THE BLOG

Living Large in an Airstream

06/27/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011
  • Lee Schneider Communications director at Red Cup Agency. Minimalist. Writing on the intersection of culture and technology

Living smaller and more simply has become a goal for many people wanting to reboot their lives. In Orange, California, there's a workshop dedicated to just that kind of reboot, but you have to be willing to bring an American icon along for the ride. The workshop is where Airstream trailers come to be reborn.

"We're taking something that is unique in this RV world and bringing it back to life," Uwe Salwender said. His shop is called Area 63 Productions. "There's a lot of aluminum on these and they last a very long time. I've seen trailers that are 50 years old and they're still fully functional. You could move into one of those and live full time." As a matter of fact, he lives in an Airstream full time with his wife. "I myself feel very, very comfortable having a sizable Airstream in my possession. I know that no matter what happens I always have a home, and a comfortable one and a stylish one. I would not hurt for the beautiful house I left, because my airstream is just as beautiful but in a different way."

Depending on the intensity of the job, a restoration by Uwe Salwender can take from six weeks to a year and a half. Here's short video about what he does.

Uwe Salwender discovered Airstreams while on a vacation trip to Mexico, at the Sea of Cortez. "We started wild camping down there out of a van and a jeep," he said. The camping was wild, but it "became kind of eh, you know, wind and weather and other influences, animals and snakes and things that we're not that fond of."

Nevertheless, he was overpowered by the beauty of the place, and drawn into a connection with the land he felt while living in an old Airstream he had bought. It was a time capsule, flimsy, with an ugly interior, but beautiful in its Airstream way. So beautiful, he couldn't make himself tear it apart to fix it, so he sold it, bought another, fixed that one, and then friends started to learn about what he was doing.

"I wouldn't do it publicly for a long time. I wanted for it to sort of like remain a hobby." But five years ago, when the economy started to dip, the volume was turned down on his old job which involved making high-end audio prototypes, amplifiers and stage systems for touring rock bands, and the volume was turned way up on his Airstream restoration business. It was an easy transition to switch over to restoration full time, he said, because building audio prototypes made him familiar with aluminum extrusions and working with wood. Working with the idiosyncrasies of rock musicians simply transformed into working with the idiosyncrasies of Airstream design.

"My favorites are from the forties to the mid 1960s. Much newer and they're not as rewarding I should say."
-Uwe Salwender

Salwender believes the Airstream offers a more grounded way to travel, helping people connect with themselves, and as proof he offers a few stories. He's found that clients who may argue a lot with their spouses seem to calm down in their Airstream. People ask for built in big screen TV entertainment centers "because they can't miss their USC games." But sometimes he gently suggests they forgo the TV and go for a walk outside or try starting a conversation with other people at the campsite. He'll put in the flat screen if you really want it, and hook it up to satellite TV. You can also get solar panels so you can stay off the grid, and a high-end kitchen so you can make more than just soup - a souffle would work fine in an Airstream.

Today's revolution of "smaller is better" and putting a house on wheels is really more of an evolution unfolding over decades. Architectural history geeks usually acknowledge Jean Prouve as the founding father, as he used a workshop approach to build homes out of metal. The "home on wheels" part was popularized by founder of the Airstream company, Wally Byam. He bought the what would become the Airstream design from an engineer and aircraft builder named William Hawley Bowlus. Byam marketed it so effectively, Airstream owners felt they weren't just buying a recreational vehicle, they were buying into a movement. They were free to see the country in their silvery orbs, to do some creative drifting, to experience life unfiltered and seek out the community of fellow free spirits. The early Airstream designs had an industrial Bauhaus sleekness, joining the parade of industrial objects that make up the magic age of pop design. Airstreams live long and go deep.

" It's an iconic thing like Harley Davidson, and maybe '57 Chevy, Buick's Roadmaster, you know, Zippo lighters. There's a number of American things that just won't go away no matter what, right? And I think this is one of them," Salwender said.

Photo Credits: Airstream by the ocean by Prawnpie via Flickr. Creative Commons License. Shop photos and portraits by Lee Schneider. Interior Airstream renovation images by Uwe Salwender. Road footage courtesy DocuCinema.