Milliken-Ontera: From airport to city, art lights the way

Four artists using carpet as a medium and the floor as a canvas turn Wellington International Airport’s southern terminal floor into a grand piece of art.

Let’s talk art. It hangs on gallery walls, right? Maybe it’s a sculpture in a town square. A carving, etching or painting. An island wrapped in fabric. A stencil spray-painted on a back-alley wall. It’s uncommon to find art on the floor, but sometimes you find things in unexpected places.

Like the floor of the Wellington Airport South Terminal. It’s not one artwork, but four, each a commission in carpet for four artists with a strong connection to the city: Sam Broad, Timon Maxey, Rachael Gannaway and Catherine Griffiths. Respectively, each piece is, in its own right, an abstract blast of colour, a musing on the nature of Wellington, or a personal interpretation of it.

The architect of the extension was Warren and Mahoney, a practice with good history at Wellington Airport. In 2010, Warren and Mahoney, in conjunction with Studio Pacific Architecture, designed ‘The Rock’ – the angular copper-coloured lounge that quickly became a landmark building for the airport, and a fitting addition to the ranks of Wellington’s more expressive pieces of architecture.

The new South Terminal extension is equally as successful but in a different way. Scaled for people, it offers a generous passage that opens to views in all directions. It has rationality and rigour, courtesy of the diagonal lattice architecture that steps through the building. It also has warmth, which comes from the tones of timber – the structural laminated beams that catch the late afternoon sun and send long shadows ranging across the wide span of carpeted floor.

The carpet-scape is memorable, too. It was inspired by Wellington’s Writers Walk, says Katherine Skipper, Principal of Warren and Mahoney’s Wellington Studio, referencing the typographical sculptures that dot Wellington’s waterfront. “It’s about the idea that you’re on your journey and you experience this moment of art immersed in the landscape. We were quite taken with that and with how the airport as a major piece of infrastructure for Wellington could continue that idea of pockets – or moments – of art.”

The process of realising the project was as unique as the outcome. “It was an interesting process architecturally. We went to the market with a conceptual idea and asked the flooring suppliers to submit a response based on their response to that conceptual idea. Ultimately, this led to a collaborative design process with Milliken-Ontera, the airport’s graphic designers Cato Brand Partners, and ourselves. It was atypical, but really worthwhile and very collaborative”.

After winning the supply rights for the airport, Milliken-Ontera and Cato developed a main carpet tile design that would both connect the elements of the overall building layout while also seamlessly incorporating each artwork. The main body tile concept was light twinkling on the harbour at night, across ripples of water, says Skipper.

“Not many people know this, but the colour strips in the main body tiles are all angled to point towards the city – because the airport’s got so many different angles, there was no logical place to set out orthogonally, so we chose a geographic destination instead.”

The challenge for Milliken-Ontera, was not just creating each artwork in a carpet tile design layout, but also graduating the size of the carpet tile from 457mm to 500mm across the space. Each artwork was transferred to custom Colourweave carpet tiles via high-tech printing process. The individual sections, each made up of around 35 uniquely patterned tiles, were technically prepared by Milliken-Ontera’s Sydney design team. They were then seamlessly installed with the main body of carpet tiles.

As Skipper says, at an airport, one of the big concerns is wear and tear – people spilling food, gum, mud, those sorts of things. The beauty of this system is that damaged tiles can be easily peeled up and replaced with new prints, giving a new, literal meaning to that old idea: while all may pass, art endures.

Location: Wellington, New Zealand
Specifier: Warren and Mahoney
Product: Milliken-Ontera Colourweave (Custom)
Photographer: Hicam; Cato Brand Partners; Paul McCredie; Kevin Hawkins Photography

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When the opportunity arises, DINZ interviews leading designers from here and overseas. These interviews seek to dig beneath the surface to address the common and uncommon challenges, problems and opportunities the design community faces.