The Airstream recreational vehicle, all curves and chrome, was originally designed to evoke the open road and the aviation age. Hawley Bowlus, the man who created the brand's toaster-over-in-a-wind-tunnel look was also the chief designer of Charles Lindbergh's Spirit of St. Louis. His America was all about going places and the Airstream was intended to be both a way to get there and a way to stay.
Over the years, the vehicles have gone from being associated with innovation to being of a piece with thrift store Americana -- what Instagram is to cameras, Airstream is to vehicles -- yet, in 1932 when company founder Wally Byam was just moving beyond tinkering in his back yard, he was engaging with a very modern notion: Mobility is the ultimate luxury.
The irony, of course, is that a company catering to Americans' travel yen has itself been nothing if not stationary. The popular vehicles are still manufactured in Jackson Center, Ohio and their names still betray these roots. Buyers can choose between Sport, Flying Cloud and Classic Limited models. There is also an International, but that seems almost antithetical to the whole endeavor.
Despite its proud middle-American sensibility and heritage, Airstreams have always been more than middle class kitsch. They helped ferry generations of children and parents to beaches and wild places. They may not have conquered the West, but they certainly made it more accessible, allowing the denizens of America's growing suburbs to get back into the outdoors. If Airstreams now look tiny next to the rolling mansions being offered by recreational vehicle manufacturers, there is a reason: They were designed to help us get away, not to help us schlep everything along with us.
Eighty years later, an Airstream in the driveway still means one foot out the door, an American stance if ever there was one.
The Original Vision
Airstream's first trailers might look oddly plain to those expecting chrome and curves, but the influence of plane construction didn't become visually apparent until the mid 1930s.
As a young company, Airstream sold two things: affordable trailers and the open road.
Variations On A Theme
Airstreams were never content to stay behind the cars and, in some cases, devoured it.
As the years went by, Airstream became associated with chrome and its trailers became almost aggressively shiny.
The Airstream, and the trailer craze it set off, allowed Americans to bring the suburbs into the woods, which is exactly what they did.
Beach Blanket Babylon
The Airstream was an integral part of the beach culture blooming in the early 1960s. The California sun made the shell of the trailers rather hot to the touch, but no one seemed to care.
As Airstreams got larger and more variable, some of them became homes rather than vacation capsules.
The Airstream was originally a travel tool, a way to schlep from Paris to Madrid or from New York to San Francisco by way of the national parks in the days before commercial flight had been popularized.
If You're Going To San Francisco...
...Be sure to bring your Airstream.
As lifestyle magazines became to emphasize the active lifestyle, the Airstream became associated with any number of pursuits including, well, SCUBA diving.
As the years passed, owning an original Airstream stayed trendy, but now in the context of hand-me-down flannel shirts and Wayfarers.
Part of the Airstream's appeal was that it was engineered within an inch of its life. Every space was filled.
Thorough planning didn't mean that people weren't eager to creatively outfit their own trailers.
Commercial Space On Wheels
Many residents of America's hipper cities are now used to seeing Airstream trailers used as office space or to promote brands at festivals.
Also, they make perfect food trucks and everyone loves a food truck.
Trailers got larger too, though the fundamental idea of bring the house to the beach instead of finding a beach house never really changed.
Airstream continued to refine its look over the years, slimming its profile and hiding its seems.
George Jetson's Trailer
The future has always been at the core of the Airstream's present and its likely the trailers will continue to showcase cutting edge technology and design.
They looked odd to people when they debuted too...
As the years passed, Airstream's aesthetics influenced far more than just the design of trailers and cars.