Camp Host US
The inside story of how Airstream is steering a hidebound industry into a sleek new era.
By Warren St. John
One irony of America's fascination with life on the road is that, while there is nothing quite as cool and romantic as the idea of striking out on the highway for unknown destinations, there is really nothing quite as uncool and unromantic as the way millions accomplish it: the RV. It's a problem of aesthetics. The interior of so-called recreational vehicles - which include motor homes, trailers, and those massive quasi-ranch houses with axles known as fifth wheels - comes in two basic styles: cheap and plasticky (shag carpets, simulated wood-grain cabinetry, the unbanishable smell of fiberglass solvents) and expensive and plasticky (shag carpets, mood lighting, pastel upholstery, glass partitions etched with images of big cats - think Graceland jammed into a corridor). Even the vaunted Airstream, with its gleaming aluminum monocoque, is only slightly more pleasing on the interior than the cheap motel rooms it's designed to obviate. This explains why even marginally style-conscious road warriors - the Merry Pranksters, Willie Nelson, John Madden - typically pass on the mass-manufactured options and instead design their own rides. For the people who build traditional RVs, this phenomenon might be called the Curse of the Partridge Family; the $12 billion industry is losing sales to people willing to redo old buses.
It is in this spirit of near desperation that Airstream, a sturdy 72-year-old company, is introducing a production model based on a design by 39-year-old San Francisco architect and furniture maker Christopher Deam. The Deam Airstream - which was exhibited in prototype in December 2000 at the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum in New York and goes on sale to the public in January - has a playfully minimalist interior that combines long horizontal lines, clean plastic surfaces, and sleek fixtures for a look more typical of a trendy studio apartment in Stockholm than of something you hitch to the back of the family wagon. Contrary to custom, it's actually stylish.
The story of the Deam Airstream is one of frictioned symbiosis between the corporate and art worlds. In the early 1990s, Deam - who has degrees in architecture and urban design from Cal Poly San Luis Obispo and Notre Dame, and who once worked for Frank Gehry - opened a studio in San Francisco, where he devoted himself principally to furniture and accessory design using nontraditional materials. (One recent triumph is a folding screen that has no moving parts; it's made of resin-impregnated canvas with narrow swaths of plain canvas to allow for "hinges.") When his brother bought a 675-square-foot house in the Berkeley hills in 1992, Deam, along with fellow architect Thom Faulders, took on the design job. The finished product, based largely on studies of boat and RV interiors, was dubbed the "Airstream Cottage" in the architectural press and won a design award from the American Institute of Architecture. Deam was glad for the attention but had no desire to work solely in miniature. He turned his attention back to furniture and made his name through an acclaimed line of high-modern designs for the home.
In 1999, Deam was approached by Wilsonart, which specializes in plastic laminate, to design a booth for the company's display at the International Contemporary Furniture Fair, the annual design showcase in New York. Deam agreed, but instead of creating a conventional booth out of Wilsonart's product - the unsung medium of thin plastic panels - he thought back to the RV that had inspired his first house. He gutted a vintage Airstream trailer and rebuilt the interior using Wilsonart's plastic and his own high-modern design. The Crossroads Project, as it was called, got a lot of attention in the press and piqued the curiosity of Wade Thompson, CEO of Thor Industries, the corporate parent of Airstream and eight other RV manufacturers. Thompson stopped by the furniture fair to have a look.
Airstream's customer base was shrinking - literally dying off. Deam told them why: "Young people aren't going to get in that old trailer that hillbillies and your parents used."
For Deam, the used Airstream was little more than a found object, an ironic motif to demonstrate how Wilsonart's plastic could be used to modernize even something so outdated as a 40-year-old trailer. The people at Thor saw something different: The Crossroads' new look exposed their trailer's prehistoric image. It was all well and good for Thor that movie stars and collectors were snatching up vintage Airstreams and refurbishing them, but the company was in the business of building and selling new RVs, and its customer base was shrinking. "The main customer is over 50," says Richard Riegel, VP of corporate development at Thor. "As those people age, we lose customers. They literally die off." Thor had been looking for ways to attract younger buyers, and when company executives asked Deam if he thought his design might broaden the Airstream's appeal, Deam told them flatly, "Young people aren't going to get in that old trailer that hillbillies and your parents used."
The real test for a Deam Airstream would come not from the design community or even the executives at Thor, but from the discriminating members of the Wally Byam Caravan Club International. In July 2000, Airstream shipped the Crossroads RV to the club's annual rally in Bismarck, North Dakota, for what Thor's Riegel called "grandmother research." Airstream combed over the trailer and filled out surveys ("I love the lighting, but metal walls might have poor acoustics"). There were criticisms - requests to make the convertible dinette/sleeper into a permanent bed, for example - but overall the feedback was enthusiastic.
Thor asked Deam to design a new interior for its 16-foot Airstream Bambi - the company's most iconic trailer - and Deam was game. But it wasn't as easy as all that. Airstream Inc. is not known for its willingness to change. The company was founded in 1929 by an LA advertising copywriter named Wally Byam, who designed the first trailer himself and who remains the namesake for the 10,000-member Airstream owners association. Byam's vision - the wingless fuselage - is viewed within the company as almost sacred, certainly not the sort of thing random designers are permitted to dicker around with. Since its inception, the company, based in Jackson Center, Ohio, has redesigned the interior of the Airstream trailer exactly four times. The executives at Thor - which owns Airstream outright - are unusually deferential to the traditionalist attitudes of the people who actually build the trailers. "I'd say we present challenges from the corporate level to Airstream," Riegel says of the relationship between parent and subsidiary. "They're a proud organization, and hiring Chris was a radical idea. It upset the apple cart."