"Until we talked about changing it, people only ever complained about the carpet,” says the Port of Portland’s Kama Simonds. She is talking about our city’s great airport carpet saga, which kicked off in late 2013 when word spread the Port planned to replace the shabby floor covering, then well into its third decade. Movie and TV crews filming at the airport usually wanted to cover up the pattern, custom-designed in 1987 by a local SRG Partnership. A tealy turquoise number with pops of red and lavender and a loose runway inspiration, the old carpet had the ’80s flavor of a Patrick Nagel painting or a disposable mouthwash cup. But to many, it meant home.
Suddenly the pattern, which was not trademarked, popped up on everything from socks to coffee mugs to soccer scarves, online and at local boutiques. Social media was flooded with commemorative images of feet on the carpet itself. National media pounced on yet another example of marketable Portland weirdness.
After much buildup, removal of the 13 acres of carpet began in January 2015. That May, when a roll of carpet with googly eyes served as the grand marshal for the Rose Festival’s Starlight Parade, many Portlanders thought the whole thing had jumped the shark. But for the four area businesses that won contracts to take the old stuff (for free, provided they pay for transport and make it available to the community) the craziness was just beginning.
“It was win-win,” says Kevin Harrison, store manager at Milwaukie’s Carpet Mill Outlet, which turned 1,000 square yards of PDX carpet into frameable one-foot squares and so, so many two-by-three-foot floor mats. (Today, they just have a few scraps left.) When the mats went on sale, Harrison remembers, “The cars were lined up all the way down the street. We were bringing water to people waiting.”
Randy Schultze, co-owner of Nagl Floor Covering, credits his daughter-in-law and son with hipping the Aurora-based company to the carpet opportunity. “It went better than expected,” he says of their project, which included luggage tags, coasters, alphabet letters, and die-cut state-of-Oregon shapes—some items are still available at the Aurora showroom. Local design company Two Dogs in a Boat warned the carpet might be “a little stained, faded, or beat up” in its doormats, magazine racks, and sling-back chairs.
The frenzy has died down, but Harrison and Schultze say they still get the occasional inquiry. At City Liquidators, the fourth company to get some carpet, customers could still get a $249 carpet-covered ottoman as of press time. (The one-foot “selfie squares” were sold out.) A Portland-themed bar in Tokyo opened in fall 2015 with a framed rectangle on its wall, and there’s some on display in Northwest Portland at the Peculiarium.
Can the replacement, a deeper green, swishier pattern developed with Portland architecture firms ZGF Architects and Hennebery Eddy, strike the same chord? It might depend on your level of nostalgia for the old stuff. “I always know it’s Portland when I look at the floor,” said my 7-year-old son, unprompted, as he dragged his penguin-shaped suitcase across the new PDX carpet this summer. To him, it already means home.