Before and After: Every Inch of This Renovated 210-Square-Foot Airstream Was Intentionally Designed
Before and After: Every Inch of This Renovated 210-Square-Foot Airstream Was Intentionally Designed
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Name: Reilly Dowd
Location: Ojai, California
Size: 210 square feet
Type of Home: Vintage Airstream Sovereign Travel Trailer
Years Lived In: 1 Year, owned
I bought the airstream on Craigslist sight unseen because we were in the midst of pre-vaccine Covid. We had just lost our family home in Sonoma to a wildfire. And at the same time, I was working to finish my first feature documentary film, Dreams of Daraa, for a U.S. broadcast deadline. I needed a space to work, so my vision for the airstream began as an office. I wanted to bring in elements of the places that inspired me the most: Architect Patrick Ahearn’s storybook homes on Nantucket, the Royal Mansour in Morocco, Hotel Cuixmala in Mexico, Brooke and Steve Giannetti’s Patina Farm in California, and Linda Bergroth’s tiny glass house on a lake.
But this is definitely not a love-at-first sight story. When the Airstream arrived, I soon discovered that beneath some new vinyl floorboards was 40 years of dead rodents, sewage, loose screws — and worse. It needed to be stripped down to the frame for a complete subfloor replacement. Around that time, I met Loren Crawford, who runs Matilija Vintage Trailer Restorations in Ojai, CA. I sourced most of the materials locally and gave him detailed renderings of the cabinetry, desk, bed platform, and archway wall.
I wanted to rewrite the story of this tin can rotting away in an RV park. It felt like a year of taking one step forward and ten steps backward, but it was so beautiful to see it all come together. The thing I love most about it today is how much childlike joy it brings to friends and family who get to see it for the first time. It’s such an inspiring place to write and reflect. It’s an island in the storm.
Apartment Therapy Survey:
My Style: The places we live and work in should shape us, and if we are intentional, they bring out the best in us. This is especially true in a time when many of us are still working remotely. In reimagining the Airstream, I was after openness, symmetry, and calmness — a place for ideas to take flight. My decor style is directly a result of my travels. And it’s always changing. I’m inspired by simplicity and spaces that reflect the world around them. A sort of playful elegance drives the way I think about design.
This Airstream was my first renovation project. I thought of this space in the same way I think about putting an outfit together: Each element should be in concert with one another. If something is the main event, like a jacket or a pair of shoes, nothing else should really try to compete. Natural fabrics are always better. Texture is essential. The way it makes you feel matters more than how it looks. And always, add something unexpected.
I started out in the airstream with natural, light hues: an off-white paint, a beige linen fabric, white oak floors, birch plywood, but the rug was always the main event. I wanted everything to complement that, to let it shine.
My biggest challenge was probably practicing restraint. There were so many things I found and loved, but this entire renovation — from colors, to fabrics, to appliances — was an exercise in restraint.
Inspiration: There are few colors as stunning as the cerulean blue of the dome-capped buildings in Greece. I started to incorporate this color by painting some old wooden rowing oars and the wrought iron stove.
The coastal theme wasn’t always the plan. But I loved how the watercolor coffee mugs brought in the color variations of the sea. Pieces of this china set were the only thing that survived the fire. So there was something meaningful about them, too. They should have burned.
For the kitchen area, I wanted a built-in furniture look. I studied the materials, color schemes, dimensions, and craftsmanship of companies like Devol Kitchens and British Standard Cupboards. From there, I created a 3-D rendering using Floorplanner’s online software and was able to give a pretty specific roadmap to the guys at Matilija Restorations. These cupboards not only disguise the wheel wells, but also appliances like the microwave and mini-fridge.
Favorite Element: I used my grandfather’s vintage New Mexican belts to tie up the curtains. He had great style. I thought it was a fun way to honor him and bring in a pop of color to a space that was becoming a blend of beiges.
Biggest Challenge: Nothing in this airstream has a straight edge. And no measurement is standard. Form and function were equally important, but in trying to find materials, I realized everything I’d saved on my Pinterest board weighed a gazillion pounds: Cotswolds stone, Zellige tiles, and stucco walls.
This thing is meant to travel down the highway at 60 MPH, so I was limited by both weight and balance. I was also restricted by things that couldn’t change — the frame of the trailer, two wheel wells, and fixed windows. I started by thinking about the trailer’s rounded shape. Adding the arched wall in the center seemed to flow naturally. I stuck with that in designing the firewood storage area and selecting the cabinet hardware. I was always trying to have each new thing I added be in conversation with and balanced by the structure itself.
Proudest DIY: I lost a solid week of my life trying to figure out how to make a tumbleweed chandelier happen. I found it on the side of the road in New Mexico and checked it in a huge cardboard box on my flight back to California. I spray painted the tumbleweed with a high heat polyurethane and left it outside to dry. But it tumbled off my porch that night and I had to go hunting for it a second time.
Once I recovered it, I had to figure out how to actually make it work. I wanted it to play off the other natural elements like the rattan door shade and the firewood. Almost nothing threatened the warm aesthetic more than the wrong color electric cord. So, I was excited to find Creative Cables, a company which sold the perfect shade of jute wire. It all came together with a clear glass pendant light shade. The shadows of this tumbleweed chandelier are especially beautiful at night. Definitely my proudest DIY.
Biggest Indulgence: The wood-burning stove. I wanted the airstream to feel like home warm and inviting. And nothing captures that more than the crackling of a wood-burning fireplace. I first saw these tiny stoves in the coal-burning houseboats along the canals of Oxfordshire. I was romanced by the image of the old British couple boiling a tea kettle on their stove. I got this idea in my head to make it white. And with that, my biggest indulgence quickly became my greatest headache.
What cost the most wasn’t just the actual purchase of the stove (gulp), but the huge amount of hours it took to actually make it work inside the trailer. A few things come to mind: Opening the 120-pound wooden box it arrived in, connecting the multi-part flue pipe, making eight cans of white spray paint cover the black, curing the paint, building a sturdy platform, retrofitting a metal heat shield, cutting a hole through the aluminum ceiling, securing and riveting a chimney to the roof, and finally chopping eight-inch pieces of wood. And then, of course, figuring out how to make it safe. A totally over-the-top indulgence that’s not at all needed in Southern California. But I do love — and actually use — this thing.
Is there something unique about your home or the way you use it? The Airstream now serves primarily as my office, but also doubles as a guest bedroom. In the beginning, I focused on the elements that make up a functional workspace. I didn’t need it to be fully livable off-grid, but I designed it so that a bathroom could easily be added just behind the arched wall. The desk in the back also doubles as a platform for a twin mattress.
What are your favorite products you have bought for your home and why? Burnt orange was kind of a rogue second color to bring into the mix, but the Moroccan lumbar pillow from Berberology is one of my favorite purchases. And adding the smaller cobalt blue pillows on each side helped to tie it into the rest of the space.
Please describe any helpful, inspiring, brilliant, or just plain useful small space maximizing and/or organizing tips you have: A few oversized furniture pieces in a small space are better than a lot of small ones. I wanted the couch/bed area to feel like one huge piece of furniture. I didn’t own any cushions that would fit this space, but I had a bunch of random throw pillows of various sizes. I got a sewing machine and learned to sew by watching YouTube tutorials. I bought some cheap muslin fabric by the yard, sewed new pillow inserts to fit the measurements of the Airstream and used all of the down feathers and stuffing I had to fill them.
My queen mattress didn’t quite fit the space, so I did the same thing to fill in the gaps between the mattress and the curved walls. Then I sewed a coverlet out of the same linen fabric to go over the entire area. I brought the remaining fabric to a local seamstress to help with the zippered pillows. Adding the skirt beneath it just made the whole thing feel more finished.
I was inspired by Maker & Son’s couches. I wanted to create that same comfy and casual vibe, while also having a sort of sophisticated edge. Achieving this built-in custom look for the lounge area probably took more time than anything else, but also saved the most money. Thinking about ways to reimagine what you already have is such a useful design hack.
Other small space maximizing tips:
- Bring in more natural light. I removed an old AC unit from the roof and replaced it with a clear skylight.
- Find interesting baskets to store uninteresting things.
- Give a new life to forgotten fabrics. I made the curtains in the office from an old linen tablecloth.
Finally, what’s your absolute best home secret or decorating advice? Major construction projects or custom home builds often have remnant pieces that are left behind at the factory or wholesaler. The kitchen countertops came from one large remnant piece of Caesarstone textured quartz in Ventura, California. They sold me a slab for a fraction of the cost and were able to cut and polish it for me. I used a remaining piece for the fireplace hearth.
I was also able to find plywood remnants from a local lumber yard and the heat shield for the stove from a nearby steel mill. These wholesalers all had the machinery to make specific cuts on site. And because they are used to much larger scale construction projects, you can often suggest the price for a one-off piece yourself.
PAINT & MATERIALS
- Walls & Cabinetry Paint — Benjamin Moore “Swiss Coffee”
- Wood Stove Paint — Stove Bright High Temp “Almond” & “Patriot Blue”
- Kitchen Countertops — Caesarstone Textured Quartz
- Archway Wall & Office Desk — 1-inch Thick Baltic Birch Plywood
- Engineered Waterproof Flooring — Everbright — European White Oak
- Antiqued Stone Steps — Lowes
- Front Door Upholstery — Ballard Designs Canopy Stripe Cornflower/White by Sunbrella
- Rattan Window Shades — Vintage
- Hobbit SE Wood Stove — Salamander Stoves
- Stove Flue Kit — Tiny Wood Stove
- Hemp Hand Broom — Domecil
- Folded Leather Dustpan — Domecil
- Curtain Belt Ties — Vintage
- Beige Linen Fabric — CoCo B. Kitchen & Home
- Cactus Silk Moroccan Pillows — Berberology
- Ivory Wool Throw Blanket — West Elm
- Tumbleweed Chandelier — Santa Fe Roadside Find
- Jute Pendant Wire — Creative Cables
- Tumbleweed Hammered Glass Light Shade — Lowes
- Elephant Grass Storage Basket — Expedition Subsahara
- Polished Chrome Cabinet Hardware — Rejuvination
- Undermount Bar Sink — Precis Silgranit in Truffle by Blanco
- Wall Mounted Chrome Faucet — Concord Collection by Kingston Brass
- Figuier Candle — Diptyque Paris
- Zapotec Rug — Handwoven in Oaxaca
- Coffee Mugs — “Coves of Cornwall” Collection by Rick Stein
- Vintage Rowing Oars — Craigslist Find
- Kenzie Pendant Lamp — Santa Barbara Design Center
- Leather Campaign Desk Organizer — England Find
- Buckle Camel Leather Chair — Restoration Hardware
- Vintage Malian Mud Cloth Textile — Carla Weber of Hunter Gatherer
- Blue/White Striped Linen Curtains — Philippe Collection by LinenMe
- Tan Leather Curtain Straps — Keyaiira on Etsy
This submission’s responses and photos were edited for length/size and clarity.
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