PDX Carpet

Roman Mars:
This is 99% Invisible. I’m Roman Mars.

[Audio of Portrland Airport announcements]

Roman Mars:
I flew into the Portland airport recently and when I got off the plane I took a picture of my feet in keeping with the local custom.

Julie Sabatier:
A foot selfie.

Roman Mars:
That’s producer Julie Sabatier, host of the podcast, ‘Rendered,’ formerly known as ‘Destination DIY’. She lives in Portland.

Julie Sabatier:
And I almost always take a foot selfie when I’m at PDX. The Portland airport. I think I do it most often when I come home like, here I am, I’m back in Portland.

Roman Mars:
The feet are actually not the most important thing about a Portland airport foot selfie. It’s actually what’s under your feet. The famous PDX airport carpet. It’s a loud, decidedly 80s, teal color with a repeating geometric pattern. Like any carpet you might see in an airport or a hotel lobby or an office building, it’s probably not what you’d choose for your living room.

Julie Sabatier:
The design, I’m told, is based on the way the runways and lights look from the air traffic control tower and also on the radar screen that the air traffic controllers sees, with that sweeping line going around and around and the dots are the little blips representing airplanes.

Roman Mars:
It’s hard to say if it’s the pattern people are responding to or the bright teal background color, but one thing is for sure the carpet is very, very beloved. There are even signs in the airport now saying, tweet your feet with the hashtag PDXcarpet.

Julie Sabatier:
And it goes deeper than that. Meet Emma, she actually has a PDX carpet inspired tattoo.

Emma Milkin:
It hurt a lot.

Roman Mars:
Emma Milkin is a 21-year-old Portland’s native, which means a lot of the carpet in the airport is actually older than she is.

Julie Sabatier:
She got a tattoo of the carpet pattern on her back.

Emma Milkin:
This side, and so yes, my left.

Julie Sabatier:
Emma traveled a lot as a kid. Her parents are divorced and her dad lives in LA.

Emma Milkin:
I think the first time I ever took a flight as an unaccompanied minor, I was probably 11 and I was freaking out.

Julie Sabatier:
But the carpet had this kind of calming effect on her.

Emma Milkin:
On my way, that was kind of like my sendoff, the carpet was there and I knew that it would probably be there when I got home.

Julie Sabatier:
Several years later, when Emma decided to take the plunge and get a tattoo of the Portland carpet design, she realized, she was not the carpet’s only admirer, not by a long shot.

Emma Milkin:
When I got the tattoo, I posted a picture of it on Instagram and one of my followers tagged @PDXcarpet. Upon further inspection, I was like, oh my goodness, the carpet has an Instagram, the carpet has a Twitter and a Facebook page. And that’s when I knew that it was this notorious Portland entity.

Julie Sabatier:
It’s important to note that the airport communications department says they are not running any of the social media accounts devoted to the PDX carpet.

Roman Mars:
Emma says that occasionally people on social media make fun of her tattoo.

Emma Milkin:
But I’m just sitting back and letting people say what they want about it, but I am in love.

Jeremy Dunn:
I used to live in Boston. I cannot imagine telling Bostonites like, I’m obsessed with the airport carpet at Logan and having someone go, yeah, me too.

Julie Sabatier:
Jeremy Dunn is a designer in Portland and he’s another fan of the carpet. A couple of years ago he decided to have some socks made with the carpet pattern on them. He spent about $500 on the minimum order, which was 72 pairs, so he was hoping some people would want to buy them.

Jeremy Dunn:
I posted them on our Instagram account and I think it was an hour, maybe two hours, and they were all sold out.

Julie Sabatier:
The carpet socks were so popular that Jeremy quit his day job and opened up a retail space.

Roman Mars:
Jeremy’s socks are actually sold in the airport now alongside many other items emblazoned with the carpet pattern.

Julie Sabatier:
Tee shirts, coffee mugs, throw pillows, tote bags, stickers, key chains, bike helmets, water bottles-

Roman Mars:
There’s even a PDX carpet IPA from a local brewery called Rogue.

Julie Sabatier:
That’s what’s so interesting to me about this whole carpet phenomenon. It’s great for PDX. It’s basically free marketing for them, but if the airport had tried to create this kind of fervor for the carpet, there’s no way it would’ve caught on. At least not like this.

Portlanders:
“I love this carpet.”
“I love it. It’s like a big thing. Everyone buys socks and T-shirts.”
“It just kind of represents Portland, like we’re kind of known for this at our airport, this carpet.”
“It makes traveling a little bit more enjoyable, I guess, when I’m in the airport.”
“We always do the selfie. You know, the foot thing.”
“But maybe there’s something that’s just secretly magical about it.”

Roman Mars:
Oh, get a room, people.

Julie Sabatier:
People have extreme, unprecedented, inordinate amounts of affection for the carpet at PDX. When you ask people why they love the carpet so much, they pretty much all say the same thing. When they see it, it reminds them that they’re home.

Roman Mars:
And that’s sweet, but like so many great love stories, I’m afraid this one is coming to a tragic end… That is the sound of Portland’s heart being ripped out of its chest.

News Report:
“Speaking of PDX, workers are replacing the airport’s famous carpet. You know that sea of teal with the red and purple-blue accents?”

News Report:
“It’s always hard to say goodbye, especially for travelers with an emotional attachment.”

Emma Milkin:
A person came up to me and said, “Oh, I love your tattoo. Did you know that they’ve already started tearing it up?” And I just kind of felt my heart sink.

Roman Mars:
For carpet, it’s actually had a pretty long life. The oldest sections of carpet have been in the airport since the late 1980s.

Robin McCaffrey:
There are things that you just can’t repair. You can’t just patch your way out of it. It really just looks tired and like it’s served its life well.

Julie Sabatier:
That’s Robin McCaffrey. She’s an engineering project manager at the Port of Portland, the agency that controls the airport. She’s in charge of the carpet removal project, which started in late January.

Julie Sabatier:
“Can you describe what you’re doing real quick?”

Mike Mackley:
“I’m hooking the clamp to the carpet so the machine can pull it up.”

Julie Sabatier:
Mike Mackley works for 4M Floor Covering. Actually he helped install the carpet here at the end of the C Concourse in the mid-1990s.

Mike Mackley:
“I laid all of this in 1995 for Rubinstein’s Contract Carpets.”

Julie Sabatier:
“So do you have any kind of attachment to it?”

Mike Mackley:
“None at all.”

Julie Sabatier:
“You’re not sorry to see it go.”

Mike Mackley:
“It’s just carpet. That’s my opinion.”

Julie Sabatier:
The machine they’re using to remove the carpet looks like a cross between a motorized wheelchair and a Zamboni. It’s called a Panther. You attach the carpet to the machine and drive it forward to pull up these huge sections of carpet all at once… Most of this work will be done at night so it can have minimal impact on travelers and it’s going to take a long time.

Roman Mars:
13 acres of carpet does not get panthered away overnight.

Robin McCaffrey:
If all goes well and perfectly, it will be earlier than November, but we’re giving it a healthy window and we’re saying before Thanksgiving of this year, it will be completely done.

Roman Mars:
When the carpet is all removed, most of it will be sent back to the manufacturer and recycled, but not all of it. They’re giving away four 1000 square yard pieces. Businesses will have to submit proposals to get one outlining what they plan to do with their carpet, how they will store it in the meantime, and how they will eventually make it available to the general public.

Julie Sabatier:
Whatever happens to the old PDX carpet, one thing is for sure, it’s replacement has some big shoes to fill.

Roman Mars:
People are going to hate it.

Julie Sabatier:
Well, hopefully not.

Roman Mars:
It might be a perfectly great design but people will still hate it. They’ll say, why didn’t you replace all the carpet and use the same beloved design?

Emma Milkin:
If they had decided to just re-carpet with the same design, that would’ve been cool.

Roman Mars:
See?

Julie Sabatier:
Yeah. It does seem like the most obvious solution, but the decision to replace the carpet was made back in 2008, before all the foot selfies and hashtag PDXcarpet.

Robin McCaffrey:
I don’t think at that time there was an awareness of that great sentiment that exists in the community for the carpet. That we became aware of more recently.

Julie Sabatier:
Did you ever consider replacing the carpet with the same design?

Robin McCaffrey:
I think that we had thoughts about people asking that question. Once we were well into it, I had already come up with a conceptual design.

Julie Sabatier:
Now when you walk through the airport, you can actually see a sizable swatch of the new carpet, it’s a darker green with a repeating geometric motif that’s reminiscent of the old carpet, but busier.

Roman Mars:
The busy-ness of the new design actually helps hide dirt and other wear and tear. In fact, there’s a couple of different versions of the new design. One that’s extra busy that they’ll lay in higher traffic areas.

Jeremy Dunn:
It looks like a tropical Jimmy Buffet version of the airport carpet and not in a good way.

Julie Sabatier:
Jeremy Dunn, the sock maker, is not a fan.

Jeremy Dunn:
It seems very swoopy and like, it has more curves to it and it’s a little bit different green and it has some yellow in there and I think to me, those are all things that are not as appealing.

Julie Sabatier:
Are you going to make socks of the new design?

Jeremy Dunn:
Yeah, probably not.

Michelle Vo:
Yeah. I think it’s tough if people don’t have an immediate love. Everybody wishes that their design work was immediately adored.

Julie Sabatier:
Michelle Vo is a partner at Hennebery Eddie, the firm that took on the unenviable challenge of designing the replacement carpet.

Roman Mars:
And like most design work, there’s a lot of thought and consideration that went into it.

Michelle Vo:
The inspiration for this had a lot to do with what you see from the air as you’re coming in and that green color, that’s the main background color for the carpet, is much like that experience of flying into Portland. We have a unique situation here where coming into Portland, the greenery of our surroundings come right up to the doorstep of our city

Julie Sabatier:
And those swoopy lines?

Michelle Vo:
Also, we’re looking at some of that flight path, that pattern of that curvature as you’re flying in, if you were to look at the way that aircraft curve around to align with the runways and come in.

Julie Sabatier:
Did you ever think about how people’s feet would look on the new carpet?

Michelle Vo:
No, actually I didn’t.

Roman Mars:
Even with all this thought and care, designer Michelle Vo is fully aware that this new carpet is going to be a hard sell, but she hopes it will grow on people over time.

Michelle Vo:
I think that the new carpet going down is something that will become endearing. I hope that it will and maybe it won’t reach cult status until 20 years out when it’s time to replace it, but that’s okay. That’s okay.

Julie Sabatier:
You can’t manufacture a cult following for an airport carpet. It has to happen on its own.

Roman Mars:
You don’t say.

Julie Sabatier:
But I do think that part of the reason that people fell in love with the carpet is because people have a lot of love for the airport itself, which has kind of become a microcosm of Portland, with local restaurants and food carts in the terminal, there’s even a mini farmer’s market in the C Concourse.

Roman Mars:
And so maybe the new carpet will eventually become a part of the airport the same way the old carpet did, crucial to the experience of coming home to Portland.

Julie Sabatier:
Then again, maybe not.

Emma Milkin:
It’s a lot like just having anything in your childhood replaced with something. You’re kind of resentful towards the new whatever it may be and you could potentially grow to like it, but it’ll never be the same as the original thing that you loved.

Roman Mars:
Someday, Emma may love the new carpet, like someday I might learn to appreciate ‘Star Wars: the Phantom Menace” with its Jar Jar Binks, and Midi-chlorians microbes that control the force and… no, there’s no way I’ll ever like it. Do you hear me, George Lucas? I’ll never like it. You ruined it. You ruined everything!

Roman Mars:
99% Invisible was produced this week by Julie Sabatier and Katie Mingle with Sam Greenspan, Avery Trufelman and me, Roman Mars. Special thanks to Brian Kramer. Julie Sabatier’s ‘Rendered’ is an independent show from the public radio world carefully crafted for an audience of makers, doers, and curious minds. It’s fantastic. It’s a new member of the Maximum Fun Network along with some of our favorites, like ‘Bullseye’, ‘My Brother, My Brother and Me’ and ‘The Flop House’. Find it and subscribe at renderedradio.org.

Credits

Production

This story was reported by Julie Sabatier, host of the podcast Rendered (formerly Destination DIY). Julie spoke with carpet superfan Emma Milkin; Jeremy Dunn, designer of PDX carpet socks; Robin McCaffrey, engineering project manager at the Port of Portland; Mike Mackley of 4M Floor Covering, and Michelle Vo of Hennebery Eddy.

Music

“Children” — Hauschka
“Child of the Jago” — Lukid
“Meniere’s Vertigo” — Melodium
“Run, Alive, Run” — Felix LaBand
“Tekno Love Song” — CocoRosie
“You’re Gone” — Melodium
“Maybe It’s The End Of Time” — Melodium
“Lichen” — Melodium
“Suture” — Heather Woods Broderick
“The Color of Sunrise” — Lullatone
“Feel it all Around” — Washed Out
“I’ve Been Here Before” — Melodium

  1. Merlin

    The new carpet seems to have a windsurfing motif. Intentional?

    LOL! “You ruined EVERYTHING!” Totally.

  2. Sara

    @Merlin – I think it’s supposed to be evocative of the canopy outside the front of the terminal building rather than windsurfing.

  3. Kit

    The colour and busyness of the new carpet makes it look dirtier than the old carpet already.

  4. @Julia !!!!!!! I would love a Victor Papanek podcast !!!!! This is best idea I’ve heard in a while. I’m Either about Victor directly, or about Nomadic Furniture.

    There are lots of people obsessed with airport carpets. This being one of the best collection:
    http://www.carpetsforairports.com/

    Personally I love the Dayton Ohio(home to the Wright Brothers) airport carpet.
    http://lh6.ggpht.com/_gVpVEMSkMVI/SLoO5x9gC9I/AAAAAAAABnk/l_IZpYr7uEM/s288/IMG_3916.JPG

  5. Frank

    It is easy for me to say as some one who has never flown into or out of PDX, but I actually like the new design better. I think it is nice homage to the old design, with a more pleasant (and functional) background. I also like that new design has a little more movement to it which seems appropriate for an airport.

  6. robyn

    I’ve always loved PDX though I’ve never been in love with the old carpet design. But the new design… eek! Chaos!

  7. Chris

    Hmm…have to say I really don’t like the new design. Old design is pretty great though, sad they didn’t decide to keep it.

    Also…nice Indy boots!

  8. Eric

    Thinking the carpet designers and vexillographers should have gotten together when designing the carpets. Does PDX have its own flag?

  9. zac stafford

    I have an idea that could solve the whole problem. Looking for the contact information for the woman who handles the new carpet project….

  10. For some strange reason I find myself drawn towards the design of the old carpet. Almost like it’s an alien sign or message that if I stare at long enough it’s hidden meaning will become clear! I expanded a picture of it on my tablet and placed it on my floor. I now have my own 7×5 inch remnant!

  11. Brian Rysdorp

    If the original carpet showed too much dirt I don’t understand why they couldn’t of just created a new design that kept the same geometric pattern but placed it on a darker background like a darker blue, a black or a dark gray. The color of the pattern could of stayed the same except lighten the dark blue “runway” lines to maintain visual contrast with a new darker background. The carpet would of maintained a consistency with the original theme and looked even more like a night time view.

  12. Taylor

    I didn’t know about the cult following but I love the wacky old carpet. I’ve been away from Portland for 2 years and I’m somewhat sad that when I finally come back the carpet will be replaced by one with a far worse color scheme. lol.

  13. They touched on this a bit, but I feel like it’s really important to explain the sense of affection and attachment many Portlanders have to their city. It’s not just saying “Look, I’m doing the thing!”- It’s telling your social media network that you’re home and you’re so happy to be back. There’s also the fact that PDX is rated one of the best airports consistently. Ha ha.

    I’m not big into things like this normally, but I always do the foot selfie out of appreciation for my return to my beloved city.

  14. Sergio

    “It’s not to show off their shoes, but rather, what’s under them.” That first pic looked like a pair of Alden Indies. If I could afford those bad boys, I would be taking pictures of my shoes anywhere and everywhere.

  15. Sylvia

    I just listened to this episode today, and as a Venezuelan immigrant in Chile, it brought back memories from our very own version of the PDX carpet: in Venezuela’s international airport there is a mosaic that runs from wall to wall (I mean, along the floor and up both walls) through the full length of the airport. It’s a cinetic art piece by artist Carlos Cruz-Diez, and it’s an important character in the departure pictures of us all exiled Venezuelans. You can go to Instagram and check #cruzdiez and #maiquetia to find them: lots and lots of very colorful primary color pictures, with shoes, or with the people with their bags, about to leave their relatives and go search for a brighter future abroad. As one instagram user puts it:

    “The colorful floor, which has been witness of so many goodbyes, has a name, and it is “Cromointerferencia de color aditivo” (maybe ‘chromatic interference of additive color’?), an art piece by the great Carlos Cruz-Diez, and first unveiled in 1978. It is colloquially known as “the Maiquetía floor” (for the name of the airport) or “the floor of farewells”, by being part of a ritual in which participate all of those who travel out without a return ticket. Its bright colors can be seen as somewhat ironic, given that so many tears have been shed over it, and countless families have parted with their loved ones there.”

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