Last year a much-beloved, long-term resident of Portland International airport in Oregon was unceremoniously evicted. The airport’s striking teal carpet, with a pattern that looked like an inscrutable videogame from the Atari era, had softened the tread of visitors since 1987. Over the years locals had grown so fond of it that its pattern had found its way onto all the wearable accoutrements of hipster fashion: T-shirts, socks and tattoos. There was even a poem written about it. It was, without doubt, the most-photographed airport carpet in the world. Though the airport authorities may have had enough of it, such was the love for the floor covering that, when it was eventually ripped up, remnants of it were auctioned off. Admirers can now buy a three-by-four inch relic of the old carpet for a mere $17.
Airport carpets are instantly recognisable yet infinitely various. They provide a colourful static underfoot as we travel, a vibrant, visual white noise that lingers after it has been traversed. These carpets have transcended their role as industrial furnishings to become a medium of interior design in their own right.
For the past decade I have been cataloguing and critiquing these giant artworks. Aided by an enthusiastic and ever-growing group of airport “carpeteers”, scores of airport carpets from around the world have been collected on the website carpetsforairports.com. Here are a few of the best:
Penticton Regional Airport, Canada
Be careful you don’t lose yourself while staring into the hypnotic whorls of the carpet at the tiny Penticton Regional Airport. Are they ripples on a pond? The paw prints of a many-limbed beast? Miniature crop circles formed by the midnight visitations of an alien civilisation? The truth might be stranger yet. Located in an under-populated corner of British Columbia, the carpet at Penticton must be a weapon in the subliminal campaign by the municipal authorities to increase settlement in the region. Unwitting travellers stand transfixed by shimmering loops. Their ears are deaf to the importuning of the tannoy. Janitors vacuum around these breathing statues. Before they know it visitors find themselves clad in plaid, just another moose-hunting citizen of Penticton, town motto: “A Place to Stay Forever”.
Benazir Bhutto International Airport, Pakistan
What are we to make of the subtly Minimalist nylon carpet in Islamabad? An ancient Pashtun method of book-keeping? A hymn to the unceasing static that afflicts Islamabad’s television broadcasts? Some of the carpet’s lines flow together seamlessly. Others fail to match up. Is there a more potent metaphor for a life in transit? And is that my connection to Chittagong I’ve missed?
Alice Springs Airport, Australia
Is this the greatest airport carpet in the world, or is it the greatest airport carpet in the universe? The jury is still out. What we know for certain is that this carpet can make the traveller feel like they have fallen into the Dreamtime, the Aboriginal idea of place beyond time inhabited by heroes. In many respects Dreamtime is like an 11-hour layover but without the duty free. An old adage in the carpet industry says that carpet never wears out – it “uglies out”. But the carpet at Alice Springs should last forever.
Heydar Aliyev International Airport, Azerbaijan
There is a war afoot on the airport carpet in Baku. Light-brown triangles fight with dark-brown triangles. Triangles of an indeterminate shade seek sanctuary between them. This is an allegory of the intractable impulses in human nature. Will our voyager side with good or accede to evil? Will she opt for aisle or window? Will she have an unsatisfactory massage in the departure lounge or buy a winsomely packaged yet ultimately undrinkable bottle of the local hooch? Or will she, like those moderately brown triangles, opt for a grubby compromise?
Nanjing Lukou International Airport, China
The carpet at Nanjing Lukou International Airport morphs beneath the jet-lagged traveler like a psychedelic oil spill, appearing at once both vibrant and very possibly carcinogenic. In this it clearly references Nanjing’s burgeoning role in chemical manufacturing and oil refining. However NKG’s design transcends petty allusions to human endeavour; it is an aesthetic triumph that lives on outside of place and time, sticking in the mind like Daqing crude to the tail-feathers of a Great Cormorant.
So, traveller, next time you scramble for the baggage carousel, pause a while and turn your eyes to the ground.
Do you have a favourite airport carpet? Send your snaps to firstname.lastname@example.org and we’ll publish the best