The collaboration between high-tech industrial-design firm Fuseproject and highly traditional shoe manufacturer Birkenstock USA might not seem natural at first glance. But the partnership makes sense once you know about the Learning Shoe, a product that Fuseproject founder Yves Béhar designed for the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art exhibition Design Afoot: Athletic Shoes 1995—2000. The recyclable design—which exists only in concept—was meant to adapt to the wearer’s foot through reactive material and a computer “learning chip” embedded in the sole. “I would say it’s like a Birkenstock on steroids that could happen fifteen years from now, technologically speaking,” Béhar muses. Apparently Birkenstock agreed.
Since its founding in 1967 Birkenstock USA has had an ardent following—legions of college students and aging hippies that value the shoes’ ergonomic and sustainable principles. But there was one market the $100 million-a-year company definitely hadn’t conquered: the fashion-conscious. Aiming to attract “urbanite” customers, Birkenstock turned to Béhar, who has produced the Architect Collection, 20 styles for women and 15 for men that are being released this year.
“I wanted to look at the qualities Birkenstock is known for: recyclability, comfort, and manufacturing to meet German environmental laws,” Behar says. “Unfortunately these qualities, which are very current, are rarely translated into an aesthetically current product—especially in the fashion industry.” Béhar updated the Birkenstock by making its cork foot bed more dynamic and using new materials for the sole. “We 3-D-scanned Birkenstock’s existing last [mold] and insole, and reshaped the two parts to have more fluid transitions between the different areas of the foot,” he says. Building on basic Birkenstock ergonomics, Béhar added an EVA plastic cushion to the toe area and a TechnoGel heel pad, and created a new sole from double layers of TPU plastic. The EVA and TPU are recyclable, and the TechnoGel biodegrades. “The primary focus of the project was to continue the evolution of what green design can be, to bring in materials that are unusual or not regarded as green yet,” Béhar says.
But it was also important to convey to customers that the philosophy behind the product hasn’t changed. “One of the challenges with a company that has so much to say about what they represent is bringing those qualities out,” Béhar says. “That’s literally what we did by providing windows to the internal technology. We tried to reveal what the design means.” Each shoe is a playful peep show, with slivers of the cork, heel pad, and layers of sole revealed. Béhar adds, “We’re showing the product in a new light, saying, ‘Look, this is cool—and by the way, it’s green design.’”