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Wall-to-wall carpeting history from the 1950s to today — an exclusive interview with Emily Morrow, Shaw Floors

Emily Morrow and retro carpet swatchesA conversation with Emily Morrow
Director of Color, Style and Design,
Residential Carpet and Hard Surfaces, Shaw Floors

Is wall-to-wall carpet “authentic” and appropriate for midcentury homes? You bet! Consider this data, provided by Emily Morrow, Shaw Floors’ director of Color, Style and Design for Residential Carpet and Hard Surfaces:

In 1951 — as the post-World War II housing boom in America was still ramping up — the carpeting industry sold about six million square yards of tufted wall-to-wall carpeting nationwide. Fast forward to 1968 – and the industry sold almost 400 million yards.

Carpet manufacturing tufting machine - Shaw Floors historic photo

To the American family of the 1950s on, carpeting was a luxury previously out-of-reach. In fact, I’m going to compare wall-to-wall carpeting to electric stoves in the way they both epitomized a whole new level of comfort and convenience that had become accessible, affordable – and desirable — to the masses for the first time. Wall-to-wall in the new living room said, “We’ve arrived and are staking our claim to our little piece of the American Dream. Take your shoes off, and stay a while.”

I had the chance to speak with Emily by phone recently about the history of carpet from the 1950s through today. We also talked about how the industry determines its color trends – including today’s gray-love — and what’s up next. 1980s teal, anyone? Buckle up.  Read on for this exclusive interview chock-full of delightful carpet history and tips –>

Retro Carpet Swatches

Inside Shaw’s Color, Style & Design Studio – Eyes on the future with a view to the past
While she was talking to me, Emily had a bird’s eye view to the big “history of carpet” table in her design studio. It was covered with a growing collection of carpet samples reaching back several decades. For the past few years, she explained, her design team has been on the lookout for vintage carpet remnants that visually capture the key colors, style and design trends. “The past is always relevant to the future,” she said.

This look back in time is particularly pertinent to midcentury homes, because the big boom in residential carpet did not occur until after WWII. So “history” starts in 1946, at least as it pertains to the mass market.

Of course, Shaw’s blast-from-the-past mood board is a cacophony of: Color!  For example, Emily knew I would like to hear about the team’s latest prize: A piece of multicolored burnt orange sculptured carpet from the 70s – found by accident under the filing cabinet in an employee’s office when they went to re-carpet. Yeah, baby!

Photos of 1970s Carpets shown on Shaw History Wall
Photos of 1970s Carpets shown on Shaw History Wall

Emily is an interior designer by training, and has been with Shaw for 15 years. She leads a team of nine composed of colorists, designers and stylists whose focus ranges from color development to pattern design and encompasses residential carpet, commercial carpet and hard surface (i.e. wood, tile, laminate and vinyl) styling.  “Our whole staff works within the research and development facility,” she explained.

Carpet Sales Trends by Region

“A large portion of the 2ndfloor in R&D is our area — the color library. It’s entirely devoted to color, style and design inspiration and trends. One wall demonstrates the ever-changing sales by color in flooring, both nationally and regionally. To do this, we take 2” x 2” samples of each color and arrange them into bar charts sliced into both colors and regions.”

Color Wall in Shaw R&D Color Library
Color Wall in Shaw R&D Color Library

The other half of the team’s working space, she says, is focused on developing future design strategies, specifically, their “research color forecast.” That’s where the historical samples are used as a point of reference. More importantly, I imagine “top secret” story boards and inspiration pieces strategically placed all over their R&D space – muses for the next-big-thing colors coming our way soon.

Color Wall in Shaw R&D Color Library 2
Color Wall in Shaw R&D Color Library

“The ‘new’ story over the past five years or so has been grey,” Emily confirms. “Looking ahead, we see the color story is moving towards blocks of “hothouse colors” like magenta and purple as well as the more traditional jewel tones. Color is very cyclical in nature.”

Yup: Cyclical – what’s old becomes new again. So let’s start at the beginning ish.

carpet manufacturing history Catherine machineKey trends in residential carpeting, beginning in 1950
Emily explained that prior to World War II, most “carpet goods” were woven. Woven goods were often area rugs, but they also could have been installed wall-to-wall. After WWII, though,  sales shifted dramatically to tufted carpet and to wall-to-wall installations.

Woven: The carpet is produced on a loom quite similar to woven cloth. The pile can be plush or berber. Plush carpet is a cut pile and berber carpet is a loop pile
Tufted: These are carpets that have their pile injected into a backing material, which is itself then bonded to a secondary backing comprising a woven hessian weave or a man-made alternative to provide stability. This is the most common method of manufacturing of domestic carpets for floor covering purposes in the world.
–          Wikipedia

“The post-World War II era saw a surge in carpet sales that was primarily due to increased interest in home décor and new carpet fiber technologies,” said Morrow. “Carpet had been a luxury during the war – as many home goods had been –  and once the war was over, there were plenty of stay-at-home moms that were ready to decorate their homes with products they couldn’t get during the war years. At the same time, there were technological advances taking place in the carpet industry – tufted nylon provided a similar look as the woven wool carpets and rugs from the pre-war years; however, nylon was more durable and much more attainable to the growing middle class. This combination of factors was really the perfect storm that led carpet to grow exponentially in the 1950s.”

carpet manufacturing tufting machine shaw floors

Carpeting trends in the 1950s

In the ‘50s, she said, carpeting was “Saxony” – smooth — style. Definition:

Saxonies are tightly twisted cut piles that are heatset straight.  Saxonies consist of two or more fibers twisted together in a yarn.  They provide a soft texture for formal and informal areas.  Saxonies show every footprint and vacuum-cleaner mark.  Source: http://www.carpet.org/types_of_carpet.htm

In the ‘50s and through to the 60s, colors tended toward the bold –reflecting consumers’ enthusiasm for the wide world of decorating now open to them.

Photo of Printed Kitchen Carpet

Carpeting trends in the 1960s and 1970s

In the ‘60s and ‘70s, there was a “revolution” in terms of the industry’s ability to create new piles and textures. “There were highly creative shags… textured sculpted multicolors creating all these different visuals… and imprinted carpet for kitchens,” Emily explains. These played into “people’s excitement about change in general,” she said. “Consumers liked anything hip and new.” Tastes were changing as consumers’ view of the world expanded through the evolution of media. By going from black and white to color television, they were able to see into TV homes such as “The Brady Bunch,” where colorful shag or sculpted carpet was used.

Technology played a key role in developing the shag carpets to be synonymous with the 1970s. Emily said that the industry was experimenting with endless combinations both in yarn types as well as dyeing multiple layers of color. She explains that tthe 1970’s were a time when consumers were trying new things “just because”. Shag carpets once made from 100% polyester evolved into 100% nylon, resulting in a much more appealing aesthetic and improved performance.

1960s-1970s Carpets

It’s important to note that polyester carpet fiber has come along way since the 1970s – today’s polyester carpets possess improved performance and softness, and they are very popular with a new generation of consumers who find polyester carpet to be generally quite affordable as well as durably attractive.

Color favorites were avocado green, brown, oranges, and multicolor. Emily adds that “layering” of single colors, like greens, was also popular, because the effect was very forgiving in terms of hiding dirt.

Carpeting trends at the end of the 20th century

Beginning in the 1980s and continuing into the 1990s and 2000s, she said, consumers were becoming lots more savvy about owning homes. We also began moving even more frequently for jobs. “Real estate became such a big topic for consumer-homeowners,” she said.  “We also were a more transient nation, and the idea that we could turn a quick profit by buying and selling was born.” As a result, Emily said, consumers gravitated toward: Hardwood. Homeowners believed hardwood was neutral, luxurious and would add to their home’s value at resale.

Then, there’s always the pendulum-swinging factor.

“Oftentimes the next generation has a little contempt for what was in their parents’ house. They want something better and also different,” Emily says, explaining another of the reasons why kids who grew up in homes with wall-to-wall carpet went for hardwood with area rugs, instead. As our lives got ever more complicated, homeowners also wanted to do less maintenance. “For homeowners who chose carpeting, berbers were the thing. We call this ‘trackless’ carpeting. You never see the vacuum cleaner marks.”

Yikes. I bought my first house in the mid-80s. It’s all coming back to me now — everything that Emily is saying is true!

Carpet trends today

Fast forward to today and like hardwood floors, the mass market color preferences in carpeting remain in favor of neutral underfoot. Emily says that buyers are comfortable with beiges, chocolate, and two forms of what I always call greige – “taupe” (brownish grey) and what Emily calls “true taupe” (which I guess would be a grayish brownish gray.) “No pink in it very little yellow,” she says.  Bedroom areas, meanwhile, get lighter off-white. “This is a sanctuary space, with not a lot of high traffic.”

Consumers also are buying pattern – medium-to-smaller scale designs such as blocks and diamonds. Also, they get a “little bit of a fleck, like a tweed,” Emily said. The whole effect is smooth and tailored, but not solid. She says that this style looks good with all the midcentury modern furniture going into homes today, but that it is neutral and flexible enough for buyers still skittish about the economy and the need to make improvements with future resale in mind. “Homeowners still are thinking they may ultimately sell. Choices are conservative, but they still want an element of style that’s attractive and which they can appreciate.

She also mentions that midcentury modern is a “standout trend” influencing interior design today. “Mad Men is in its fourth year, and now we have [other tv shows] like Pan Am.”

teal carpet from shaw.

Carpeting trends for the 2010s

Between now and the next five years, what colors might be coming our way? Emily says to expect: Color! “When the pendulum swings it always swings the other way.” She also says to expect more carpet per square footage, with hard surfaces used in strategic areas. A backlash against all that granite and stone? Methinks, yes. “Consumers that have been living with hard surfaces realize they miss the comfort of carpet, especially in family and playrooms,” Emily said.  Regarding pattern, she says to expect an evolution toward both tighter, and looser looks – pointing to natural seagrass and sisal as inspiration in both color and pattern. Chevron, herringbone or very simple loops in a limited array of flaxen neutrals are simple yet sophisticated looks for floors. For those who crave softness in broader color options, then casual textures and modified shags fill the need. “I call it ‘toe appeal,’ — it’s that wonderful feeling you get when you step into that soft and luxurious pile of carpet… barefoot,” said Emily.

Teal?  Yes, Emily says this color is ascendant. “It’s one of those great colors that bridges well with other colors… grays, taupe, plums, magentas and other vibrant colors.” She even mentions mauve…well, a new version of the color formerly known as mauve. “That’s the fun part of how colors come back around, there’s always something new and exciting about them,” said Emily. ”Maybe it’s the other colors that they are paired with, or maybe they look wonderful simply because they are from a very happy time in our past.”

I was very alive and kicking (and kickin’ back quite often in fern bars) all throughout the 1980s. Are there others like me who remember all the – teal?  I can get my head around it!

Categoriespostwar culture
  1. Chris says:

    mother was the only career mom in the neighborhood. In a sea of maple country and poodle lamps, she dared to paint cocoa brown walls, with matching wall to wall, over hardwood, early pieces of simple line blond wood, with nubby orange loveseat. Leap to selling new homes, which she decorated, she fervently urged young couples in an era of quick work transfers to keep expensive basics, “light bright and airy” for quick resale. Color to be added in removable easy carry decor. She was always ahead of her time. Next personal change was move to danish style medium walnut, Steward McDougall, which after 49 years I am proud to own. Another hallmark of her style, was that in era of cookie cutter homes, hers had all different elevations, bricks, space between houses, no sheds, no fences, only decorative safe fences for in ground only pools. Those neighborhoods stand out today as unique, entirely eschewing a period of ghastly sameness, and remain beautified by the parklike back yards. Pleasant to pass through these communities, and still see her forward sense of design still at work.

  2. sarah says:

    i have been looking for a star trek aera rug with the fedaration of planets logo on it to go in my lil office cubakle 10 x 7 ft wide ..can any one sugguest were to look thank you ……

  3. Mary Elizabeth says:

    Ditto with my 1959 house. The owner/builder originally installed linoleum in the kitchen, bath, and kids’ rooms, but carpet in the master bedroom and living room, right over the sub-floor. There wasn’t a stick of wood flooring in the whole house until we got here.

    Having lived with both hardwood and carpet in the main living areas, I see the advantages of each at different times in the life of a family or an individual. It’s not only a matter of your aesthetic–it depends whether you have crawling babies or sprawling teens (carpet is nice then) or whether you have dogs and an elderly family member with a walker or wheelchair (hardwoods and vinyl flooring might work best). It also depends on the climate and how cold your rooms are. But if I have learned nothing from the discussions on this site, it’s that people need to feel confident in installing the things in their homes that they love and that work for them. The nice thing about the mid-twentieth century is that people did that, so you can use any type of floor surface and make it fit in with the design era of your house.

  4. Joe Felice says:

    The only carpet I remember from the ’50s & ’60s was sculptured nylon. And usually in bright colors–burned orange, avocado, gold, etc. And to think, everyone covered their gorgeous hardwood floors with the stuff!

  5. Joe Felice says:

    Could we maybe do a little PR work on HGTV? Or perhaps, an intervention? I can imagine a show dedicated entirely to retro renovation!

  6. Maureen Bajeyt says:

    I know this is an older post, but I admire how your grandmother worked two jobs to have the decor of her dreams. My folks went heavily into debt after borrowing $$$ for the decor of their dreams – we can learn a lot from our elders.

  7. tina b says:

    hmm? that reminds me, I think that I have a bolt of burnt orange shag carpeting in the basement (affectionately called the dungeon) given to me years ago,that I can shampoo and clean and lay down in the appointed breakfast nook area. It is a sunken room with almost a full wall of French type windows!!! Might be enough to cover that area 🙂

  8. Hi Pam, this was by far one of the most talked about and interesting discussions I had as Shaw’s director of Color, Style & Design…in fact, we had more people stop in their tracks when they saw the swatches of my “vintage” pieces. Thank you for your research into what continues to be a fascinating aspect of design…”RETRO”!
    I’ll be sharing your blog post on my own under “Design Spectator” as it is a timeless topic.
    All the best,
    Emily Morrow Finkell

  9. Kathy Faught says:

    Wall to wall carpet was heaven-sent to women in the 1950’s. There was no polyurethane to give hardwood floors durable finishes. Women worked hard in their hands and knees to polish their floors with paste wax. I remember my own mother doing that. Vacuuming carpet was much easier in comparison.

  10. Dan says:

    I’m inquiring about any information or having access to samples of manufactured Archibald homes carpet from 1950’s.

    Please let me know.
    Respectfully yours..
    Dan

  11. Myrna D Liebig says:

    When was it fashionable to have a carpeted wall. My daughter just bought a house with a large carpets wall.
    I think I remember maybe the 70’s. My sister says never.
    Thank you,
    Myrna

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