A Design Duo Give This 98-Square-Foot Airstream Caravel a Flawless Makeover
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A Design Duo Give This 98-Square-Foot Airstream Caravel a Flawless Makeover

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By Melissa Dalton
For their eighth Airstream renovation, The Modern Caravan combines a pared-back palette with artfully crafted details.

When The Modern Caravan bought this 1968 Airstream Caravel, it had seen better days. "There was a giant hole in the subfloor where water damage had rotted the wood clean through," says Kate Oliver, who runs the design-build business with her wife Ellen Prasse. "Like all of the projects we’ve taken on, it was in major disrepair and had seen years of neglect."

Upon receiving the trailer from Ohio, the couple demolished the interior in a few days. "We had two good friends visiting and the four of us picked up the entire shell and moved it off the frame," says Oliver. "It was such a rush and so empowering to do that as a team of women." The silver shell had to be removed to execute a full chassis repair and replacement by a certified welder.

At 17 feet from tongue to bumper, with interior dimensions of 14 by seven feet, the small trailer posed a design challenge. "The layout was the starting point: I knew that if I didn’t nail the layout, any other design elements I added in would be moot," says Oliver.

Oliver started by relocating the bed’s placement. "When you arrive at a campsite, you generally back the rear of your trailer into the site…so I knew I wanted to move the bed to the rear of the camper," says Oliver. "This would allow a person to lie in bed and watch the sun come up over someplace beautiful."

With the bed in place, next came the bathroom, which was moved to the front. Doing so made enough room for a self-contained shower and provided a handy entry wall by the door. "I’d seen some other Caravel redesigns where the bath was moved to the side, or left in the rear of the trailer," says Oliver. "I felt that this would do a disservice to all of the windows, and the landscapes Hope will be surrounded by." 

The bathroom is just to the right upon entry to the trailer. The floors are engineered hardwood in red oak by Mercier throughout, and the beechwood wall rack is a functional drop zone for bags, coats, and keys.

Once Oliver had the bed and bathroom fixed, there was a seven-foot span available in the center to set up the kitchen and eating/work area. If possible, Oliver prefers to avoid elements that must be converted, such as couches into beds. "Nothing in the space has to be transitioned for any activity," says Oliver. "When it’s time to sleep, the last thing you want to do is convert your bed. It's much better to just fall into the coziness." 

For the interior palette, Oliver knew she wanted to use walnut from the beginning. "From a design perspective, the walnut would offer continuity of material, which would make the space feel cohesive, larger, and easy on the eyes," she says. "I tend to keep materials very minimal, and only use one-to-three main materials throughout the space." 

A view down the aisle to the bathroom, with the kitchen on the left and the eat/work counter on the right. The Modern Caravan combined walnut cabinetry and red oak flooring, with white counters, tile, and walls.

The bathroom pocket door, a Modern Caravan signature, is opaque plexiglass framed in walnut.

The kitchen is seven feet long and 10 inches deep. Hanex solid surface countertops with a thin profile sit on top of custom walnut cabinetry with Schoolhouse Electric pulls. The stainless-steel sink is a 20-inch-wide model by Kraus with a Grohe faucet.

The custom-sized bed has an organic mattress from The Mattress Insider that was cut to the Airstream’s curved walls.

The bed platform can be lifted up to access a carpeted storage cavity beneath it, as well as a water heater, converter, and batteries. Two deep dresser drawers have built-in dividers, and thanks to The Modern Caravan’s attention to detail, the cabinetry fronts are beautifully grain-matched. 

This most recent trailer transformation marks a change in The Modern Caravan’s business model as well, as they now sell finished caravans instead of offering renovation services to clients. "We had been traveling to our jobs and living on our clients’ properties while renovating, and this wasn’t always safe or healthy for our family," says Oliver, noting that their workweeks were topping out at 80-100 hours and work/life balance was non-existent. The renovation of Hope symbolized a change from that course. "She was a way for us to get passionate about our work again," said Oliver.

"We have used walnut in many of our designs, though it never looks the same from design to design," said Oliver. "Walnut represents strength in times of adversity and reminds us to focus on what and who matters."

The solid walnut eat/work counter has two interior cabinets tucked underneath, as well as exterior hatch storage access. The Modern Caravan also outfitted the stools with new wood seats.

Another thoughtful detail is this outlet embedded in the eat/work bar, which is convenient to reach from the bed.

"I refinished the existing sconce, which was in poor shape, to a soft peony pink," says Oliver. "Anything too busy or trendy would have overtaken the space: it needed to be simple and clean."

Oliver’s favorite detail in the trailer is the shower, crafted by Prasse. "I really wanted the shower to look like plaster, but in a moving trailer, that’s just not an option," says Oliver. 

Inspired by friends who had used fiberglass and Bondo in a similar installation, Prasse got to work creating a shower that evokes old-world plaster applications. "I broached the subject with Ellen, who had a pretty good idea of how to do it. Her focus in her masters’ program was sculpture, and sculpt she did. She created a form for the shower using wrapped foam board," says Oliver. 

The intricate crafting process involved 25 pieces of foam board just for the seat, which were then cut to the curve of the Airstream using a jigsaw and hand tools. The ceiling, sides, and sloped floor were also fit to the Airstream’s curves. Next came a foam form and layers of fiberglass mat and resin, each of which was sanded down before more was applied. Tests were conducted for water-tightness, then layers of Bondo were applied to fill the holes, with white spray enamel as the finishing touch. "The finished result is a lightweight, watertight shower stall that snugly fits the curves of the Airstream that will hold up to the movement of the road…and looks like beautiful white plaster," says Oliver. 

The bathroom has a stainless-steel sink and faucet, Hanex solid surface countertops, and Schoolhouse Electric pulls.

The walnut wraps the bathroom, offering plenty of storage, and continuity with the rest of the small trailer.

There is even an unobtrusive AC outlet tucked beneath the bathroom counter.

The kitchen has a stacked Nemo Tile backsplash with flex grout. 

Having wrapped up Hope’s transformation this spring, The Modern Caravan is currently traveling, writing, and photographing an upcoming book, to be released in 2021. "The book chronicles 12 families who have renovated a caravan and done a remarkable job on both the design and the build, along with a small section about the work we have done for our business," says Oliver. "It’s going to be a really beautiful book!"

Related Reading: This Chic Camper Will Make You Want to Be an Airstream DwellerAirstream Dream Team: These Women Travel the Country, Turning Retro RVs Into Homes

Project Credits:

Builder, Interior Design, Lighting Design, and Cabinetry Design: The Modern Caravan LLC (@themoderncaravan

Welding: Ryan Billingsly

Photography: Kate Oliver (@birchandpine)

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