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WSU students re-imagine a classic

WSU design student Shona Bose buffs the shine back onto the shell of a 1958 Airstream.  Design students are involved in an eight-week course to redesign the classic travel trailer, aiming to create a new interior for a modern user.  (Colin Mulvany)
WSU design student Shona Bose buffs the shine back onto the shell of a 1958 Airstream. Design students are involved in an eight-week course to redesign the classic travel trailer, aiming to create a new interior for a modern user. (Colin Mulvany)

Catch them at the right time, and these grad students look like coal miners.

In the garage on the Riverpoint campus, Aaron Pasquale wears a layer of grime that’s a shade or two deeper than the one covering classmate Shona Bose. They’re hard at work buffing a 52-year-old Airstream trailer back to its shiny glory – trying to make the iconic trailer instantly, brilliantly recognizable.

What they’re doing on the inside, on the other hand, will make the thing unrecognizable.

The bustling garage is the scene for Todd Beyreuther’s eight-week course for graduate students in architecture and interior design at Washington State University. Soon there’ll be a finished trailer with a wildly reimagined interior – the conclusion of a project that will spiff up the résumés and skills of the students and leave behind a cool example of the design work being done at the school. Future students might expand on the work, and the trailer is likely to make appearances at public events like football games and county fairs, Beyreuther said.

In the meantime, the clock is winding down.

With about two weeks to go, the shell is off the trailer, the floor plan is being finalized – more about that floor later – and the students are scrambling.

“You always feel that pressure, right on the back of your neck,” said Brandon Patterson, a 28-year-old architecture student from Tacoma, who wears cowboy boots and a punk rock T-shirt.

Of course, as we all know, pressure can be good for you. Adversity, conflict – great environments for learning, though when you’re the one covered in buffer dust, it can be hard to take the long view. But these students seem to be relishing the challenge.

“On paper, all this stuff can be so visual and imaginative,” said Bose. “But we actually have to do this.”

In addition to Pasquale, Bose and Patterson, the students working on the project are Ashlee Holtman and Kait Tripp-Addison.

The Airstream is a bit of Americana that has inspired devoted followers – both among recreationists and designers.

First built more than 70 years ago, the silver bullets are light, sleek and beautiful – but they also helped usher in the boom in RVs, most of which are none of those things.

The trailers have been the occasional subject of other projects, such as the Design Revolution Road Show, that tend to emphasize green design and simple living.

Beyreuther’s idea was that the students would try to preserve the iconic element of the trailer – that shiny shell – while redesigning the rest of it with modern living and sustainability in mind.

Beyreuther, an assistant clinical professor of architecture, had been looking for the right Airstream for a couple years. Not long ago, he found it – a 1958, 26-foot Overlander, for sale by a Coeur d’Alene seller.

The price on the well-traveled trailer was right – $1,150 – and it had a solid shell and a trashed interior.

Which was fine, since the students would be gutting it. Because for all its shiny glory, the typical interior of an Airstream is pretty typical. Cabinets, couches, sinks, bathrooms. As Bose puts it, “You get inside and it’s just: suburban house.”

Suburban house is not a compliment, in design world.

With a hypothetical user in mind named Norm – an “urban nomad” who lives a mobile, high-tech, low-impact lifestyle – the students began to rethink the trailer’s interior.

They lighted on the notion of using the floor in an expansive, creative way – clearing out all the cabinetry and furniture and “rooms,” and building a living space that looks nothing like any living space you’ve seen.

The floor, which will be made of a sustainable wheatstraw-resin board produced at WSU’s Composite Materials and Engineering Center, will be contoured, with depressions at both ends. One end will be the “wet zone” – not a bathroom or a kitchen, exactly, but a space where bathroomy and kitcheny things occur.

“It’s not a shower stall, it’s just a space that can get wet,” said Holtman. “Think of this as a total wet zone. It’s all inclusive. … It’s your toilet, or it’s your shower, or it’s your sink.”

At the other end of the floor, another depression offers a space for sitting, sleeping, working, living. The contoured, topographic surface between the depressions will be cut into blocks, where Norm might store clothes, gadgets, Italian leather belts.

Everything’s in the floor. And “the space,” as designers call it, will be more spacious and more attuned to the shape of the shell – the Airstream’s defining feature.

It’s very cool. And it’s also very strange, and hard for someone with a lifetime of other habits to envision actually living in.

But the future of how we live – how much stuff we use, how lightly or heavily we live on the land – won’t come from those of us who are already well set in our ways.

It will emerge from these soot-covered students and their peers, getting all excited about ripping out the cabinets and storing stuff in the floor.

“We just want to rethink what it can be,” Bose said. “Spaces can be anything.”

Shawn Vestal can be reached at (509) 459-5431 or