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."
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.
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."
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."
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.
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.
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!"
Welding: Ryan Billingsly
Photography: Kate Oliver (@birchandpine)