Form + Function: Designing an Airstream

"Form ever follows function." 

This string of words was coined by architect Louis Sullivan to describe 20th century modernist architecture, meaning, quite simply, that the style of a building or even an object when designed and built, should only reflect the intended purpose. 

After reading a blog post and several comments/emails in the past several weeks, I felt compelled to open a discussion regarding form and function, as well as touching on individualism, personal taste, aesthetic, needs, and sacrifice in a tiny space (this for that). In fact, this topic is fairly present in my mind, especially as I exist in social media and online, and see one of two things happening amongst people (strangers): 

- Loss of individual tastes: copying others' interior/exterior spaces, objects purchased, clothing, as opposed to thinking about what we actually want and truly love and getting truly creative with it

- Criticism of others choices, only when/if different from our own. 

Recently, we've been criticized (both openly and passively) for only being able to design a "pretty" Airstream interior, with the implication that the function of the space must be lacking, simply due to it being beautiful. Whether it's that we don't have enough storage space, we didn't choose optimum technology, or that we only made something aesthetically pleasing (which automatically seems to translate to giving zero thought into how practical or functional our tiny space really is). 

When I (Kate) was young, I fell in love with art and design. I would spend hours pouring over books and magazines filled with beautiful rooms and homes, art, and architecture, completely fascinated by the human ability to create, to dream up the things before me on the page - and not only dream them, but bring them to life. Architecture and interior design (which is not simply the placement of objects or the selection of finishes, but actual spatial design and conceptualization of entire rooms) were of particular interest to me. While I can most certainly appreciate paintings or sculpture, there was an allure to these two media for one simple reason: form marrying function. 

I do not believe (in the slightest) that aesthetics must be completely mutually exclusive from function or practicality. Since my childhood days of discovering interior design, I knew I always wanted a French farm table. Perfectly worn, distressed, delicate yet sturdy. Twenty-some odd years later, and I finally had enough money saved to begin searching for the table I'd always wanted, and I found it. It resides in my dining room. The table itself serves many functions throughout the day: office, design studio space (where I can lay out samples and sketches), a place to drop grocery bags, and the obvious, a location to gather and rest as a family and nourish ourselves. The table is where we host our friends and conversation has unfolded that serves purpose and brings light and clarity into the lives of those gathered around it. This table is special. It's something we saved for, something I waited two decades for, something I fell in love with, something that makes me smile when I see it, something that brings me joy, something that makes people want to gather around it. It's beautiful. The worn wood, the history, the knowledge it was handmade in the 1800s, the character carved into it by age. This table is special because of it's history and beauty, but it also serves us a human beings, daily, hourly. 

Yesterday, we were in our Airstream, referencing the work we'd done on the endcaps, just to verify our methodology. We stepped out smiling exchanging remarks that though we've not yet moved in, it is a functional and beautiful home. You see, our Airstream will serve a purpose for us as a mobile home and office. We planned and designed and engineered every aspect. When we opted for no storage under the curb side/street side benches - it's because we valued a space for our feet to go over storage for unnecessary objects we don't need to bring on board. It was not just a style choice - for us, we like to tuck our feet under benches when we're eating and working. It's more comfortable. We opted instead for baskets that could moved around easily but still provide storage for objects that tend to move around often, such as shoes, books, blankets, and toys. 

When we decided on storage, we knew exactly how much we'd need, because we've done this before. We've lived on the road. We've lived in 160 square feet. We also went through everything we owned, downsized more, and measured each item we'd bring along with us. 

When we chose our layout, hours, days, and weeks of discussion, measuring, and planning went into our final decision. Having lived in an Airstream of the same length previously, we were able to compare and contrast our experience with our future plans. We went with a beautifully tiled wet bath - and initially, we planned to build it before anything else, but we hadn't worked out all the kinks yet. We planned our bathroom structure, function, and components perfectly before we began to build.

We knew we were sacrificing in one area to have what we wanted more in another when we decided on a wet bath, yet were able to draw on our previous experiences in our 1957 Airstream Overlander. In that trailer, we barely used our bathroom. We barely use the large one we have now, in our house! When we decided on a mid wet bath, it ultimately came down to us choosing a queen size bed over a full, because we knew, from experience, that a full-size bed was so uncomfortable for us. In order to have the queen sized bed, we would need to relocate the rear bath to mid. We also wanted a large, entirely functional kitchen - where we spend the majority of our time as a family. This left us with a 3' x 4' space allocation for a bathroom, which meant we needed to embrace the wet bath and make it work. Seeing that we spend so little time in the bathroom, and that we're only three people, it was a tiny sacrifice - for us.

What we need and want would likely vastly differ from someone else - for example, a single person living in the same size space could potentially keep the full-size back bath and have a fold out bed in the middle of their trailer. Sure, we we could have done this instead, except it didn't suit our needs and wants. We really wanted a bed that was stationary, something we could keep made up as a bed during the day. Having to pull out both beds in our first Airstream showed us that wanted something simpler next time around. Now we only have one bed to make up each night, not two. We have a space readily available for relaxing and collapsing into, especially being that our jobs are renovating Airstreams while living in one - we'll want to be able to collapse at the end of a long day without adding extra work on top of the task of readying for bed. 

The amount of design and engineering that went into our bathroom meant that it could hardly be construed as not functional. To be able to fit everything needed/wanted into a 3' x 4' space meant that a lot of planning and design and conversation was a must. Yet the vision for the bathroom was also one of beauty. Being in such a tiny space, why not make it feel as open and airy as possible? Why not select finishes and fixtures that are pleasing to the eye? If it only served a simple purpose of bathing and using the bathroom, it might feel dark and dank and unwelcoming - instead, when we step into a bathroom smaller than most folks' closets, it doesn't feel small at all: it's the opposite. It's inviting. When we brush our teeth, there's plenty of room to stand comfortably at the sink. When we use the toilet, we're able to ease into the seat. When we shower, we extended the space by adding a bench - for not only seating, but a space for toiletries. While I wasn't super fond of the idea of everything getting wet every time we showered, there was a simple solution - a clear plastic shower curtain to easily divide the shower from the toilet/sink without making the user of the shower feel cramped. 

Simply put, designing a beautiful wet bath, one that has received quite a lot of attention for not just looks and style, but overall function, a tiny space packed with everything one needs to comfortably use for it's three intended purposes, has been incredibly rewarding and something we are both quite proud of, whether or not it would work for someone else. It works for us, and due to our strategic planning, design, and build, it works really well. Bonus? It's fucking gorgeous and a tiny space actually want to spend time in. 

In conclusion, my goal in writing this is in hopes that we can all be a little more understanding of one another. That criticizing another person's design choices is criticizing what their needs and wants are, especially in a tiny space where we are all making sacrifices in one area or another. To assume that someone who wants a light, bright, lovely space is immediately foregoing practicality does a disservice to them. It most certainly underestimates their ability to actually design and engineer and build. To do all of these is not an easy feat. We are so proud of our new Airstream home, as well as the ones we are working on and designing now, because they are not only incredibly beautiful and pleasing to the eye, but are functional and practical in every single respect.

If design work only followed the modernist principle, then it wouldn't be so lovely. We wouldn't need choice in fixtures and finishes for our spaces. We wouldn't select paint colors or wood or countertops or faucets based on looks, but simply on function. We wouldn't adorn our spaces with decorative objects and items of meaning. Isn't it wonderful that we have preferences, likes, and options that can make an Airstream trailer (which is a perfect example of form and function in and of itself) a home, instead of constraining it and only using it for its original intended purpose - a recreational, occasional use camper.