What is it about Airstream design that continues to engender such passion more than 80 years after the trailer first appeared?
Is it the alluring, streamlined aluminum shell? The cozy interiors? The nostalgia for a simpler era?
"It's a part of American culture that transcends time," said architect Matthew Hofmann, 29, who last month opened an Airstream hotel consisting of four tricked-out trailers parked midtown at the Santa Barbara Auto Camp off De La Vina Street. "It symbolizes style and adventure. There is something very fundamental about getting in your car and driving across country. It's in our blood."
On a recent afternoon, curious pedestrians repeatedly interrupted Hofmann and business partner Neil Dipaola to ask if they could take a peek inside the trailers. Upon entering, they found renovated interiors with hotel upgrades perfectly suited for "glamping" — mini-bars, wall-mounted flat-screen TVs, air conditioning and 1,000-thread-count sheets, all for $150 per night.
According to Airstream, about 70% of all the trailers ever manufactured by the company are still in use, so it is not surprising that Hofmann, as well as other entrepreneurs, would think to use them as lodging. Singer Kate Pierson of the B-52's opened her second vintage Airstream hotel — six trailers near Joshua Tree — in November.
But unlike Pierson's playful kitschy decor (think the B-52's "Love Shack" video), Hofmann's Airstreams stand out for their surprising elegance. The modern updates are no different than any home remodel, he said, and he viewed his trailers from the 1950s to 1970s as floor plans for small-space living.
How to create an open and airy feel in just 150 to 200 square feet? Cut the excess, Hofmann said.
"I tried to lighten them up and simplify them while maintaining their classicism," he said.
The architect used a few tricks to give them visual flow. Because the four trailers are used as hotel rooms, not for extended traveling or permanent living, Hofmann reduced the amount of storage, which made the interiors feel tight. Next he removed plastic accessories that created "visual noise," such as window coverings, valances and spice racks. Existing vents on the roof were doubled in size to create skylights, bringing in more sunshine.
"It's more than just painting the walls white," Hofmann said of the quest to brighten the interiors. "It's how the space feels as you move through it."
To add warmth, Hofmann installed strand bamboo and teak flooring. "You don't want to feel like you're in a tin can. Airstreams can have a Teutonic look."
Hofmann saved original shelving and all of the windows. In some kitchens he refinished the original cabinets, and in others he added new fronts to the existing frames.
The most surprising space in each Airstream is the bathroom, traditionally a utilitarian space the size of a closet. Hofmann expanded them and created a sense of luxury by installing colorful recycled glass tile and wraparound Corian counter tops. Full-size toilets are a plus. In one trailer, he even added a claw-foot tub.
For Hofmann, who grew up building treehouses in Mammoth, the challenge of designing on such a small scale has been exciting. He has renovated more than 20 Airstreams and now focuses solely on renovating vintage trailers with the hope of opening more Airstream hotels.
"It appeals to me because it is history, it's American and, as a LEED architect, I can make it sustainable," said Hofmann, referring to the U.S. Green Building Council's Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design program.
Pop culture humorist Charles Phoenix, author of "Americana the Beautiful: Mid-Century Culture in Kodachrome," said the continuing fascination with vintage Airstreams makes complete sense when you consider each is "a little cozy cabin on wheels that looks like a bright and shiny Twinkie. How could something so warm and cozy be so shiny and slick at the same time?"