More Than Sneakers: Eric Ng
Eric Ng reflects on Air Jordans, architecture and creating an illustrated sneaker series on Instagram.
Words: Matthew Trammell
Illustrations: Eric Ng
The “More Than Sneakers” series highlights community members and cultural leaders. Each story includes unique and inspiring reflections about the impact of their favorite Air Jordans.
Eric Ng starts our conversation about the Air Jordan XI with a question. “I have all these memories with the AJXI from ‘95 and ‘96, but I always wonder — what does the shoe mean to somebody who never watched MJ play?”
Eric’s creative spirit is characterized by this genuine combination of curiosity, openness, and nostalgia. As a visual artist and architect, he understands what constitutes good design, and therefore, he doesn’t separate product from performance. He plays pick-up games twice a week, and to him, Jordans are meant to be laced up, played in and worn, regardless of the impact on his longterm collection.
At 38 years old, Eric is just young enough to have firsthand accounts of His Airness that inspired his creative drive. Today, his collection of 60 to 70 sneakers represents memories from his youth in Sydney, Australia, mainly watching and playing basketball while discovering his passion for design.
As an adult, Eric found himself editing down his sneaker closet and illustrating various pairs that he had both kept and let go of. People follow along with the sneaker series on Instagram for the latest pieces, created as miniatures in pencil and watercolor. His captions are his place to journal about why each shoe is more than just a sneaker from a personal and historical perspective.
Currently, Eric is spending extended time in Warsaw, Poland, where he’s been waiting for international travel to resume before returning to Sydney. At the same time, he’s continuing to illustrate, showing affection-filled details of iconic Air Jordans. Ahead of drawing the new Air Jordan XI Low White/University Red/Black, in addition to the colorways that inspired it, we caught up with Eric about his day job, why he plays basketball and why Air Jordans are more than sneakers.
How would you describe your career as an architect?
I’ve been a full-time architect for 12 years, outside of doing my illustrations and paintings. I’ve worked almost exclusively in houses and residential designs. Most of my experience has been in bespoke homes, and all of it is in Sydney.
I design to a particular person, couple or family’s needs. Maybe it’s a young family, or maybe the client is downsizing. Every single project is unique, and a lot of times, you get to know the client quite well — their quirks, what they’re into and what kind of aesthetic they have. Not everyone goes through Pinterest and knows what they want. When you’re in the design phase, it’s about having a lot of understanding and communicating with your client.
What was your path to architecture?
I’ve always drawn and sketched from a very young age. There was a little bit of influence from family, as well. My father was an engineer, and I was surrounded by a lot of drafting equipment growing up, including tracing paper, ink pens and a drafting table. I don’t know whether that had an influence, but visually, the tools have always been there. I got interested in the spatial relationship and design through learning about architecture. Beyond artistic creations, I wanted to know what my work could mean in the real world.
Usually interests in sneaker culture and art go hand in hand. Which came first for you?
Visual art came first. The sneaker part, or the interest in design, came during my early teens, in high school. I found myself taking notice of things and asking myself, “Why is that the way it is?”
What kind of stuff were you being exposed to in Sydney that got you interested in sneakers, in particular?
My love for sneakers definitely came through sports. Basketball wasn’t a hugely popular sport in Australia at the time, but I loved it. I was never going to be a football player. That was the “I’m back” period of MJ. My cousins were two years older, and at that point, they were very into basketball. I was a little bit younger, so I followed what they were watching and playing. Then, I would take notice of a certain player or a certain team. It’s funny, because we just finished watching The Last Dance, and half of it was just reliving my teenage years.
It was one of the coolest parts of the series, showing MJ as an international figure, and how he made the league global in a way that it hadn’t been before.
Even if you take his global, larger-than-life personality out of the equation, just seeing the amazing things he did on the court via television meant so much to me as a young person. I didn’t even know the scale of his impact at that time. The next day, I’d just run outside and want to play like him. I mimicked everything. All of a sudden, you’re adding a reverse layup to your repertoire, because you saw MJ do it on TV.
How did you start collecting Air Jordans?
For me, it wasn’t necessarily about “collecting.” At that point, I recognized the shoes, but it was about putting them on, going out and playing in them. It was never about, “I need to have this in my collection.” When I was a teenager, it was all about getting the shoes to play basketball.
Is that true for you to this day?
Absolutely. Of course, there are certain ones that feel precious, but for me, the stories are the reason why. A lot of it is nostalgic. If it’s a retro, you think, “Wow, I remember this.”
The Air Jordan XI Low White/University Red/Black, alongside the AJXI Bred and Concord colorways that inspired it
Do you find that illustrating sneakers has given you a better understanding of their physical properties and the designs behind them?
Yeah, definitely. The scale of my illustrations is so small. They’re miniatures, but they don’t lack in details. A lot of the time, I have the physical shoe with me, or I study it through photos. You see how things are put together, the layering. For example, if we take the XIs, you can see the construction of the outsole, the midsole, the rand of the patent leather that goes around and the ballistic mesh that goes behind that.
Why do you make your illustrations small?
It was originally because I didn’t have a lot of time. I’ve always illustrated, painted and drawn, but I’ve had to juggle my art with my full-time architecture gig. Staring at a blank canvas can be daunting, so drawing something small in one sitting felt better to me. I started my sneaker series as a side project, because my sneakers have been with me for a long time. Each one has a story, a reason the shoe means something for me. The series has been a fun way to collate that, document that.
“All of a sudden, you’re adding a reverse layup to your repertoire, because you saw MJ do it on TV.”
What inspires you about the Air Jordan XIs from a design perspective?
From a design and aesthetic point of view, obviously the patent leather that was very different from everything else on the court at that time. As a kid, I was blown away by the technology that went into the design, and I couldn’t believe that there was carbon fiber in the middle of the shoe. You wouldn’t have associated carbon fiber with basketball shoes, at least back then. The plate is so well integrated within the XI’s sleek design. There aren’t that many lines or distracting elements.
For that particular shoe, it’s as much about the stories as the design. As a sports fan, and as an MJ fan, he came back and lost to Orlando in the XIs. The next season, he came back, 72-10, and he was wearing the XIs. That stood out to me. When you say the XIs, you don’t just think about the patent leather, it’s what MJ did in them.
Why do you feel that Air Jordans are more than sneakers? You’ve answered it so well throughout this interview; they’re stories.
There’s that layer of it, the larger-than-life, MJ part of it. To me, they’re more than sneakers once you put them on. Once you own a pair, it doesn’t stop there. You lace them up. You make your own story with them. What are you gonna do in the shoes he once wore? You attach your story.
So what kind of baller are you, Eric? How’s your game, man? When you lace up, what are you doing out there?
[Laughs] At this point, and at this age, it’s much more about running between two screens, catching the ball and shooting it. I’ve been finding more efficient ways to play.
The Air Jordan XI Low is available in North America starting June 27 on Jordan.com and SNKRS. It’s currently available at select retailers in the rest of the world.