Home Away

written by john bentley mays
photography by horst herge

 

Long ago, when North America ’s sprawling post-war suburbs were young, the Airstream trailer wa s the acme of wow. Parked in the driv eway or hauled over the new expressway s behind a tail-finned family car, the doodlebug-shaped, aluminium home on wheels symbolized the era’s new mobility and its affection for everything shiny and streamlined, from cocktail shakers to jets. And today the Airstream is still a supreme pop-cultural emblem of a period when gas was cheap, the Interstate Highways were new, and the dreamiest vacation imaginable wa s a road -trip, Airstream in tow, to the Grand Canyon.

I felt transported back into those long-past times one evening late last summer, when interior designer and yoursource publisher Kevin Fitzsimons pulled his sparkling Sovereign Airstream Land Yacht--he calls it Mobitat--alongside a furniture showroom on Toronto’s east side. The applause of the assembled multitude--artists, designers, creative entrepreneurs--was loud and warm, as
it should have been: Fitzsimons’ restoration and updating of the 9.5-metre trailer is as refined a residential overhaul as we are likely to see in a dwelling of any size.

The interior palette of his Airstream is soft and welcoming, with brown, blue and green touches, and with dark walnut veneer offering a basic visual background. A sofa upholstered in an abstract design by Dura Lee lends exactly the right modernist flair to the ensemble.

But the technical gadgetry is beyond anything an Airstreaming couple of yesteryear could have imagined: Three flat-screened, high-definition television units are situated in various locations throughout the cabin, and a top-of-the-line Dell computer enables the trailer to serve as a work station as well as sleeping quarters. The electronic layout in this thoroughly wired structure is connected to the world at large by a roof-mounted satellite dish.

The appointments of the galley kitchen, similarly, are up to the minute, and topflight. The dishes are by Vera Wang for Wedgwood, the Japanese knives are by Kasumi, and the glassware is by Waterford. The sleek Gaggenau kitchen appliances include a built-in espresso machine and a convection oven.

But the most beautiful thing in this fully-loaded trailer, to my mind, is the washroom. Taking up only 1.6 square metres of floor space, this elegantly composed nook was cast as a single unit from high-density plastic, then furnished with a shower and a $3,500 Kohler hatbox toilet. It’s a trim, efficient necessity that complements and completes the minimal treatment Fitzsimons has given to the rest of the interior.

The route that led to last summer’s Toronto debut began earlier this year in the suburb of Etobicoke, where Fitzsimons discovered the elderly Airstream and bought it for $2,500. The trailer had enjoyed a career in show business--it played a small role in the short-lived television series Wonderfalls- -but was now a hollowed-out shell of its
former self.

As Fitzsimons explained his scheme to me, redoing the Land Yacht serves a couple of purposes.

One is simply to celebrate a much loved, all-time American icon. Another is to show a way this durable art-form can be transformed
into a posh dwelling for design-wise people- -Hollywood movie people on location, let’s say. “It’s the ultimate star wagon,” Fitzsimons
said. “I can totally see Sophia Loren in there.”

But Fitzsimons’ plush makeover has also been guided by the original intention of the Airstream: to provide a comfortable home away from home. After its brief Toronto showing, and an upcoming photo-shoot inNew York, the Land Yacht is bound for New Jersey, where Fitzsimons is restoring and furnishing a 64-room mansion for fashion designer Marc Ecko. For three days a week over the remaining year of this job, the Airstream will be the place Fitzsimons sleeps, eats and entertains.

It’s nice to see an Airstream getting a stylish body lift. The famous metal body of the trailer was devised in the mid-1930s by the American aircraft designer Hawley Bowlus, and has been manufactured ever since (with one interruption during the Second World War) in numerous styles and sizes. Though Johnny Depp, Matthew McConaughey and Tim Burton own versions of this design classic, the fit-out of most Airstreams has remained very middle-brow.

Making it something better than that has not come cheap. At the outset, Fitzsimons estimated the budget for the restoration would be just $15,000. So far, he told me, he has poured around $128,000 into the project--and that’s not counting an estimated $110,000 in donated fixtures, appointments and services. Once into the job, he found, there was no turning back. (The Kohler toilet and the Gaggenau kitchen appliances, along with much else, were supplied gratis by the manufacturers.)

But darn the expense! For its refurbisher, the trailer is a dream come true.

“It all started when I was a kid,” Fitzsimons, a native of suburban Mississauga, said. “I thought Airstreams were the coolest-looking things. It is part of the inspiration for who I am today.”


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