Portland, Ore., is known for more than a few niche interests—among them, food trucks, naked bike rides, and carpet. The latter being the SRG Partnership–designed carpet that for nearly 30 years has covered the floors of the Portland International Airport (PDX), and whose bold, abstract design has garnered a devoted following (see: #pdxcarpet). Conceived in 1987, the carpet—more than 13 acres of it in all—is now being replaced. And, if anything, the decision has only amplified its legacy. Fodder for Instagrams, tattoos, and an assortment of t-shirts, tote bags, and coffee mugs, the unexpectedly iconic graphic was most recently named, in its original form as a roll of carpet, as the grand marshal of the city’s annual Starlight Parade, in May. 

Which is a lot more than most contract carpets can say about themselves.

“For [the carpet] to be so beloved is really a tribute to the people of Oregon,” says SRG principal Jon Schleuning, FAIA, who was among the three-person team that created the original design. “We just happened to hit a very responsive sense within the public that it was something that they felt really did reflect their culture.” 

The SRG team didn’t set out to design carpet, which was still a novel occurrence in airports at the time. Rather, they were tasked with developing a new master plan for PDX's interior design that would highlight the region’s features while helping it become an international gateway. The design centered on the Oregon Market, a collection of shops that remains today and sells products from businesses that call the state home, such as Nike and Powell’s Books. Tying the retail element together with the concourses and terminals “like a great field of grass” was the carpet, Schleuning says. For its graphical pattern, the team struck down too-thematic suggestions of roses and Mount Hood. Instead, they opted for a blue and green color palette that reflected the rivers, oceans, and mountains of the Pacific Northwest, with a geometric overlay visualizing the airport’s runways from above.

PDX Ticketing Lobby with PDX Carpet, 1990
Courtesy SRG Partnership PDX Ticketing Lobby with PDX Carpet, 1990

In a recent SRG blog post, project collaborator and former firm principal Laura Hill, who retired in 2008, explains the design: “Geometric patterns became the solution, representing the Northwest’s spirit but in a way that elevated PDX as an international destination. As we tested ideas, I learned that the radar screens of the control tower show airplanes as Xs and the runway lights as diamonds. Ah, ha! Here was a theme about flight with images that are used internationally. That knowledge led to the pattern that became the beloved carpet.”

For inspiration, Schleuning, Hill, and former colleague Claudia Gentzkow traveled to airports nationwide—Santa Fe, N.M., and Las Vegas among them—that had regional themes. Carpet was just being introduced to airports as a form of sound mitigation, and was regularly victim to dropped cigarette butts and ash burns as well as wear from a steady stream of travelers. Hill and Gentzkow worked with a Brintons mill in Greenville, Miss., to produce the colorful, stain-resistant, woven-wool blend carpet. "This was long before CADD or computer graphics were in common use," Hill writes in her post. "They used the latest computer design technology which allowed us to review and revise the carpet pattern, scale, and colors until we got it right."

Original Oregon Market with PDX carpet, 1990
Courtesy SRG Partnership Original Oregon Market with PDX carpet, 1990

The team designed three versions of the carpet: a large-scale pattern for the main passageways, and two smaller iterations for seating and waiting areas. Somewhere along the way, the former became more than mere carpet underfoot.

Earlier this month, the Port of Portland announced four companies that won a bid to receive scraps—1,000 square yards each—of the carpet. One of the recipients, Aurora, Ore.–based Nagl Floor Covering, is partnering with area studio Yeobo Design through the online My PDX Carpet to upcycle the pieces into products such as doormats, coasters, and framed squares for display.

Replacement of the original carpet will continue through November 2015 with a new look from ZGF Architects and Hennebery Eddy Architects (shown above). Slightly darker and with more curves, the “modernized design,” according to a project statement, brings with it an unsurprising mix of aviation-themed and regional graphics—think airplane wings and tree leaves.

As for the original: “It’s been a very hilarious but also just a satisfying experience,” Schleuning says. “It’s great, the airport. I travel a lot and coming back … there’s a distinctive quality about it. You sort of say, 'Wow, it’s good to be home.'”