With his accomplished career, one suspects Matt Holmes has already achieved a kind of design nirvana upon top of which the Black Pin for Career Achievement is, perhaps, a cherry – albeit a sweet one – on top.
Holmes, a Nelson boy, has, through design, ended up quite a way from the top of the South Island. Since May ’97 he’s been based in Portland, Oregon, working his way through the ranks to the position he holds today: creative director of innovation at Nike Global Footwear. There, on a campus of around 10,000 staff, including 800 designers, Holmes works out the future product directions of the footwear and apparel giant.
Talking with Holmes, one thing is obvious. He loves his work; however, importantly, he’s found a way to maintain delight and curiosity, two qualities he exhibited as a sports-mad Nelson youngster extending the life of his weekday tennis shoes ($9.95 Bata Bullets) with metal plates, Shoe Goo, tape and deodorant roller balls (toe-dragger) so his number ones (Nike Resistance, yes, presciently on brand) were preserved for Saturday mornings. He’d literally rip through a pair of Bata Bullets in a fortnight, he says. Modifications were essential.
Born in the UK to creative parents (Mum: sculpture and piano; Dad, “everything”), Holmes was five when he arrived in Nelson, a town that was perfectly suited to his parents’ arts and crafts inclinations. At home, he learnt woodworking, welding, metal casting – aluminium, bronze – air brushing and sculpting. A few years later, the school guidance counsellor, finger perhaps not on pulse, suggested he enrol in nursing school – which he duly did, before being saved from a life of saving lives by a ‘Delorean moment’. That is, he saw a Delorean (you know, Back to the Future’s time machine, if you have to ask you’re too young) on the streets of sleepy Nelson. He saw it when he was answering a classifed ad placed in the Nelson Evening Mail for a pair of Nikes, believe it or not. “It stunned me,” he recalls. “Wow! Somebody is making these things?”
The following day he went to his art teacher on a quest to find out “who does cars, shoes and equipment?” “An industrial designer.” “Why have you never told us about industrial design!?”
One viewing later, of a video showing Phillips designers at work on radios, and he knew; “This was it.”
“It stunned me,” he recalls. “Wow! Somebody is making these things?”
Wellington Design School beckoned. Leon Yap, Noel Benner, Mark Pennington, Tony Wincart and Helen Mitchell were lecturers. Workshop tutor Eric Bond is fondly remembered: “He was just brutal but you learnt so much about perfection; you’ve got to keep doing it until you get it right”. Tony Parker, he recalls, was the only professional industrial designer. “He was our role model…great at rendering and finishing skills. He was super talented.”
After graduating, Holmes’ career followed what has become an almost typical New Zealand design trajectory. He went to Mosgiel, to Fisher & Paykel, to work on ovens and cooktops before joining the DishDrawer design team. Them that achievement squared away, and after seven years in Dunedin, it was time to head offshore. Portfolio in hand he hit San Francisco and was interviewed at Ideo, Sony and Apple. Job offers followed, including, memorably, a position at Apple. “I was sitting with Jonathon Ive,” he recalls. “He said, ‘We’d love you to join our team but it seems like you’re really into sports and fitness. Do you really want to work on computers? Do you think it’s something you’d love to do?’”
Actually, it wasn’t. I've, admiring his honesty, put in a call to a friend at Nike. “They flew me up the next day and I got the job. It was pretty crazy.”