Let me disclaim one thing before I get into the beautiful details of reviewing Art & Sole: Contemporary Sneaker Art & Design; I'm profoundly unhip. Even though I visited my grandmother in NYC on a yearly basis and spent a few years of grade school in Asia, I spent high school in Nebraska, so my insecure trend-following formative years were a world away from city graffiti or Tokyo fashion. That said, Intercity's Art & Sole blew me away. For those of you like Turtle on Entourage who relentlessly follow tiny variations (and limited editions) of sports-themed footwear guaranteed never to see a basketball court, you have my deepest apologies if I confuse an Air Max 90 for a 95. But for the rest of us, Art & Sole should be an eye-opening visit to the wild nexus between commerce, guerilla art, mass production and customization that is limited edition sneaker design.
Art & Sole is divided into two parts: "Sneakers & Art" and "Art & Sneakers" (I thought four ampersands in one sentence might be a few too many). Despite the palindrome, the titles are pretty self-explanatory. "Sneakers & Art" showcases collaborations between artists and sneaker manufacturers. Much of the work consists of vivid graphic art applied to the (occasionally literal) canvas of a major brand sneaker, but some of it showcases the very leading edge of industrial design: laser etching, CNC stitching and algorithmic patterns. Both the one-offs and the oxymoronic mass-customization series impress with beautiful photos and succinct and clear explanatory prose for those of us who don't recognize names of sneaker designer / graffiti artists like Futura 2000, but also of some surprise footwear icons like John Maeda. The second part, "Sneakers & Art" includes sneaker inspired 2-D art that, while cool, shouldn't be nearly as interesting to industrial designers as some one off custom jobs like Takara Tomy's Nike Transformers, fully articulated transformable sneakers. Just as amazing as the content of the book is the fact that Intercity managed to catalog and photograph hundreds of customized sneakers, many of which were produced in extremely limited runs, and all of which appear to be in spotless condition. For anyone interested in where popular fashion is headed, and where industrial design is likely to follow, Art & Sole represents quite a catalog of possibilities.
Art & Sole provides an insiders view into a subculture I'm not very familiar with (though it's still easy to admire the beautiful panoramic line art of Katsuya Terada's tattooed Air Zooms), but none of the shoes provoked buyers lust for me. To those insiders who dream of wearing the newest, most limited kicks, however, Art & Sole is guaranteed to be a near-fetishistic compendium. I hope, however, that not every reader takes it quite as far as INSA's Sneaker Fetish art work, which manages to combine foot fetishism, sneaker consumerism and the female form. I'm not sure that the level of rampant consumerism he's commenting on is quite healthy, but I'm totally thrilled that the customization movement is making people really care and think about their possessions. Now if we could only get them to take their kicks out of the box and actually put them on their feet …
For me, it isn't the Tom Luedecke's gorgeous laser etched Nike's, or even I Have Pop's Concrete Dunks (so real you can only tell the material from the chipped bits) that impress me, but that big brands like Nike and Adidas have received that Midas touch of legitimacy. I don't quite know whether to be dismayed that rebel art forms like graffiti or skateboarding have been co-opted by corporate America, or thrilled that antiestablishment icons are finally getting their dues. The work in Art & Sole provides a microcosm of fashion through which to gaze upon consumer trends. I'm sure product design will follow. It's tough to know who's stolen who's thunder or whether Basquiat would be happy to see his work on the side of a Reebok. I presume his estate is pretty happy. But what I do know for sure is that a reissue of Adidas Adicolor blank white shoes complete with markers for the user to color with presents an opportunity for ownership and participation in product design that's sadly rare in our throwaway society.