Lessons in Small Space Living from a Couple That Lives In (And Renovates) Airstreams
Tiny living has never been chicer or more transportable.
Published Jul 25, 2017 7:00 PM
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“What if we sold everything, bought a bus, and traveled?”
For Kate and Ellen, that was the question that started it all. The best friends, turned wives, turned business partners made a decision to trade in their desk jobs and long commutes for a life on the road three and a half years ago, and haven’t looked back since.
“The decision to travel, though it happened in just mere seconds, had been a long time coming,” says Kate. “We’d found ourselves disenchanted with the prescribed checklist and societal pressure for traditional homeownership, long commutes to-and-from work, and working at jobs that brought barely-enough income to cover our expenses.”
After looking for a creative outlet and a way to spend more time together, Kate and Ellen settled into their new nomadic life. Their preferred means of transportation? A fully-renovated, state-of-the-art airstream, which they completely designed themselves. Actually, they’ve designed three Airstreams—each impeccably renovated—and have since made a living turning silver bullets into chic homes for clients, thereby creatingThe Modern Caravan
We caught up with the design duo to learn more about what it takes to fully renovate such an unconventional home and get their tips on small space living (their current home is pictured here).
How did you first become interested in Airstreams? Where did the idea come from to live and travel in an Airstream full-time?
Though deciding to travel was the catalyst, it would take us a year and a half to actually get on the road. There were many lists, tasks, and massive emotional and social hurdles we’d need to clear before we actually got to the triumphant moment of departure—and the first and most important decision to make was deciding on a vessel.
After exhausting many options (including old school and tour buses, some clunky vintage RVs, and VW buses), we realized that more than anything, we wanted the option to unhitch. We didn’t know much about Airstreams at all then. I just knew I’d seen them from time to time and had always admired their sleek, silver frame. I knew they were special, so I suggested we start looking solely at Airstreams.
Once we decided on an Airstream, there was no looking back. Nothing else could compare. We certainly didn’t choose it for its popularity, or because everyone else had one—we chose it, first and only, for the way it perfectly married form and function, a constant yardstick in our life and home for everything we buy or make. It wasn’t only beautiful, it was built well. We knew we’d be making a solid investment, and that our home would be lovely to live in (and around).
Can you walk us through your first ever Airstream renovation and the challenges you faced?
I won’t mince words: We were entirely clueless. While today there is a burgeoning Airstream and travel community and bevy of support and advice everywhere you turn, when we began there weren’t too many folks out there renovating. We wanted to make a home fit for full-time living that was an expression of our personal aesthetic, as well as suit our needs with the ability to modify as time, money, and circumstances would allow or dictate.
Listening to podcasts, searching antiquated forums, and exhaustive Google searches got us started, but it really came down to figuring it out ourselves. This is one of the reasons we’ve begun to offer by-the-hour consultations for new Airstream renovators—we remember being so ready to begin our project and felt like we were stuck in the research phase for so long.
The other challenge we had to overcome, quite simply, was fear. We were terrified to make a mistake and ruin a classic 60-year-old Airstream. We had to just start, and that is the piece of advice we give most often when asked about how to get going on living the life you want. It’s really easy to give excuses, and we had every excuse and every reason to not do this at all: We had to work, we have a kid, we didn’t know how, it was too much, and to boot, we were broke.
When we were renovating that first Airstream, we managed to eat on only $25 a week for three people (hint: lots of soup) for months on end so we could purchase the supplies we needed to complete the project. It would have been really easy to throw in the towel and just flat out give up on our dream during some of those times. Instead, we forged ahead. Now, we’re running a business renovating Airstreams—and three years ago, we were petrified to drill out a rivet.
What have you learned is the most important thing to consider when undertaking an Airstream renovation?
It would be really easy to market ourselves here and say “hire someone if you don’t know how.” In some cases, that’s true. There are facets of the renovation that are incredibly complex and difficult—such as chassis repair, electrical, etc.—that require a skillset and knowledge from previous experience and education.
So instead, we’d say that folks should hire or seek out others when the work is really outside of their skillset, but should also remember that we are all capable of more than we know, and that anything can be learned with enough time and dedication and passion. Understand your actual limitations, not your perceived or imagined ones that are masked as fear.
What are your top tips for decorating (or renovating!) a smaller space?
First of all, think about how you live. Do you have a spouse and children? Don’t underestimate the need for privacy. Incorporating a bedroom into your space—with a door—is essential. Trust us, we made that mistake the first time around!
Do you need a lot of room for art projects or a designated office space? Do you need to be able to see outside when you work, or be separate from everyone else? Do you spend a lot of time cooking? Don’t hesitate to devote space to the elements that are important or essential to you, and minimize elements that aren’t as important.
For example, we don’t spend much time in the bathroom, don’t have many bath products, and currently don’t own a single mirror. So instead of a larger bathroom, we sized it down to a mere 3-foot by 4-foot space. What we traded up for was ample kitchen space with well-planned out storage, a pantry, a deep fridge, a triangular workspace, and a 24-inch oven.
When designing and renovating, remember to maximize every bit of storage space you need, and that having space to spread out is nice too. We’ve often been criticized openly for not using every bit of available space for storage in our Airstreams, and instead leaving open floor space or head space.
How do we go without storage in every nook and cranny? We own less stuff. We don’t need it, and instead, our daughter and pets have places to spread out. The kitchen doesn’t feel cramped or closed in. No one’s smacking their head on an open cabinet door.
Do you have one stand-out Airstream renovation project or one that you’re particularly proud of?
We’ve fully renovated three Airstreams in the past three years, and in the next two we’ll complete another four full renovations (“full” means renovations from the ground up). A finished Airstream from The Modern Caravan is designed and built solely by us: two women, and mamas to boot.
It’s difficult to decide amongst the three Airstreams. We’ll always be very attached to our first Airstream, who we named Louise, after Thelma & Louise, one of our favorite films. We love the simplicity of that first design: birch plywood that lent a modern feel coupled with purposeful nods to midcentury design such as the sliding cabinet doors with circular finger pulls or the brass eyeball sconces from Schoolhouse Electric made the space stunning in a very understated and unique way.
The Airstream we just finished, Luna, was for our first clients. When working with Siya and Kristen, who’ve become so dear to us throughout this process, we listened to their ideas, goals, hopes, and dreams. The overall design was our own, yet the concepts were theirs. They let us know what they hoped for, what they envisioned: Clean lines, lots of white, barn wood countertops, and copper fixtures. While we love all of our Airstreams for different reasons, as we truly think about it Luna is our favorite, and not just from a design standpoint. We got to design and create a home for someone else and they absolutely love it. What more could you ask for?
Do you have any decorating don’ts for decorating a tiny space?
Don’t buy anything or do anything unless you absolutely love it and it truly reflects you. There isn’t one right way to do something, and even when a space is tiny, don’t see that as a limitation. You may think, “Wow, this house/room/Airstream I saw on Instagram is amazing for reasons X, Y, and Z, so I’m going to copy X, Y, and Z.”
Isn’t that a bit silly, when you think about it? You’re underestimating your own creativity and stifling your own ability to come up with something truly unique to you. It’s easy to follow a trend; it’s empowering and fulfilling to forge your own path.
More broadly, what are your tips for living in a small space?
A word of caution: Living tiny isn’t for everyone. It’s not even our forever goal to live in 160 square feet. We have always planned to build a stationary home for ourselves when the time is right, and keep an Airstream for extended travel and as a guest house.
I think it’s important to address whether or not you really want to live tiny. As I said earlier, don’t do something just because someone else did or because it’s trending. Living in a small space is often very difficult, and many folks find it’s not for them after they’ve spent a good portion of their savings and months or years working toward their goal.
While there are certainly things that are easier when living in a small space—yes, it takes less than an hour to thoroughly clean your entire home—there’s always the flip side—you’re also going to clean it multiple times a day. Tiny spaces, especially Airstreams and other RVs, get dirty very quickly.
Once you’ve committed, then you have to have patience. The adjustment period takes time, and you may even hate it for awhile. It’s sort of like eating cashew cheese. You’re not going to like it if you want it to taste and have the consistency of mozzarella, but if you see it for what it is—cashew cheese—it’s pretty fantastic. Tiny living just won’t be the same as life in a large home, but it’s pretty great if it’s what you really want. Otherwise, you may just want to buy the ball of mozz instead of putting in all that effort to make cashew cheese.
What’s next for The Modern Caravan—any other unique vehicles you’re thinking of transforming into chic living spaces?
Over the next two and a half years, our work will be taking us to some pretty exciting places out West. We’ll be renovating four different Airstreams and getting to challenge ourselves even further. While there will always be a continual design thread that is distinctly The Modern Caravan woven through each project, we hope to continue to grow as designers and builders and take some more risks (just wait until you see what we’ll reveal in spring of 2019). While we’ve not yet taken on any renovations outside of Airstreams just yet, we are certainly open to all types of renovation work.
We are uncertain as to what our next steps will be after that fourth renovation, but we certainly have goals, ideas, and dreams. This business came about so organically—we patiently waited for the right timing, and when it all began to unfold, it wasn’t because we forced it. We want to continue to do the work we do, whatever it may be or become, for the right and honest reasons.
As we renovate and travel for the next two and a half years, we’ll continue to have conversations about the ways we’d like to grow and expand, and will share more as we are ready to share it. More than anything, we are continually humbled that folks want to work with us, share in our story, and give us so much love and encouragement in our pursuit of this work and this life.