Visiting Michael Friton’s former studio—tucked into the back of the old Pendleton Foundation Mill—is like stumbling into some hybrid cabinet of curiosities-come-high tech laboratory. Giant paper-form insects float above cardboard diagrams, sewing implements and findings; plaster foot casts and anatomical models rest on windowsills; Norwegian felted shoes nuzzle cowboy boots and English riders; scraps of leather, wool, nylon, and myriad other fabrics lie encased in see-through bins, and in stacks on tables.
I’ve come here to talk to Michael about shoes, but can’t help fixating on this jumble of items, including the massive wooden looms that make up his studio’s lofty perimeters. Like every other object he’s collected over the years, there’s a story behind them. And like so many other innovators, Michael’s objects have a distinct purpose beyond feeding a curious mind—they inform his work.
Back when Michael was still a student at University of Oregon, he scored a part-time gig at the Bowerman Lab (an athletic footwear think tank created by the Co-Founder of Nike), thanks to his involvement in track and field (he’s a former Junior National Champion in Steeple Chase and Olympic Trials competitor), and a keen interest in world cultures (he studied anthropology).
After managing the lab for seventeen years, Michael went on to spend the next eleven working at the Nike headquarters. There he developed fourteen patented prototypes, including the award-winning Goatek trail traction system, and the Trunner. His work at Nike eventually led to collaborations with Michael Curry (best known for his masks and puppetry for Disney’s The Lion King musical), where he designed a pop-up shanty village for Kids in Bosnia and consulted on the design for the giant wings Britney Spears wore on tour. Remember those eye-catching compression sleeves tennis great Serena Williams sported? Michael designed those too.
Since he left Nike to launch his own business developing footwear prototypes, Michael has consulted with niche-market companies like Soft Star and Keen. And in his spare time, he’s also taught footwear engineering classes at the Art Institute of Portland, volunteers for Weiden + Kennedy’s Camp Caldera, and holds paper sculpture workshops for educators (creations a lot like those featured in the documentary Between the Folds).
He recently moved his studio from the back of the old mill to the little red house adjacent to the Woolen Mill Store, which will allow him enough space and flexibility to expand his workshop offerings, as well as provide an area to retail some of his own designs.
And what about the looms? They made the journey next door too, and it’s no surprise. Whether he’s designing shoes or bringing a variety of alternative forms to life, everything Michael does somehow comes back to them—as a symbol of his passion for finding new ways to translate flat materials into three-dimensional shapes, and honoring the traditions of those who were constructing shoes long before Nike was even a glimmer in Bowerman’s eye.
The light in this space is incredible. How did you end up here, and what’s it like to work in a building with so much history associated with it?
I love the space. There’s definitely a feeling of the history here. I have a lot of connections to it. My stepmother once worked in this building; she used to sew buttons and labels on shirts. It used to be a weaving operation, then a stitching operation, and at one point the Mill End Store was here. I found it just riding my bike around the industrial area over here one day when I was looking for a space.
So tell me what you’ve been up to since leaving Nike
I went to Sweden for a while and was weaving, and then I went up to Norway—just looking at weaving and old footwear in the museums. Norwegians have a long history and culture around felted footwear and clothing, and have been doing it for thousands of years. I’ve looked at a lot of that history, and have been doing stuff with moccasins, things like that.
Researching traditional methods.
Yes—there’s a lot of old stuff that worked so well, and was good for you. Modern shoes flex in one direction, but in every other direction they’re pretty tight and rigid. The foot can articulate a lot, kind of like your hands, but you limit that [with modern shoes], which leads to knee problems and hip problems. If you go to cultures where they don’t wear shoes like we do, were they wear simple sandals or no shoes at all, they don’t have those problems.
So why are we torturing ourselves in Western footwear?
Even athletic shoes?
It’s ninety percent aesthetics and marketing. You know, make your shoe look like a racecar, or rocket ship or something, but it doesn’t do anything for your foot. Of all of the different technologies, there’s nothing that significantly gives you any kind of performance enhancement.
What about the new minimal footwear and barefoot running shoes?
When I was in college, we would jog barefoot in the infield, or at the sand dunes. All of the famous athletes would run barefoot to strengthen their feet. The African runners grew up barefoot, and have really strong feet. It’s not anything new really, but now it’s become popular.
Though a lot of the shoes they’re making now that claim to be minimalist, barefoot type shoes, still restrict the foot.
They’re not allowing that full natural motion, that you’d get if you were barefoot. If you’re really going to do the barefoot thing, just go barefoot!
Your work seems to be focused on reclaiming traditional methods, and keeping the design as simple as possible.
The easiest thing for me is to go back in time. All of these older processes were left behind, especially in footwear: felting and knitted product, stitch and turn construction. With modern shoes, you’re throwing away as much, or even twice as much, material to make them as the finished product. With old methods, everything went into the shoe. There’s very little waste.
If you look at the items they found in the bogs, they had gloves where they would start out as a knitted structure, and then go into a woven structure, and then there might be some braiding, all in once piece, all by hand. There isn’t any machine we have in the modern world that can do that. They were creating these really complex structures that were designed to work with the body that we can’t even match. All that “ancient technology” has been thrown away because of the primitive weaving machines they began using during the industrial revolution.
So, you know, why not go back and look at that old stuff and bring it up to date?
For information regarding upcoming workshops, classes, or to visit the studio:
The Creative Workshop
Michael Friton Design LLC
8550 SE McLoughlin Blvd
Milwaukie, OR 97222
For more information about leasing space in the Pendleton Foundation Mill:
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