Winter 2021–Spring 2022

Into the Labyrinth

Designing the carpets that design us

Dan Handel

The year was 2013, and I was sitting in a large atrium hotel in Buffalo, taking a break from the annual meeting of the American Society of Architectural Historians. Aspiring academics trotted alongside senior members of that occult group to catch the panel on the freestanding chapels of medieval Europe or the talk on Lord Chesterfield’s boudoir, but none seemed to be paying attention to the space we were all circulating in.

The hotel was a Hyatt Regency, opened in the mid-1980s as a body double of the better-known examples designed by John Portman Jr. for the chain in the 1960s and 1970s. Apart from the atrium, with its PoMo, turquoise-colored metal structure, the most dominant element in the space was the carpet. Calling it a carpet is perhaps misleading, as it may bring to mind a polite rectangle of a rug, maybe vaguely Eastern in color or Native American in iconography, harmlessly decorating an interior. But no, this was a field of dazzling, oversized oriental flowers, almost obtrusive in its opulence, and as much as I tried, I couldn’t associate the loud pattern and the outrageous color scheme with anything I knew from my art and architectural history education.

The atrium of the Hyatt Regency Buffalo, where the author had his primal encounter with carpeting.

The most striking thing about this remarkable surface was how easy it was to ignore. It flooded the entire floor surface so perfectly that it just seemed natural that you would glide on this cornucopia of shapes and textures, which made no attempt to reference the space of the hotel or the urban context around it. There was something else. Spending enough time observing the space made it clear that the carpet works in support of the hotel’s organization, in setting an atmosphere, and in moving people in inexplicable ways. “Why does it look like that?” was therefore followed by “What does it do?” during that long afternoon of carpet watching. As it turned out, there were no simple answers. The historians were not alone in their ignorance: front desk clerks and hotel managers, perfectly capable of guiding you through the thickets of the city’s urban history or recommending the right drink at the bar, had no idea who designed the carpet and with what motives.

Tracking down the performance of carpets in buildings—that is, not only how they appear, but what other functional and psychological aims they may serve—led me far beyond the familiar territories of architecture, to the logic of industrial production and into some of the most profitable and extravagant spaces being designed today.

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