A long, long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, a small army of gigantic mechanical creatures walked upon a snow-capped planet called Hoth. This image, once frozen in the memory of science fiction, was thawed by artist/designer Bill McMullen in 2004, when he created a unique toy version of the All Terrain Armored Transport (AT-AT) Imperial Walker from the blueprint of spade adventure flicks, Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back (1980). McMullen calls his his vinyl creation AD-AT as a way to combine "ad" from adidas and "AT" from the AT-AT.
McMullen’s reputation for creating vinyl toys is served with a twist, blending new concepts that reinterpret the original product during their golden era of the early 2000s. He painted the silhouette of the adidas Superstar (“Shelltoe”) sneaker on a vinyl Imperial Walker to look more like the three-striped shoe had grown legs, equipped with blaster cannons in its off-white clamshell-shaped head. As a former designer of rap album covers for Def Jam Recordings, McMullen’s AD-AT paid homage to a staple of hip-hop fashion, the adidas Superstar.
Ten years later, after the limited-edition foot-tall version shook up the vinyl toy community, the AD-AT is back. McMullen recently built a 10-foot tall version for Canada’s first Design Exchange “This Is Not A Toy” exhibit. As McMullen took a road trip from his sunny California home to icy Toronto, he explained how he made the new AD-AT, compared it with his smaller AD-AT, and addressed its misconceptions. Check out our Interview: Bill McMullen Talks His adidas Superstar-Inspired AD-AT. The force is strong with this one.
Image via Bill McMullen / The unfinished wooden 10-foot tall AD-AT in McMullen's design studio.
Sneaker companies run things like the Empire might, methodically and consistently beating down our wallets with dope designs.
What motivated you originally to put the adidas Shelltoe together with an Imperial AT-AT walker?
To put it simply, I like to combine things I like. The walkers and the adidas Superstar (the "Shelltoe") are two things I totally love. The image of Run and DMC coming down the steps in the "Walk This Way" video, wearing the Shelltoes, the original ones with the toe box in a white rubber that didn't quite match the white of the leather, just stuck in my mind as one of my favorite sneaker images.
I was always trying to mix that imagery into designs and drawings. I don't know why I got so hung up on combining the two, but once I started drawing it, it started making so much sense— powerful machine, iconic sneaker, instantly nostalgic for kids who grew up with Star Wars and the first waves of hip-hop.
Do you think some opinions of the original AD-AT were taken out of context—the idea of a sneaker company representing an ominous corporate dark side?
Well, like I said earlier, it wasn't imagined that way, but I see how it could be thought of like that. Remembering of course that these sneaker companies run things like the Empire might, methodically and consistently beating down our wallets with dope designs.
Image via Bill McMullen / Bill McMullen pictured with the AD-AT head on his road trip to Design Exchange in Toronto.
How long did it take you to create the original AD-AT and the new AD-AT?
Ha! I’m still painting the large one, so that's difficult to answer! I've been building the large one for about four weeks. The toy took much longer to finish, starting with a back-and-forth between a couple of sculptures of drawings, sculpts, and changes, and eventually shipping 18 months later.
Now that you've built the AD-AT Walker to such a large scale, would you consider building one even bigger, like to the size of a Jeff Koons balloon dog sculpture?
You're kind of on to something—there is an even larger object that I was trying for Miami Art Basel in 2012. I'm planning on making it for some other show. After making this thing, I realize I wouldn't have been able to do it then. I'd have a hard time now, even with all the methods I've learned on this.
Can you describe the materials used to create the AD-AT?
It's a combination of very practical approaches: mostly a lot of machined and formed wood, with a bit of welding and foam-shaping. And of course paint.
What is your preferred medium?
I like wood and concrete a lot. The project dictates what I choose to use though.
What's next for this AD-AT after Design Exchange?
Working on some more pieces for a show based on the wood speakers and music equipment.
No one knew the weather was going to 'strike back' and make it so ridiculous.
How has it been transporting it? Can you describe what it's been like carrying it cross-country?
Difficult journey with the weather this week. The project came together at the end of December with the good people at the Design Exchange and myself agreeing that although the timeframe was short, it could be so cool that we should try. The final week was always scheduled for transportation but no one knew the weather was going to "strike back" and make it so ridiculous. Snow, and wind, and trucks. Steve Albini knew what the fuck he was talking about when he talked about "the power of independent trucking."
Image via Bill McMullen / The detail of the AD-AT measures up to its inspiration with knee joints and footpads.
Would you re-approach building the Air Max shuttle toy at a larger scale?
That would be awesome! There aren't really many situations like the “This Is Not A Toy” show, where making a large sneaker sculpture makes sense, but I'd love to make the ShuttleMax at this scale.
Do you think we will catch up to the Empire Strikes Back with real AT-AT walkers?
The scale of Imperial Walkers is pretty impractical, I would say. Plus they fall down! Seems like the machines from DARPA-funded Boston Dynamics—that Google just bought—with their animal-like "Big Dog" robots, are a more likely scale in the future. I'm guessing Google wants to send those robots into the wild, mapping and photographing unpopulated areas. You'll probably see one run past you while you're camping.
Image via Bill McMullen / Final piece installed.
Image via Bill McMullen / The AD-AT's painted deployment bay with the adidas signature three-stripe logo.
Image via Bill McMullen / Unfinished AD-AT shelltoe head on its way to contrasting the deployment bay.