Written by Lee Schneider
There’s a workshop in Orange, CA where Airstream trailers go to be reborn. They have put in thousands of miles, witnessed the magic of mountains and deserts, and still they’re ready for more of life’s highway.
“We’re taking something that is unique in this RV world and bringing it back to life,” said Uwe Salwender of Area 63 Productions. He restores Airstream trailers. “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.“ He lives in one 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 entered the Airstream life 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 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.”
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 soufflé would work fine in an Airstream.
Jennifer Siegal is an architect whose company is called the Office of Mobile Design. She’s in favor of smaller and more portable forms of housing. What if when you moved, you didn’t need to build a new house but instead took the old one with you? In an interview for SHELTER she talked about how smaller living spaces helped clients simplify their lives.
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 of the pre-fab metal home, as he used a workshop approach to create designs that could be mass produced. The “home on wheels” was popularized by founder of the Airstream company, Wally Byam. He bought what would become the Airstream design from an engineer and aircraft builder named William Hawley Bowlus. Byam marketed the design 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 American 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 Credit: 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. Music courtesy Mark Radcliffe. Road footage courtesy DocuCinema.