Iris rode the wind as a messenger of the immortal gods of Mount Olympus. She used her golden wings to sweep down from Ida’s peaks to the bloodstained plain of Troy, much like the snow or freezing hail that follows the north wind. As she flew, a rainbow formed behind her and painted the sky with its magnificent colours, a perennial symbol of Iris’ ability to join the heavens and the earth. This unforgettable homeric image must have influenced the founders of the “Iris” paint factory as they searched for a name for the business they were about to open in Eleusis.
The pine trees of Eleusis
Like most other enterprises in Eleusis during the Interwar period, “Iris” was the child of a member of the influential “Zürich Circle”. Menelaos Sakellariou was a graduate of the Eidgenossische Technische Hochschule in Zürich (1915) and spent many years working in perfumeries, as well as soap, paint, and varnish factories in various Swiss cities. In 1924 he decided to open his own enterprise in Greece; he chose Eleusis for the same reasons that convinced other entrepreneurs to invest there: good transportation network, cheap land, availability of workers, and (above all else) an abundant supply of the basic raw material, resin from the extensive pine tree forests of Magoula and Mandra.
A cornucopia of colours
The “Chemical Factory of Paint and Varnish Iris LP Menelaos Sakellariou & Co.” was established in February 1925 in five acres of land towards the eastern border of the town of Eleusis. Sakellariou secured the financial assistance of family and friends, who contributed 450,000 drachmas (while he provided the balance of 150,000 drachmas for an initial capital of 600,000 drachmas). This relatively modest amount was more than enough to ensure the success of his enterprise. The factory grew rapidly to satisfy the demand for oil paints, marine coatings, varnishes, leather, furniture and automobile paints, as well as printing inks.
Plastics and powders
The factory produced everything it needed onsite. Only the pine resin came from outside the compound walls. The machine shop manufactured paint containers, the refinery produced rosin, the body shop repaired the equipment, the labs made every necessary chemical analysis and developed new products. They even managed to produce two lines of plastic colours (named Plastex and Durolac), that proved very popular. There was machinery to label the paint containers or to produce paint in powder form. The company also had its own fleet of trucks to deliver its products.
Fire safety was of paramount importance, since both the raw materials and the final products were extremely flammable. Self-ignition was always a possibility, especially during the hot summer months. There was a 15-meter deep well that supplied the fire fighting units with water. The significance of these preparations became evident in 1965 when a conflagration destroyed the rosin plant.
Shortly before the outbreak of the Second World War, “Iris” secured an important order for camouflage colours for use in military installations, airports and public buildings. This particular product was created at the plant, another proof of the spirit of innovation that characterized this enterprise. But the positive contribution to the Greek war effort was marred by the assistance provided by Menelaos Sakellariou to the German army. The founder of “Iris” maintained good relations with the Occupation authorities and managed to secure important orders from the German army.
The post-war era was originally marked by a new wave of growth for the company. The innovative colours produced in Eleusis found willing buyers in Greece and the Balkans. Gradually, however, competition hurt the company and forced it to close for good in the late 1970s. Only three buildings survive out of the fifteen that existed at the factory’s heyday.
The oldest was built around 1925. It is a single-story edifice with three large rooms and was used to make resin products. The second unit is made of reinforced concrete and served as a warehouse and outlet for the factory’s products. The three-story building housed the production of innovative colours during the war years. The rest of the plot is covered by modern social housing units and eucalyptus trees, but it is still dominated by the 35-meter tall factory chimney.
The naughty sister
The association of Iris with the rainbow is widely known. But if the founders of the factory had read the poet Hesiod more carefully, they would have probably discovered that the iridescent colours were actually the property of Arke, the twin sister of Iris. Unfortunately, Arke made the fatal mistake of supporting the Titans in their deadly struggle for world domination. Zeus removed Arke’s rainbow wings and gave them to Thetis, who in turn offered them to her son Achilles, who was known ever since as “podarkes” (having feet like the wings of Arke).