A Mom and Her Teenage Daughter Share a 112-Square-Foot Vintage RV Camper Van

updated Nov 17, 2020
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Families come in all shapes and sizes, and they don’t even have to be the one you were born with. I firmly believe you can choose who you call “family.” If your type of family involves one or more kids, you know that fitting everyone into a small home is a particular challenge. This month at Apartment Therapy, I’ll be showcasing just that—families finding clever, beautiful, and inspiring ways to squeeze everyone (and everything) into a small space. From RVs to tiny homes to petite apartments, you’ll be able to see how real families organize, decorate, and inhabit real-life homes. This artistic mom and her 16-year-old daughter share a 112-square-foot vintage RV camper van they remodeled.

Evelyn Bielmann is a freelance artist and interior decorator, and says she was longing to have some adventure and do some traveling with her 16-year-old daughter Sasha and their pup Hershey. “Once we researched our options, we bought this 1985 Dodge van that we found online, and sold most of our stuff! I love to decorate, so it was important to me that we didn’t compromise on style just because we were moving into a camper van,” explains Evelyn. “My goal was to distill the essence of the style of our previous home into 100 square feet.” While this mother and daughter duo finished their home-on-wheels earlier this year, the pandemic has put a temporary hold on travel plans, and they are sheltering in place with family until they can embark on their adventures. “Our plan was to travel to the Southwest, but due to Covid-19 we had to shelter in place with family during the cold months here in Canada.”

Evelyn recruited her brother and nephew to help with renovating the van that she purchased last summer. “We knew that with getting an older camper van, we would have a lot of DIY projects to tackle,” she explains. “We bought this one in particular because the layout worked for us so we didn’t need to make any structural changes, but it still had the original 1980s fake wood paneling and red velour upholstery everywhere! Painting and sewing covers was an obvious fix, but covering the ceiling panel in the cab was a dilemma. Our solution was to glue down pieces of vegan leather in a random patchwork pattern. I’m so pleased with the results! It looks authentic to the vintage of the van but we are no longer seeing red!”

Evelyn reports that the bathroom space had previously been used as a storage area, but she was able to transform it back into a bathroom by buying a toilet/bidet from Amazon and getting the plumbing redone at an RV shop, which she says ended up being the biggest expense. But while she left the plumbing to the professionals, she still DIYed plenty. “The bathroom is SUPER tiny so there really wasn’t much that I could do in terms of decoration, but I did have to install tile around the toilet,” she explains. “I found the black and white stick on tiles at Home Hardware for only $20 for a box of 10. It was exactly the right amount needed to cover the floor and create a feature wall that adds a much-needed visual pop!”

When we bought the van it still had the original 1980s fake wood paneling and red velour upholstery everywhere! We painted everything white to brighten it up and I sewed the chair covers with fabric in a diamond pattern that is repeated in some of the other textiles. The macrame banner under the loft bed creates a subtle division between the cab area and the living area.

Who sleeps where? The original layout of this van was exactly what we were hoping to find because of the loft bed over the cab. When it’s pulled out, it creates a semi-private space for my daughter, and I sleep on the daybed below. Since I wake up first, this arrangement allows me to move about freely as I start my day. The daybed area is our main multifunctional living space. The front passenger chair swivels around to create a lounge area with the daybed. Whenever we find a pretty spot, we can just pull up, throw the side doors open and enjoy the view! A small round wood table top is screwed on to the work stool when we want to use it for dining or playing card games.

The back half of the van is organized for specific uses. The end cabinet is our “office/studio” where we store our art supplies, books, files, electronics, and games. The L-shaped kitchen area is small but very practical to work in. I used to be a flight attendant so I am used to working in a small galley space! The bathroom is too tiny to change in, but when you open both the bathroom and closet door, it creates a private changing area. In addition to the closet, we have baskets under the daybed that provide additional clothing storage. The little cabinet above the daybed is our medicine cabinet. At the back under the sink, we have storage for tools, lawn chairs, etc. that we access from outside. When the back door is open, we can also pull the sink faucet out and use it to rinse things off outside.

Tell us about how and why you chose this home and why it works for your family: For my daughter’s entire life, we lived in a wonderful little community, which was a great place to raise a family but we were both feeling a strong desire to travel and live more adventurously. I started searching online for inspiration and after considering various options, “van life” seemed like a fit. It’s an affordable way to travel and still have the comforts of home. I have always been fascinated with small space living, so I knew what layout we needed in order to make this work for us.

Finding the right van was the tricky part! Choices were limited where we lived, so we were lucky to find this one online. It was out of town, however, so I had to buy it sight unseen! We took a Greyhound to go pick it up—the first time I drove it was on the eight-hour drive back home! Needless to say, it was a mix of nerves and excitement! I had many days of second guessing my decision to do this and although we haven’t had the opportunity to live in it as fully intended, the experience of fixing it up and downsizing has been cathartic for us. We have learned so much about ourselves and what we value most.

Behind the daybed is the closet with a rattan mirror on the door. Beside it towards the back is the bathroom. In the galley I use decorative, yet practical, storage solutions like under-cabinet mason jars for dry goods, magnetic spice containers on the exhaust, and a mug rack above the sink.

Is there something unique about your home or the way you use it? I think what make our home unique is that it’s on wheels! We installed solar panels so we can be off grid and go anywhere we want. We joked about wanting to find a van that had the same attribute as Doctor Who’s Tardis: an exterior of limited size, with a much larger interior! I think we managed to achieve this effect.

What’s the biggest challenge you’ve had to overcome in the design or organization of your small home for your family? It was important to have a designated work area, even if it was just a three-foot wide space for both of us! The first thing was to switch as much as possible to a paperless system for school and work. Sasha loves to draw but she easily transitioned from traditional sketchbooks to digital art in order to save space, and in the process, she has discovered a new medium that she loves. At first it was really difficult for me to decide on what art supplies to keep, but once I pared it down to what I thought was essential in order for me to create, it provided me with a sense of clarity about the direction I wanted to take my art practice.

We use the end cabinet as our "office/studio" because it was important to have a designated work space. I wanted a spot to display books so I removed the doors from the upper cabinet. In order to keep things from falling out when we are on the move I installed a branch that Sasha had saved from a nature walk when she was little. The portable drafting board was a gift from my brothers for my 16th birthday! It provides a good work surface and turns into a slim portfolio case that I can tuck away when not in use. We even managed to make room for a small inspiration board!

Please describe any helpful, inspiring, brilliant, or just plain useful small space maximizing and/or organizing tips you have: I love to decorate, so it was important to me that we didn’t compromise on style. The solution for me was to have utilitarian objects also serve as decoration. The Japanese cast iron teapot that can be used as a kettle is one of my favourite pieces, along with the orange 1970s Le Creuset pot that used to belong to my parents. They are functional, decorative, and have sentimental value. Working as a flight attendant helped me prepare for small space living, and this experience has been an opportunity for Sasha to also develop some practical habits. We have both embraced the concept of a capsule wardrobe. (Sasha and I travelled in France for a month with just a carry-on each!) Working in tight spaces taught me the importance of having things arranged so that there is an efficient flow to your work tasks. Tidying up as you go along is very important as well. Not only does it keep your work area clear for the next task, but it also keeps the “cabin secure for take off” when it’s time to move. In a small space like this, making the bed right away or washing the dishes as soon as you are done makes all the difference for the sake of your sanity!

What’s the best thing about living in a small home with a family? Do you have any advice for raising a family in a small space? I have never dreamed of living in a big home and by most standards, our previous home was also small, although now it seems big to us! Living in a small home is just cozier and the things that you have are more meaningful because they are carefully selected. Most importantly, Sasha and I have a good relationship and this experience has only strengthened that. My mother always created a happy sense of place at home because it was filled with music and laughter and it was decorated with love. As a mom, I can only hope that our home, no matter the size, provides my daughter with the same feeling of joyfulness and inspires her creativity.

In a small home it’s not always about trying to get the most out of every square inch. This little shelf from IKEA provides just enough space to display a small frame with one of my paintings, and a couple of pieces of handmade pottery that serve as a vase and as a jewellery dish for Sasha’s bracelet collection. It’s just above the daybed so it’s one of the first things you see when you enter. There is another one across from it, above the doors, that functions as a bedside table when the loft bed is pulled out.

This submission’s responses were edited for length and clarity.