cool campers travel in style
BY elizabeth bettendorf (january 26, 2007)

Interior decorator Nikki Couture wanted to go camping around Florida with her family. She also wanted an experience that was old-fashioned but faithful to her love of good design.

So Nikki, 34, and her husband, Stephen, 36, recently bought what many others might see as a relic from mid 20th century America.

A silver Airstream trailer.

Their 1956 Airstream Safari - purchased for $3,500 from a private owner in Kentucky - came with its original built-in cabinetry and vintage appliances.

They updated considerably, adding hardwood floors, a tent-like canvas awning and khaki bark-cloth curtains that mimic the originals.

"Now we've got what looks like a groovy little diner," said Couture, who painted the interior in tones of muted earthy gold, and decked out the full bed in leopard-print sheets and pillows from Pottery Barn.

She found a vintage aluminum percolator, cups and dinnerware, and plans to hang antique nature prints in bamboo frames on the walls.

"I've been attracted to Airstreams for a long time," she said. "I love their lines and perfect little palettes."

Couture isn't alone in her love of the campers, designed in the 1920s by Stanford Law School grad and born traveler Wallace Merle Byam, who sold $5 plans and trailer kits from the back yard of his Los Angeles home.

Once called the "Silver Palace on Wheels" and "The Land Yacht," the first handcrafted assembly-line Airstream was launched in 1936.

Christened "the Clipper," the trailer incorporated wind-resistant aircraft technology and carried its own water supply.

It was also considered a marvel of technology: With the trailers wired for electricity, consumers could upgrade them to include air-conditioning - supplied by a dry ice system.

These days, the Airstream has taken on a newfound glamor, a sort of second bloom among the hip, design-conscious or merely nostalgic.

Big names have fallen hard for its silvery-cool lines, including designer Ralph Lauren, who recently overhauled and decorated four vintage models that were sold for charity for about $150,000 apiece.

Actor Matthew McConaughey is designing one for himself after spending three months in a beachfront Airstream rental just off Australia's Great Barrier Reef where he was shooting the upcoming movie Fool's Gold with Kate Hudson.

And Airstream commemorated its 75th anniversary with an ultrastylish travel trailer designed by David Winick, who looked to the trailer's origins when creating a retro interior that includes 1940s upholstery tailoring, aluminum surfaces, round vents and yacht-style details, like porthole windows.

And a number of groups exist devoted solely to the love of Airstreams, including the Vintage Airstream Club and the Wally Byam Caravan Club International. Enthusiasts even have their own magazine - and a visually beautiful one, at that - Airstream Life Magazine.

Airstreams are still made by hand the way they were in the 1930s, though the insides are more Danish Modern than the first models, which were designed with interiors that mimicked the shiny exteriors.

Still, some longtime RV enthusiasts say the glamor part is just a small niche that has secured a foothold mostly among people who can afford to buy vintage vehicles and rehab them.

"It's definitely a celebrity type of thing," says Mike Vaughn, whose in-laws, along with other Airstream enthusiasts, started the Travelers Rest Resort, a shareholder-owned RV park 3 miles west of Interstate 75 in Dade City.

The park, with its six lakes, golf course, post office and largest propane tank in the state of Florida (30,000 gallons), was built by volunteers, enthusiastic Airstreamers.

"They basically carved this place out of the jungle," Vaughn says of what he proudly calls "the finest RV park in the United States."

Until 1998, the park was devoted strictly to Airstream owners, but now welcomes all sorts of RV enthusiasts.

Though about 50 percent of the park's 681 sites are home to Airstream owners - many of whom spend the entire winter at the park - he says none of those trailers are "vintage" in the hip sense of the word, though some enthusiasts have owned their Airstreams for years.

The Coutures have taken their 5-year-old son, Chandler, on several camping trips since restoring their 21-foot Airstream last fall, pulling it behind their Land Rover Discovery to several Florida state parks, including Hillsborough and Myakka.

The couple used to be big bed-and-breakfast fans, Nikki says, but after their son came along, they had to look for an alternative way to travel.

"Camping in it has been so much fun," she says. "And the state parks blew away our expectations."

She typically searches the Internet for parks that are RV-friendly and rated a 10. They're already planning a camping trip to St. Augustine, and Couture wants to go to an Airstream rally "in the worst way."

They could have bought new (a comparable new model sells for a little over $45,000), but Couture says she wouldn't have been happy unless "I did it myself."

The couple put about $15,000 into restoration (in addition to the $3,500 purchase price), still bringing it to a much lower cost than a new one.

Besides, she says, "Airstreams are gorgeous; they're like little works of art."


Vintage Airstream
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