PDX Carpet: Fame, selfies and life after the airport

How the Portland Airport's carpet rose to fame, and why so many are mourning its removal.

PORTLAND, Ore. -- For more than 20 years, the carpet at the Portland Airport lived a life largely out of the public eye.

The teal rug with a repeating navy, red and purple pattern was not often noticed by the people trudging over it, catching planes or returning from trips. At most, travelers noted the bright mid-80s design, especially as it became more and more dated.

But then something happened. Some say it was a Twitter hashtag. Some say Instagram. But for one reason or another, the carpet became a sensation.

"It's the million-dollar question," said Kama Simonds, spokeswoman for the Port of Portland. "Which came first, the carpet following or Instagram selfies?"

Simonds said the PDX carpet really took off about 18 months ago. Now the carpet has not one, but two Facebook pages dedicated to it, with more than 12,000 fans. Thousands follow the carpet on Twitter and many more have tagged photos of their feet when they visit the airport, using the hashtag #pdxcarpet.

But, like many tragic tales, the carpet's death scene was written long before it became a star.

How the PDX carpet rose to fame

In an event that seemed completely unremarkable when it happened, the Portland Airport installed new carpet in 1987.

The carpet was designed by local architecture firm SRG Partnership, Inc. Staff toured the airport and decided to use a view from the traffic control tower of the runways and taxi ways as inspiration for the carpet's graphic pattern.

Still, few took notice of the design.

"I don't recall folks talking about the carpet a lot other than to note, 'Oh, you have carpet,'" Simonds said.

It's estimated that 320 million people have passed over the carpet through the years, and eventually the carpet began to show its age.

"There are places where it's so threadbare you just see the backing of the carpet," Simonds said. "There's a bunch of staining that's been ground in over time. And then there's gum, just worn in."

During a 2006 inspection, at least half of the carpet was deemed in poor or failing condition. The airport decided to replace 13 acres of the old carpet with a new design. The replacement carpet was ordered shortly afterward, in 2007.

The official ripping out of the carpet began Jan. 23, 2015. The process should take a few months, and the new carpet will cover the space of 10 football fields.

But by the time the new carpet installation was set in stone, the old carpet had garnered the sort of following Hollywood celebrities pay PR agencies to cultivate. It is, arguably, the most famous airport carpet in the world.

Quirky airport carpets serve double duty

The New York Times, NBC Nightly News, the Wall Street Journal and USA Today have all written fawning articles about it. Celebrities have taken "carpet selfies" and writers have waxed poetic about the graphic design.

There's even a booming industry around the carpet. You can buy PDX carpet socks, bags, shoes, shirts, and scarves.

Related: New beer made to look - not taste - like PDX carpet

Alan Cassinelli, who owns PDXCarpet.com, said he has been amazed with the number of orders he's had for PDX carpet-themed items.

And while he's sad to see the carpet go, he thinks the carpet's removal is what's really fueling the current obsession.

"With the removal starting this Friday, it's prompted people to get something that reminded them of the carpet once its gone," he said.

Removing a piece of airport history

That removal officially started Jan. 23 at 11 a.m. Around 50 media professionals from local and national outlets gathered to witness the carpet being ripped out.

Staff from 4 M Floorcovering in Portland ripped out long sections of the carpet, rolling it up and carting it out to a storage area.

A media frenzy, appropriate for a carpet of this level of fame, ensued.

After the ceremonial ripping Friday, the removal will be done mostly overnight on weekdays through November 2015.

During Friday's event, the one question everyone wanted answered was: Will the public be able to own a piece of the old carpet?

Simonds says yes. The airport will gather proposals from people who want to do something with the material. They will then give them 1,000-square-yard lots of the carpet to sell, give away or reuse.

So in the future, people could have PDX Carpet door mats, coasters, or even framed pieces of art – but fans will have to wait and see. The airport said it has begun accepting ideas.

A new carpet, sort of the same as the old carpet

The new carpet at PDX has big shoes to fill, of course. The Portland Airport had no idea the carpet would become such a sensation when they commissioned the new design, which is similar – but not the same – as the old.

Simonds said the color scheme, however, was intentionally similar.

"We didn't want it to be such a drastic departure. We didn't want to go from a repeating pattern to, say, floral. There are elements of the design that we wanted to preserve," she said.

Like the old carpet, the new one also takes inspiration from graphic elements found in the airport. Instead of the control tower and taxi ways, the inspiration this time was curved architecture at the airport, including the glass canopy that shelters travelers as they walk from the parking garage to the terminal.

Even though the ceremonial carpet removal started Jan. 23, patches of new carpet have already been installed. The Port of Portland tested a few swatches in the Oregon Marketplace, a high-traffic area where they could see how the new carpet design from different manufacturers held up, and which shade of green they liked the most.

The darkest carpet won. It's forest green with curved lines of yellow, red and blue.

The design is one that Simonds hopes will eventually symbolize the same sense of place and love for Portland as the old carpet did.

It might just take another 20 years.


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