I've never been to Portland, but I've seen the airport's carpet a million times. If you asked me to draw a picture of the delightfully geometric 80s design, I could probably do it with my eyes closed. How, you wonder? Hipsters. That's how.
Hipsters just love that blue-green carpet at the Portland International Airport (PDX). The 25-year-old design has been spun off into so many clothing lines and social media accounts, you could call the PDX carpet a hipster icon. Not for long, though. Last month, airport officials began ripping up the 14 acres of stained, fraying fabric that cover the terminal floors and replacing it with a curvier new design. And the hipsters are pissed.
The very 80s origins
Over two decades before Portlandia introduced the world to the inside jokes of the Pacific Northwest paradise, Portland was a sleepy city. But it was also gearing up for a renaissance, a reinvention that would turn the old trading post in Mount Hood's shadow into a city fit for the 21st-century. To make this possible, the airport would need to get bigger.
In the 1980s, the Portland International Airport underwent a series of renovations and expansions that would eventually yield two new new concourses, moving sidewalks, and a small shopping mall. All of this new floorspace would need new carpet, so airport officials hired SRG Partnership for the job. The local architecture and design firm quietly decided to draw inspiration from the airports X-shaped runways as seen from the control tower. The dark blue, purple, and red pattern on a teal-colored background reflected the popular design trends of the time, though it hardly seemed like would become so timeless.
Workers laid 28,000 square feet of the iconic carpet throughout PDX's terminals in 1987. Jon Schleuning, the founding partner of SRG Partnership, had designed the glitchy look with the help of his colleague Laura Hill. (Hill recently wrote about the design process.) The team got lots of compliments on the design at the time of the installation, but they never expected it to develop a cult following.
But the airport expansion foreshadowed a much more ambitious plan for Portland. A year after the new carpet was glued to the floors of PDX, the city's Bureau of Planning adopted an ambitious initiative called the Central City Plan. The near 200-page plan aimed to "guide the Central City into the 21st-century" by boosting the economy and spurring smart growth. That meant preserving the Mount Hood corridor, expanding retail and office space downtown, extending the Light Rail system, and building a huge new convention center. In effect, Portland was preparing for a huge influx of visitors—and hopefully residents, too.
The artist mecca
For a complicated set of reasons, Portland's wish came true. With the 9os came the dot com boom and a massive explosion of computer-related industries throughout the city. This meant that there were lots of jobs for young developers and, more importantly, young graphic designers. It didn't hurt that Portland's rent was cheap or that the city was surrounded by natural splendor. All things considered, Portland was one of the hottest cities of the 90s in terms of growth.
Then the bubble burst. However, Portland was still cheaper than Seattle to the north and San Francisco to the South, so it attracted refugees of all types. The local music scene thrived. The designers that lost their jobs at startups found new ones at local companies like Nike and Adidas. Meanwhile, the city became a Mecca of sorts for visual artists. Estimates vary, but it's safe to say that thousands of artists moved to Portland during this time period, many of them walking on that increasingly iconic PDX carpet in the process.
As the 90s turned into the early aughts, this trend only continued. However, it wasn't long before Portland's success as a city spelled the end of the now well trodden PDX carpet.
The hipster's paradise
In 2006, PDX airport officials decided it was time to remodel again. In no uncertain terms, this meant that they'd need to replace the fraying—but very hip!—carpet that had been installed nearly 20 years before. Officials were unanimous in deciding that the design would be refreshed. In other words, the iconic PDX carpet was going to die.
At the time, nobody realized that anybody would even care about the carpet. They were wrong. Once Portlanders and friends realized that the PDX carpet's days were numbered, they took to social media to pay tribute. The idea went viral. First, there was a Facebook page and then came the Twitter accounts. Before long, the PDX carpet design start popping up in physical goods. The trend apparently started with socks and quickly spread to T-shirts, mugs, water bottles, neck ties, bike jerseys, beer-can holders, and human bodies.
Maybe it was Portland's burgeoning reputation as a hipster paradise that attracted people to the design. Maybe it was the nostalgic tendencies of locals who remember the city in a different light. Maybe it was the local artists and graphic designers who founding new ways to showcase the design. Maybe it was just the sheer power of good, timeless design. But whatever the cause, the market for PDX carpet-inspired products has exploded in the past few years.
"We were taken by surprise at the response. We had no clue that somebody would buy something that resembles a carpet pattern," says Candace Vincent, the general manager of Made in Oregon, a store specializing in local wares that's sold over $65,000 worth of PDX-carpet designs. "People came in asking for the items, and not just at our [PDX] airport store. It seems to be particularly popular with our younger customers—teens, and high school and college kids."
So it was Instagram. All things considered, the PDX carpet seems to show up most often in Instagram pictures of young travelers' feet, taken when they arrive in Portland for their big hipster pilgrimage. Look at them.
The new carpet
The new carpet is pretty ugly. And it's not, like, charming and iconic ugly like the old PDX carpet. It's supposed to be inspired by the original design, but something about it makes me think it should be in a retirement home somewhere in southern Florida.
However, the old PDX carpet design is bound to remain immortal. The Port of Portland is now just giving away pieces of it that are in good condition to anybody who wants this and recycling the scraps. Workers are literally tearing up the old carpet, while fanboys and girls watch and hope to take home a scrap. More specifically, airport officials will make the non-disgusting old carpet available to vendors who can then sell the scraps of carpet to fanboys and girls. (The rest will be recycled.) Who knew a carpet could win such a cult following?
Someone's already trying to establish a social media presence for the new PDX carpet. So far it's pretty sad:
The mixed legacy
I can't help but wonder if I'll ever see this famous carpet in real life. Even if I do, at this point, the meaning will be a bit lost on me. I don't have any nostalgia to draw on. I don't have any memories of life-changing moments in that little airport. And I'm not even sure if the people who made the PDX carpet internet famous do either.
A friend of mine from college grew up in Portland and doesn't quite like the hype. She wrote in an email thread with some other Portlanders:
Sadly, I'm not sure I can be at all wistful about it. If nothing else, upon disembarking the plane, the carpet symbolized the glaring provincialism of my beloved hometown. The gaping hallways of an airport that is never crowded — why would it be? — with a sea of dated and tacky carpet that, like everything else in Portland, is reappropriated as "charming" "quirky" and the muster that "Keeps Portland Weird." Which, to be noted, is a saying that originates from Austin.
One of her best friends from home promptly replied:
I AM DEVASTATED BY THIS!
IT IS THE WORST DECISION THE CITY OF PORTLAND HAS EVER MADE!
the new one is ugly as fuck. you can quote me on that.