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TED2002

Christopher C. Deam: The Airstream, restyled

February 2, 2002

In this low-key, image-packed talk from 2002, designer Christopher C. Deam talks about his makeover of an American classic: the Airstream travel trailer.

Christopher C. Deam - Designer
A fascination with clean lines, modern materials and tiny houses made Christopher C. Deam the perfect designer to rethink the Airstream trailer right down to its aluminum skin. Full bio

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Double-click the English subtitles below to play the video.
I was asked by Wilsonart International,
00:12
a plastic laminate company, which is
00:16
the largest plastic laminate company in the world --
00:19
they asked me to design
00:21
a trade show booth
00:25
for exhibition at the International Contemporary Furniture Fair
00:27
in New York, in 2000.
00:31
So looking at their three main markets
00:33
for their product which were basically
00:37
transportation design,
00:40
interiors and furniture,
00:43
we came up with the solution of taking
00:46
an old Airstream trailer and gutting it,
00:48
and trying to portray laminate,
00:51
and a trailer, in kind of a
00:54
fresh, new contemporary look.
00:56
When this trailer showed up at my shop
00:58
in Berkeley, I'd actually never stepped foot in
01:01
an Airstream trailer, or any other trailer.
01:03
So I can be somebody that can look at this
01:06
in a totally fresh perspective and see if I can
01:08
optimize it in its most idealistic fashion.
01:11
I decided I had to do some research
01:14
and really figure out what had gone wrong
01:17
somewhere along the history of Airstream.
01:19
What I discovered in these interiors is that
01:22
there was a disconnect between the exterior shell
01:25
and the interior architecture of the pieces.
01:28
In that the shell was originally conceived
01:30
as a lightweight, modern, futuristic,
01:34
high-tech pod for hurtling down the freeway, and
01:38
the interiors were completely out of sync with that.
01:42
In fact it appeared like they
01:45
referenced a mountain cabin.
01:48
That seemed really like a crisis to me,
01:51
that they had never been able to
01:53
develop a vocabulary
01:55
about escape, and about travel, and modernity
01:57
in this trailer that was consistent with the shell.
02:01
We really needed to do some archeology
02:03
in the trailer itself to figure out what's authentic
02:07
in an Airstream trailer,
02:09
and what feels like it has true purpose and utility.
02:11
We stripped out all the vinyl
02:14
and zolatone paint that was covering up
02:16
this just fantastic aluminum shell.
02:18
We took off all the visible hardware and trim
02:21
that was kind of doing the country cabin thing.
02:24
I literally drew on the walls of the trailer,
02:27
mocked it up in cardboard,
02:31
we'd come in and cut, decide things were wrong,
02:33
pull it out, put it back in.
02:36
The main goal was to smooth out the interior,
02:38
and begin to speak about motion,
02:42
and mobility, and independence.
02:45
The biggest difficulty on one of these trailers
02:48
is that when you're designing there's actually no
02:51
logical place to stop and start materials
02:54
because of the continuous form of the trailer.
02:58
There's no such things as two walls and a ceiling
03:00
coming together, where you can change materials and shapes.
03:03
So that became a challenge.
03:06
Compounding that,
03:08
the material of choice, laminate,
03:10
that I was trying to highlight,
03:12
only bends in two dimensions.
03:14
It's a compound curve interior.
03:16
What I had to devise was
03:18
a way of fooling the eye
03:20
into believing that all these panels
03:24
are curved with the shell.
03:27
What I came up with was
03:29
a series of second skins
03:31
that basically float over the aluminum shell.
03:33
And what I was trying to do there was
03:38
direct your eye in the space,
03:40
so that you would perceive the geometry in a different way,
03:42
and that the casework wouldn't break up the space.
03:45
They also gave us a way to run power
03:50
and rewire the trailer without tearing out the skin,
03:52
so they function as an electrical chase.
03:54
That's the trailer, pretty much finished.
03:57
That trailer led to another commission,
03:59
to participate in whats called Tokyo Designers Block.
04:02
Its a week of furniture design events in Tokyo, in October.
04:06
Teruo Kurosaki, who owns a furniture company called Idee,
04:10
he asked me to ship him two trailers to Tokyo.
04:13
He said one he would like to
04:17
make a real trailer, functioning, and we would sell that one.
04:20
Trailer number two, you have a blank slate, you can to anything you want.
04:24
We came up with a fantasy scenario
04:27
of a DJ traveling around the States,
04:29
that would collect records and go on tours.
04:31
This trailer housed two turntables,
04:34
mixer, wet bar, fridge, integrated sound system.
04:37
It's got a huge couch, fits quite a few people,
04:41
and basically we'd had a great time with this.
04:44
And so in this trailer I took it upon myself to think about travel,
04:47
and escape, in an idiosyncratic sense.
04:50
A lot of these ideas migrated into
04:54
the production trailers for Airstream.
04:56
This brings us up to the time that I started consulting to Airstream.
04:59
They came to me and said,
05:03
"Well, what can we do to freshen this thing up?
05:05
And do you think kids, you know, skateboarders, surfers,
05:07
rock climbers, would use these things?"
05:11
And I said, "Well, not in that interior."
05:13
(Laughter)
05:16
Anyway, I went out to Airstream
05:17
about six times during the process of building this prototype,
05:19
and it's called the Bambi prototype.
05:22
I thought, "Finally, oh yeah great,
05:24
big company, I'm gonna work with somebody with money
05:26
for tooling and molding."
05:28
And I walked in their prototype facility, and
05:31
it's exactly like my shop, only bigger --
05:34
same tools, same things.
05:37
So the problem became -- and they set this dilemma to me --
05:39
that you have to design the interior using only our existing technology,
05:43
and there's no money for tooling or molding.
05:48
The trailers themselves are actually hand-built.
05:50
All the casework is hand-scribed in, uniquely,
05:53
so you can't just cut 100 parts for 100 trailers,
05:56
you have to cut them big, and every single one is hand-fit.
06:00
They didn't want to go to a componentized system.
06:03
And there it is, that's the Bambi 16.
06:07
(Applause)
06:11

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Christopher C. Deam - Designer
A fascination with clean lines, modern materials and tiny houses made Christopher C. Deam the perfect designer to rethink the Airstream trailer right down to its aluminum skin.

Why you should listen

Looking at his work, with its clean, swooping lines and elegant economy of movement, it's easy to guess that Christopher C. Deam is a surfer. His designs for spaces and furniture are light and clear and thoughtful, unleashed by modern materials and anchored in old-fashioned craftsmanship.

Deam's work came to national attention with his remodel of the iconic Airstream trailer, a project for the laminate maker Wilsonart -- a sweet-spot project that fired the design world's love of modular and small homes. (In 2009, it's hard to realize how radical this little trailer looked in 2000, during the heyday of the megamansion.) His other design work includes designs for Target, Herman Miller and many other manufacturers, as well as an architectural practice.

The original video is available on TED.com
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