Q + A Series: The Well-Meant Gift


Q. I would love your perspective on a question related to living tiny: I live in a small house, and the hardest part of reducing clutter for us is saying no to incoming clutter. Do you have a system to stop you or your family from bringing home unnecessary items/purchases, or to head off well-meaning but unneeded gifts from others? Thanks!

A. Oh MAN. This one is so tough. Recently, we made the move from Austin, Texas, to Phoenix, Arizona for our next renovation project. We’re currently living in a partially-renovated Airstream, but when we moved the Airstream here, it was even less finished. We literally had to move, as in, pack all our stuff in boxes and wrap it tightly so nothing would break. The inside of our Airstream looked like a moving van that we also climbed into and slept in at night. We’ve been here for a few weeks now, and already I’ve filled the backseat of our truck with three loads of stuff to donate, and have started another donation pile. We’ve got a lot of baskets and bins that are keeping me sane right now until we have cabinets to tuck things into, but a lot of them will need to go once we finish up building and have drawers and cabinets again. 

I realized recently that we tend to buy things for the interim to make ourselves comfortable - for example, we bought an electric blanket when it was icing in Texas, a ceramic water jug with a spout and stand to act as a faucet when we didn’t have running water...this is where we have room to grow in our minimalism. We end up donating these things once they’ve served a short purpose, and it’s frustrating to see that we’ve wasted money and resources on these items just to be a tad more comfortable in the short term (although, confession: the electric blanket is still in use and I love that thing...it’s sticking around).

We do hold one another accountable if need be, we're both big on thrifting. After awhile, I realize I've thrifted too many vintage treasures and hold a fun pop up sale on my personal Instagram account, Birch & Pine: I sell rugs, ceramics, baskets, clothing, et cetera. We help one another go through our clothing from time to time and pare down. We try to follow the "one-in, one-out" rule, but that doesn't always work, especially if something serves a specific function. For example, I recently began doing Bikram yoga and needed some thin, barely-there yoga clothes for the 105-degree sweatbox. Those didn't replace my regular yoga clothing, but perhaps I have some sweaters or dresses I could streamline...

Overall, we live with very little compared to the average American household. We could fit all three of our wardrobes into one average sized dresser - shoes, coats, and accessories included, and still have room to spare.

Minimalism is a continuous journey, and one we’re always on. It looks different for everyone, and whereas we might have more vintage kitchen items than someone else might, those bring me crazy joy to see and use! However, we are learning and continuing the process of editing according to how we live. 

In terms of well-meant gifts, this is where we run into issues. While we have only one daughter, she has multiple sets of grandparents and great-grandparents, aunts, uncles, great-aunts, and great-uncles. It can be really difficult for someone to understand that even though they may only be buying her one thing, she’s getting one thing (or multiple things) from everyone in her life, which adds up quickly...and they’re all coming into 200 square feet that is shared with two other human beings, two dogs, a cat, and a business. We’ve asked that in lieu of toys, people donate to our daughter’s college fund, but so far, only one person has, or that they buy her books for her Kindle. So far, no one has. We’ve not cracked the code on this one, and I wish we could say differently.

If someone insists on giving us (Ellen and myself) gifts, we ask for Lowe’s gift cards, gas cards, or for something we need. We needed new linen sheets this year, and we asked for those for Christmas. People love giving gifts, especially grandparents and parents, and we don’t want to take that away just because we live small. However, the fact remains - we DO live small. We can’t keep everything that is gifted. The reality is that most of what we are given is donated right away, and we hate that our family members, or daughter’s family members on her dad’s side, are wasting their money, but ultimately, we can’t control what others do. We’ve made it clear we live small, and where their money could go, but it’s their choice. We, however, cannot live in a space packed to the brim with stuff, so out it goes. 

We are learning that communicating about the parameters by which we must live on a regular basis as key, and accepting gifts when given, with a smile and a thank you, is the best thing we can do. We cannot stop someone's gift from coming into our space, but we can control what we do after the thank you card has been written - we choose, daily, to live with less and to donate to those in need what we do not need. 

Q + A Series: The Toughest Parts


Q. What part of the reno is the hardest?

A. This is dependent on so many factors, honestly. Every single Airstream we’ve worked on (for reference, we’re on number #6) has been vastly different. Each time, there has been something tough that we’ve not had to deal with previously. Examples of this include replacing chassis crossmembers, severely pitted exterior aluminum, restoring eight flat fixed and vista view windows, et cetera. Generally, the tough stuff is getting the Airstream watertight, safe, and road ready. While building is tough, it’s always been the most consistent thing we do and the thing that more people already know and have experience with (us included). 

When we started our first Airstream renovation four years ago, we had no clue what we were doing. Often folks ask how we know how to do this work - and honestly, we had to just dive in and start. The resources that are out there now are fairly vast, though we caution to not trust every DIYer, be sure to have reliable sources (popularity on Instagram does not always equal solid knowledge) when doing dangerous or potentially dangerous tasks, such as electrical, but there weren't many at all when we began. We had to really dig and research with what was available and just start (scared or not - which we were - we were terrified to drill out rivets and remove the interior skins!). It might sound like some tough love (okay, it is tough love), but plenty of people have been able to figure out how to do this without step-by-step guides or previous experience. Like anything worth doing, it takes giving it your all and putting in the work. Figuring it out. Doing the doing. 

The best way to get through the hard parts is to push on through and reach out to trusted and experienced mentors if you get into a tough spot, but ultimately, the only person who can do this work for you is you. 

You've got this. 


Q + A Series: Inspiration to Reality


Q. I would love to know where you go for inspiration and then your process for turning the inspiration into reality. Do you have your go-to list of sources or are you always looking for it? Also, how do weight concerns influence your design approach?

These questions are so good, but the first is tough to answer! It’s difficult to convey exactly how I take inspiration and turn it into reality, because so much of it is abstract, a feeling. I’m inspired by not just spaces, I’m inspired by things around me. Songs, a meal, the way light came through a particular window and fell on a particular subject on a particular day. The way the wind felt in that one place, that one time.

It’s worth saying the way I design and create will never be exactly the way anyone else designs or creates. The way you design and create will never be exactly the way anyone else designs or creates. That’s the way it should be. I don’t have a step-by-step guide for how to take inspiration and turn it into reality (i.e., design), but I do have one hard and fast rule, and it’s simple: I don’t copy or replicate. It’s one thing to take a small element or two from someone else’s design, but in the same way we’re taught to not plagiarize in school, copying someone’s design is taking the easy way out. It doesn’t make you a designer or an artist, it makes you someone who copied someone else's hard work - the same way that plagiarizing someone’s written work doesn’t make you a writer. I’m very careful to not look at rooms or spaces as my sole inspiration, and instead, gather inspiration from everywhere. When working with a client, I make it clear from the beginning that we’ll be creating a space unique to them, their needs, and their aesthetic. Even if they present an image and say, "let's make it look just like this", I redirect. That space has been created by someone else and for someone else. Look anywhere and everywhere for inspiration and think about your own needs and style above what anything else is doing, what's popular or trending (trends die, classic design lives on). What do you love? What are you drawn to?

From a more literal standpoint, I take as many images or samples as I can, and group them together. I pull out the items that make sense together. I start to see patterns emerge, certain tones that I'm drawn to continuously for that particular project. I then begin to sketch layouts and think about how concrete sources will look in the space, which involves sourcing those - I do a lot of research for products - and generally play with three options for each element (three faucets, three different types of tile, three different floors), especially when designing for a client. Too many options tends to overwhelm us in the design process. My job is to streamline and create for the client based on who they are, their needs, and conversations I've had with them. I mesh together my own inspiration with what I've learned.

The next steps are to go over the furniture and cabinetry builds with Ellen, who is responsible for actually bringing them to life, and we problem solve together until we have it just right. It's like a lovely puzzle, and I know the design plan is finished and ready to execute in my gut, though I truly allow the entire process to be organic, from start to finish. Once the plan is "finalized', it doesn't mean I may not feel something needs to change. I leave myself open to options, always, and for the design to ebb and flow naturally. This is how the best designs have come about for me. 

I do have companies that I prefer to source from (for example, I love Delta Faucets), but I don’t solely rely on those products as the only option. Creating custom spaces requires me to get creative and always, always be on the lookout for solutions, fixtures, and finishes that suit the design and feeling I’m going for. Part of being a good designer is educating yourself as to what fixtures and finishes are out there so you don't get stuck recreating the same space over and over. 

Weight is absolutely a consideration. For example: there are quite a few folks who are adamant in their opinions on not using tile and solid wood in travel trailers and RVs, yet these same folks add in a lot of other heavy stuff: extra appliances that aren’t necessity, metal, TVs, et cetera. I say - to each their own, as long as you're careful with your choices. We are mindful of the weight of the tile, and use a lightweight adhesive product called Musselbound, as opposed to thinset (mortar) to apply the tile (only on walls, not for use on a shower floor). We keep the tiles small and use a flexible grout. We’ve yet to install a hardwood floor, but there are folks who do.

In all of our projects thus far, we have kept the weight at 5800 pounds or less (dry weight), and we’ve used quite a lot of plywood and hardwood for countertops and cabinetry, and tile in each project. We are mindful of the weight of our appliances, and in our designs, balance weight from side to side. 10% of your overall trailer weight should be at the front. We consider every option we possibly can before making final decisions, and ensure we're meeting at least the first two of these three goals: is this piece/fixture/finish functional? Does the weight of this work with the other elements? If it's visible (i.e., not a water heater): is it beautiful?