
PL: Back in the early 1970s, my uncle was a salesman for Adidas, which was great, because Adidas and PUMA were the two big Boston-area footwear companies at that time. that were popular. I wasn’t much of a sneakerhead at all [laughs], and I really didn’t anticipate doing much in the sneaker business, except for the fact that I was hoping to do research on sports performance, from a human physiology and muscle biochemistry perspective. That was my orientation.
Magazine advertisement for the Reebok Pump, 1989
KP: Was your position at Reebok your first job in the sneaker industry?
PL: It was my first full-time job in the sneaker industry. I had previously been contracted to conduct some performance research for Nike when I was in Aberdeen, Scotland.
KP: How did you wind up doing research in Scotland?
PL: My graduate school professor, the late Priscilla Clarkson, who supervised my Masters Degree work, had a colleague at the Royal Infirmary in Aberdeen. I was doing some invasive work on blood and muscle tissue, and it was difficult to get human subject review committees to agree with some of the stuff we wanted to do [laughs]—
We were looking at strength and performance. Professor Clarkson’s colleague, Ron Maughan, who was a very active researcher in the field at that time, was running the Institute of Offshore and Environmental Medicine at the Royal Infirmary. It was funded by petroleum companies—Aberdeen, a city in the north of Scotland, is a North Sea oil port. I did a bunch of research in human performance up there—it was really cool.
KP: What did that entail?
PL: Basically it involved putting people through a bunch of strength- and cardio-endurance activities and looking at how the body reacts, both from a blood-chemistry standpoint and from a muscle-tissue standpoint—looking at how the body behaves when you exercise it pretty hard.
NE: Was Reebok one of the first companies to take that leap from shoemaking to design based in scientific research?
PL: Actually no, Nike was the first, at least in the United States. When I was an undergraduate at the University of New Hampshire, the campus was the next town over from what was called “Nike Exeter.” Nike Exeter was one of Nike’s East Coast development facilities in the early days. From my perspective, it was the Mecca of doing cool human performance and footwear stuff. They had a research lab that was attached to a small shoe factory in Exeter, New Hampshire, and they had very, very cool research equipment. They had state-of-the-art ways to assess performance. I would say that Nike established the space race from a research perspective, in the late 1970s and early ‘80s—a few years before Reebok became a prominent player.
The original Reebok Pump
KP: What was the team like when you started at Reebok in 1985? I understand it was a pretty small research and design team.
PL: Yeah, there were six of us—three designers and three researchers, plus our boss.
NE: And they all had different backgrounds?
PL: Absolutely. On the design side, we had one classically educated industrial designer and a couple of shoe designers from Europe. On the research side, the staff were based more in science research than in mechanical engineering—biomechanics and things like that.
KP: I can’t do an interview with you without talking about the Pump. Can you tell us a little about the inspiration behind that iconic shoe?
PL: The inspiration came from two places. First of all, Reebok had launched its basketball line around 1986–87, and we were doing very, very well. Reebok had become a pretty prominent footwear company based on the aerobics craze, the running boom, and the emerging basketball marketplace, which was really starting to heat up. Players were getting bigger, they were training differently, and they were starting to become superhuman in terms of size, strength, and endurance. The game was changing a lot, so we were looking for better basketball shoes with better support.
Around that time we also bought the American licensing rights to Ellesse. That was, and still is, an Italian sportswear brand that focused on tennis—they did apparel, but they also made footwear. One of the prototypes that Paul Fireman [Reebok’s owner at the time] received was a shoe that borrowed a lot of the components of a ski boot, like a pump and actuator for fitting the inside of the boot around a shoe, and he thought that was a cool idea. That prototype was kind of a Frankenstein boot, but it helped us to coalesce some of the ideas we had already been having about better straps and better ankle support.
With that momentum, we also started looking at things that were used in emergency services, like air splints and air management systems for shock victims. We worked on creating a product that incorporated elements of air-bladder systems designed to immobilize and support injured people.
KP: Can you tell us a little about the two prototypes for the Pump, which came before the shoe was actually manufactured?
PL: I was part of a very, very small advanced-technology group, and we had an opportunity to work with a design group in the Boston area called Design Continuum. We created a couple of prototypes, which were made in Korea in late 1988 and early ‘89. You actually have one of the prototypes in your exhibition. Functionally, the prototypes worked, but they weren’t something that could ever be manufactured, so we were at an impasse.
The Pump Arrow and the Pump Shot were the two prototypes. One of them had a little inflatable device sticking out at the heel, and it looked a little bit like a Frankenstein thing, but the other one was really cool, because it had a pump bladder under the heel. The internal bladder was the coolest, because it could inflate and deflate. However, we did a bunch of testing with local basketball teams, high school and college teams. We found that even though the automatic pump—the one that filled up when you walked in it—was technically very cool, it didn’t interest the players. They liked the pump better when they could bend over and press the heel on their own to inflate the air bladder. They were really getting into it, really digging being demonstrative with the inflation, walking around and testing the feel. That was very informative to us, because that clarified which model would move forward.
We also brought the Pump prototypes out to the Atlanta Super Show, which at the time was a legendary annual sporting goods show. It was a marquee event that offered brands an opportunity to promote, sell, market, and essentially create a buzz for their products. The Super Show was not only for footwear brands but for all the sporting-goods brands—the outdoor brands. When we brought both our Pumps to Atlanta, they were in this secret room that you needed to get a pass to access. People could go in and try on the shoe, and they were intrigued by it.
Original Reebok Pump prototypes
I thought our shoes were really cool, until I went to the Nike booth, where I saw—on full display, under glass, with big spotlights on it—this thing that the Nike team was working on: the Air Pressure. The shoe that Nike ultimately manufactured—the white one with the gray back and red circle—was the shoe that was being shown under glass. To me, it was super impressive. It was a work of art, it was really all dialed up.
While everyone was really enthusiastic about Reebok’s shoes that year, those prototypes were pretty rudimentary in their styling. I knew that while our shoes worked well, and you could definitely feel the air bladder encompass your foot and create support, the shoes themselves were ugly and couldn’t be manufactured.
KP: In the end, though, the Nike Air Pressure was only in production for one year, whereas the Pump has gone on for over twenty-five years. Why do you think that is?
PL: Nike had decided to use an off-board pumping mechanism, which was a well-engineered, elegant device, but, in my opinion, it created a bit of a liability. We had two versions of an on-board pumping system—one on your heel and one on the back of your heel, one manual, one automatic—which was more efficient for the wearer.
When we got back from the Atlanta Super Show, everyone was very enthusiastic, but we had a couple of important meetings where we had to accept that we couldn’t manufacture what we were showing. As you can imagine, that went over like a lead balloon! We had to double back and, at the last minute, I took the shoes and all the information to our director of design, Paul Brown, who was one of the original six back in the day. Paul Brown did the Freestyle—he’s a very, very good shoe designer. In the middle of that week, I told him that we needed to move the pump onto the tongue, and I asked him to please design something that looks cool—that’s how insightful I am [laughs].
Paul took it away over the weekend and came back with an artist’s sketch of the white, blue, and orange basketball shoe that we ended up making. As soon as Paul showed me the drawing, he explained that he’d decided to make the pump look like a basketball, and as soon as I saw that, I thought, “Holy crap, that’s awesome!”
From there, we forged ahead. This was in March or early April 1989, and we had to go on this absolutely insane, full-on sprint for the next seven or eight months to get the shoe done. It was one of the most intense and insane professional times that I’ve ever experienced. But I was fortunate to be the person responsible for it, because I had to depend on a lot of people to work on the different aspects of the project and I often had to pull people away from their other responsibilities when I needed to get things done. I learned a great deal about the process and about the manufacture of pumps and air bladders, which was very interesting, looking back on it. At the time it wasn’t very cool, because my whole professional career depended on making the damn things!
Paul Litchfield with brass molds for the bladder of the Reebok Pump
NE: In terms of design, did moving the pump to the tongue make it easier to attach that component at the end? Why was that key?
PL: It has everything to do with shoemaking. The shoe is constructed from several pieces and made into the finished “moccasin,” and the moccasin is attached to the foam on the bottom. The sequence of events is almost like a jigsaw puzzle. Designing something to be made once is a challenge, but designing it so it can be manufactured and yet still have the effective performance that you need, that takes a different level of attention to detail.
Brass mold for the bladder of the Reebok Pump
The design and manufacture of the Pump air bladders was one of our biggest challenges. The first Pump air bladders fit and performed well, but the first production air bladders incorporated many features we assumed were needed in the shoemaking process. Although we maintained the overall shape of the original pump air bladder, we very quickly removed many of the complicated steps used in the first manufacturing process, not only to reduce cost but because we didn’t need it in the shoemaking. It was a really cool integration of two separate manufacturing disciplines: from the almost clean-room environment of making the air bladders to the cut-and-sew and gluing—you know, the operations of a shoe factory. It was a super cool education.
Stay tuned next week for Part 2 of our interview!