One Designer’s Love: Vintage Trailers
(Here's a story from the NY Times that may be of interest to fellow vintage trailer enthusiasts that was brought to my attention by Pinecrester, Lynn Reinstein.)
Fred R. Conrad/The New York Times
“LOLITA, light of my life, fire of my loins.”
So begins what may be literature’s greatest American road trip, Humbert Humbert at the wheel and young Dolores Haze at his side, fleeing propriety, legality and common sense into a deeply nondolorous haze. American writers have cooked up all kinds of metaphors for the United States, but it took the Russian-born Vladimir Nabokov to imagine it as a seductive teenage Lady Liberty in hot pants.
If the idea seems foreign to you, another foreigner — Bill Moggridge, the influential industrial designer and current director of the Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum — understands only too well.
“Being a European and brought up after the war, everything was a little bit hard,” said Mr. Moggridge, who was born in England in 1943. “Ordinary things were hard to come by. We didn’t have a TV. My parents couldn’t afford a car. Looking at America, at Hollywood, at the houses and cars, it all seemed so full of fantasy. Impossible fantasy. I don’t know that I necessarily thought it was good. I thought it was fantastic.”
So in the 1970s, Mr. Moggridge moved to California — not to Hollywood, but to Silicon Valley, where he designed, among other things, what is widely considered the first laptop computer, later becoming a founder of the design firm IDEO. In off-hours, though, he found himself gravitating to his teenage reveries of 1950s America, clad in what to him was the decade’s most magical substance: aluminium, as the British call it.
It’s amazing that aluminum was once considered so rare that, in possibly the grandest gesture of 1884, the crowning pyramid at the top of the Washington Monument was made of it. (It’s actually the third most common element in the earth’s crust.) Some 70 years later — when Lolita made her debut — aluminum was being fashioned into almost everything, from dishes, countertops and baseball bats, to boats, cars and entire buildings.
And, most heavenly to Mr. Moggridge, trailers. With Americans in thrall to their shiny new cars, and aircraft factories needing ways to keep business going, the aluminum trailer became one of the most iconic trophies of the decade. It was democratic, pragmatic and mobile, as well as misguided, preposterous and hopelessly optimistic: America, sealed in a can.
In the 1990s, when Mr. Moggridge and his wife, Karin, were building a house in the hills north of Palo Alto, Calif., he decided it was time to indulge. He started with an inexpensive Vagabond, then a Hughes Spartanette (made by Hughes Aircraft). But both trailers needed renovation, and Mr. Moggridge didn’t have the money, the skill or, frankly, the interest to get it done.
Through these misfires, he learned what he yearned for. Not merely a real 1950s experience, but a dream home on wheels, which in his mind looked less like a cheap Formica kitchenette and more like the beautiful wood cabinetry of a ship — historical accuracy be damned.
Then, one weekend about 10 years ago, he drove down the California coast to a gathering of vintage-trailer enthusiasts. (There are enthusiasts for everything.) There he came across a restored Southland Runabout, complete with lovingly done-up wood cabinets. He made a deal with the owner (which included unloading his Vagabond), and the Runabout was his. He took it home, and in an affront to both its name and nature, made it into a guest room.
It may be rather a surprise to find one of today’s most eminent designers with a soft spot for such a kitschy contraption. But Mr. Moggridge said that plenty of the lessons of design history are not part of the holy design dogma of FFF (that is, form follows function).
“When you go to designers’ houses, you see a lot of kitsch,” he said. “Instead of living the work they do, they like to see the exaggerated edges of how things can go. And kitsch has a kind of shameless enthusiasm that allows you to revel in these values, like excessive decoration or the overly bold use of color, that are not quite respectable.
“It’s the same sort of appeal as postmodernism, except kitsch is done with such self-consciousness. It’s fun for its own sake. You can’t say it’s elegant or beautiful, but you can say it’s a lot of fun.”
And, you know, it’s not the worst way of describing America, either.