Q + A Series: Inspiration to Reality

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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? 

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. 

Airstream Kitchen

Building our Airstream kitchen has been quite challenging this go round. Opting for higher end finishes and fixtures led us to focus our efforts on saving weight elsewhere. In our first Airstream, we crafted custom cabinetry with sliding doors, which ran along tracks we created by routing out channels for both the top and bottom of the cabinet. We used 3/4" ply as both dividers and supports on the cabinetry, which spanned the majority of the length of the street side, with a smaller yet identical cabinet on the curb side. While we loved the look of the cabinetry we designed, in practicality and daily use, we didn't prefer it. We often get questions on how to build the cabinetry from the '57 and I'm quick to dissuade, or offer alternative sliding options.

The 3/4" ply was quite heavy, so this go round, we opted for a combination of 2x2" and 1x2" framing to craft our cabinetry, allowing us to save weight. The countertop, along with a waterfall edge, conceals the framing, as well as the drawers and cabinet doors themselves. We also opted for a modified toe kick, which was a lesson learned from our first Airstream project - too many toes stubbed, as well as an often uncomfortable lean to cook or do any sort of food prep. I say modified toe kick, as the average toe kick depth is 2.5"-3.5" D x 3" H, and we opted for 1.5" D x 3" H, which some cabinet makers may roll their eyes at, but we tested for comfort and felt it was entirely sufficient and allowed for a sturdier cabinet base, which is always appreciated when rolling down the road.

We went with finger pulls on all drawers and door fronts for a clean, modern look. I fell in love with these simple pulls on our first Airstream, where we used a hole saw to create perfect circle pulls in our sliding doors, which was a nod to the mid-century design of the fifties and suited the era the trailer was from. The idea was to create a clean, simple facade for a tiny space. As much as I love all the gorgeous cabinet hardware out there to choose from, I knew I'd be overwhelmed by a flurry of metal pulls. Before we'd purchased our second Airstream, I'd landed on rectangular finger pulls and deep drawers and had begun sketching out the potential kitchen. View some of my inspiration images for our current Airstream project right here and below.

The street side of our galley kitchen has been the most complicated so far, and hopefully we'll be wrapping it up within the next few weeks. We waited for our convection oven to arrive before we planned the build fully, it was much easier to conceptualize once we knew the oven's dimensions and installation instructions and had the oven in the space. The build for the oven required the use of 3/4" (for the oven's base) and 1/2" ply (sides and top), and we also built a sturdy main base for the oven cabinet unit, which was built as a standalone piece initially, with a half-size drawer for pots and pans underneath the oven itself. This project took a few hours, which was a pleasant surprise.

Surrounding the oven is our plain framing, which we crafted for the curb side kitchen cabinetry. It is a combination of 1x2" and 2x2" boards that while light, is incredibly sturdy. I can attest to this, I leaned on a piece one afternoon and dozed off for a good thirty minutes...and it held up beautifully. Ha! These pieces will divide the oven and fridge, as well as create the full height of 35.25" to meet the 3/4" walnut countertop. Finish pieces will be added around the top of the fridge, oven, and around the sides of the oven to conceal the framing and polish the look.

A floor-to-ceiling pantry, large enough to house a small trash can, recycling, average broom, and typical pantry items, like small appliances (our slow cooker and food processor), food items, and cleaning supply, will fall in line adjacent to the refrigerator. Pantry items will rest on drawers, so everything can be easily accessed and all storage is utilized. We are installing a DC light on the inside of the pantry so our items are well-lit.

Our kitchen was planned for efficiency, a modern aesthetic, comfortable food prep, and multiple persons at one time (and probably pets, if we're being honest). The traditional galley kitchen works quite well with ample floor space and a triangular workspace, drawing an invisible line from your sink to your fridge, to your oven, and back again. Having a full-size pantry allows us to not compromise on storage, having a normal-size broom (we went with a half-size tiny broom in our last Airstream and it was pure misery to sweep with, I felt like a hunchback), and to neatly tuck everything away for both tidiness and travel. While it's taking a good chunk of time to get just right, I believe it will be worth every slow, steady step to have the Airstream kitchen of our dreams.

Leave questions about your tiny kitchen below - or email me for a design consultation! See the services tab for more information about how we can help with your Airstream.