Before founding his own studio, Michael DiTullo worked for almost a decade designing shoes for Nike, Jordan and Converse. So it’s perhaps no surprise that when he was hired to design acoustic panels for Kirei, he made them like a giant recycled shoe.
Her name? Air deflector. And it’s the first time a new recycled Nike material called Fluff will make its way into a commercial product outside of the company.
Maybe this story seems small. However, acoustic panels (or baffles) are a silent juggernaut in the architectural world. That was a $7 billion global market in 2020. It’s basically a soft material that you put on walls to absorb sound. Typically constructed with rounded edges and plastic-derived foams, the materials and design work in concert to break up large, loud sound waves into smaller ones. When these sound waves bounce around inside the baffle, they actually collide and cancel each other out.
“That’s how you get this idea that sound waves are ‘damped,'” says DiTullo. They literally kill each other! (But don’t worry, acoustic panels are one of the main reasons you can eat in a restaurant and still hear the person next to you.)
When developing a new baffle for Kirei, an acoustic panel company focused on sustainability, DiTullo was looking for a way to make its design more environmentally friendly. It was already using a shell made from dozens of recycled plastic water bottles. But he wanted to fill the hollow container with something soft and eco-friendly to absorb more sound and perhaps mitigate waste in the process.
And that’s when his mind flashed back to his days at Nike. Nike has a program called Nike Grind, where it collects old sneakers and grinds them down to make new products. The Nike Grind we’ve seen so far also tends to be a rubbery material, created from outsoles. This type of Grind was repurposed for Nike’s own shoes. It’s rarer to see the celebrated material in architecture – Nike Grind used in carpet padding and gym tiles is all well and good, but it doesn’t exactly scream “object of desire.”
But it turns out the Grind program has plenty of material beyond its famously rubbery “Grind” it’s trying to find a second life for, including something called Fluff. Instead of being made from the bottom of the shoe, Fluff is made from the top of the shoe, the “upper” of a shoe that may contain leather, canvas, and other soft components.
On the ground, Fluff looks like cosmic dryer plush, with flecks of color. “You get this constant inconsistency,” DiTullo says. “It’s so varied, but it’s so constantly varied that it looks uniform.”
DiTullo realized that Fluff would work perfectly inside his baffle design. “It’s basically stuffing this thing with cotton balls,” says DiTullo. But Fluff looked good enough not to want to hide it. At Nike, he learned that design should showcase the mechanical technologies inside a shoe, and he wanted to do the same with the Fluff inside Air Baffle. So he cut a long oval in the shell with the same shape as an Air Max air bubble. (Because acoustic panels are often chosen by architects and interior designers years before a building opens, it may take some time before you actually see Air Baffle in person.)
As DiTullo points out, Nike’s Tinker Hatfield designed the original Air Max in 1987 after being inspired by the Center Georges Pompidou in Paris, which features an exposed bubble-shaped escalator on the outside of the building.
“It’s ironic that we have a shoe, the Air Max One, inspired by a building,” says DiTullo. “And now this building material [Air Baffle] is inspired by a shoe.