Before & After: A Designer Turns an Old RV into a “Business by Day, Happy Hour By Night” Hip Hangout
Sometimes the perfect project just lands in your lap — or your yard! Such was the case for one Bay Area couple, Kristen and Phil, who co-own a property in Oakland with 12 friends called the “Radish.” Late last year, Kristen’s mother had driven a vintage RV all the way from Nashville, TN, and left it behind after her visit. What might have become a nuisance in a pre-COVID world turned into a golden opportunity for sheltering at home: creating an auxiliary communal space that would be a “business by day, happy hour by night destination” featuring an extra bedroom for overnight guests. The only problem? The original interior — dark, cluttered, and full of uncomfortable furniture — completely lacked that vibe.
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Enter Catherine Hooper, owner and founder, of iSPY Home Design, who came in to help Kristen and Phil conceptualize the project. “It may have had completely unfinished walls and ceilings, but in a way, that was the appeal,” she says of the RV in its original state. “It was a completely blank slate full of potential.”
After an initial consult with the couple, Hooper got to work, drawing up design plans for an eclectic, 1960s retro bungalow look.”I’d seen a lot of similarly-renovated campers, but most of them featured the same modern minimalist aesthetic with mostly Southwestern decor,” says Hooper. “I just felt these clients wanted something different — something more funky and eclectic.”
Once Kristen and Phil signed off on an inspiration board that fit that bill, Hooper began sourcing samples of all of the priority materials: flooring, wall colors, and wallpaper. She brought everything over to the property for approval, got Kristen and Phil’s final sign-off before ordering, and then demo began.
From there, Kristen, Phil, and the rest of their housemates took over the painting and installation of the major surfaces and new fixtures/finishes. They hired out help for the electrical, flooring, and a few other more involved tasks. A small screw hole in the roof caused a bit of a leaky setback, but within a few months’ time, they were ready for the fun part: decorating!
All the while, Hooper was working behind the scenes to source just-right pieces for the retro-meets-whimsical interior. The RV’s layout stayed pretty much the same, but the space is now way more functional for both work and play; opposite the driver cab end is a tiny bedroom with a bathroom right off it, and the main cabin features a desk area, bar cart, and little sitting area, the perfect place to take a work call or wind down with a cocktail after hours.
Since most of her work focuses on purely residential spaces, Hooper got to flex her design muscles beyond the typical neutral palettes and minimalist interiors many homeowners want for their spaces. “For the RV, I pretty quickly had to get out of my comfort zone and throw my design inclinations out the window,” says Hooper. “Instead of soft whites and grays, I chose deep teals, bright yellows, and dramatic pinks.” Similarly, instead of breezy textiles, Hooper shopped for high pile rugs and rich velvet curtains, which were an inexpensive solution for the lack of a bathroom door, and also used to section off the driver’s seat from the lounge area.
To stretch the budget and be as sustainable as possible, Hooper turned to mostly secondhand resources for furnishings. “Every single item of furniture in the space, other than the brass bar cart from good ‘ole Target, was sourced from a variety of sellers on Facebook Marketplace,” she says. For finishing touches, Hooper went treasure hunting at Urban Ore, one of Berkeley’s most famous salvage yards. “I wanted everything, down to the tiny jukebox or copy of “Secrets of the Vietnam War” I snagged, to represent the Counterculture Movement of the 1960s and ’70s that catapulted San Francisco onto the national stage,” she says.
In fact, a retro- and local-inspired brand of maximalism is on full display throughout the RV, from Tempaper’s psychedelic teal and gold Silhouette accent wallpaper to the knickknacks and plants on display on the lounge’s ample open shelving. Paint colors make a major statement in each area of the RV, too. “Behr’s Wine Not line the two other walls in the lounge area, and the pièce de résistance is the copper ceiling tiles from American Tin,” says Hooper. “For the bathroom, we opted for a bright yellow with Behr’s Little Sun Dress and continued the teal influence with a two-tone palette in the bedroom, lightening the walls with Behr’s “Tidewater” and darkening with built-ins with Behr’s Undine.”
The only space that didn’t get a total redo was the bathroom. To perk it up on the cheap, the trio chose the aforementioned yellow and painted it everywhere, including the cabinetry. “Suddenly, the space felt more cohesive instead of broken up,” says Hooper. She also recovered the yellowing plastic sink with Rustoleum’s Tub & Tile epoxy paint to make it look brand new and replaced all of the cabinet knobs and pulls. “Those little changes can actually make a big difference in making the space feel refinished, even if it’s a bit of an illusion,” she says.
From start to finish, the project took about three months time, but stepping into the space — with its retro funky design — feels like traveling back decades. Even better, it’s a place its owners truly appreciate having. “Now, Love Shack IV, as the RV is aptly named, provides not only an additional space to work but also a place of community and solace in the heart of North Oakland,” says Hooper.