A Vintage Airstream Expert on the Cult Brand's Enduring Appeal
Eight years ago, architect Matthew Hofmann transformed an old Airstream into a pint-sized home and office for himself. More than 400 renovated Airstreams and other vintage trailers later, Hofmann Architecture (HofArc) has grown to ten people, including Hofmann’s wife, Joanna Hofmann, and his father, Wally Hofmann. The Santa Barbara, California-based team knows the ins and outs of renovating Airstreams better than almost anyone, so we took the opportunity to sit down with Matthew and talk about the trailers’ cult appeal, the challenges of restoring their aluminum shells, and his company’s latest venture.
In your work with Airstreams, you typically restore the aluminum exterior while completely renovating the interiors, right?
Absolutely. We don’t touch the exterior [except to polish and repair it] but we renovate the interior, which has essentially fallen apart. That’s pretty common when it comes to our Airstream projects, and that has been the bulk of our work in the past eight years. We call them all “vessels,” whether it’s an Airstream or a van or what have you, but Airstream specifically has caught the eye of a lot of folks because of their iconic quality and their aesthetic.
When you restore the shells of these 30-to-80-year-old Airstreams, what are the steps you need to take?
Aluminum is a product that resists time, and the natural patina is quite elegant. Through oxidation, it turns a different color, kind of like the Statue of Liberty. That color forms a very thin layer that protects the product itself. In order to bring back the original luster, there’s a very involved polishing process.
If there’s any damage or work that needs to be done to replace panels selectively, there are matching products available these days. You can replace the skins and put new rivets in. Just like in all historic preservation, you take the construction methodology that was used originally and try and replicate that through the resources we have today.
It’s imperative to make sure that you waterproof all the seams, because it’s just rivets holding two panels together. That creates a dimpled effect over time, and leads to places for water to come in.
How do your clients use their restored trailers?
It is all over the place. There are full-timers who will live in it, which I don’t really recommend. Some people use them as guest houses or semi-permanent structures on vacant land. A lot of people are using them for mobile businesses.
I started up an Airstream hotel a couple years ago (which I’ve since sold) called the AutoCamp. That was another use we explored. So it really is all over the map.
Why do people love Airstreams so much?
Folks love that type of product because it’s Americana. It harks back to ideals about road trips, about freedom: Getting on your horse and riding out West. I think it really has some roots in who we are as a society. It’s timeless and has stood the test of time as a brand and as a product itself. If something lasts for 80 years plus, it kind of starts to become rooted in the culture of what America is.
When you look at an Airstream, it is beautiful. It’s like owning a vintage Porsche … it’s not a rational decision. It speaks to who we are emotionally.
What’s the most important thing you’ve learned from all your work on Airstreams?
Understanding materials—how they work naturally and honestly—and trying to use every material for its best purpose. That’s one of the things Airstream has done really well, with aluminum. It’s great to see the history and the challenges in building a product and restoring it to maintain its integrity.
We’re taking that as a lesson for now on how we can improve on what’s been done. We have a new line called the Living Vehicle [a self-contained mobile structure that reduces dependence on the grid]. It’s our exploration of building something from the ground up and creating a product that will last a lifetime.
What we love about doing renovation projects is that we’re saving a product from the landfill. If you’re going to bring a new product onto the market, you have a responsibility to make it last as long as possible. So it’s exciting for us to be able to take everything we’ve learned since our company’s birth seven years ago and translate that into a holistic design approach.
Will you keep doing renovations?
We will continue, but on a larger scale. Like the AutoCamp, or a marketing business—someone who [wants] more than just a single unit. While we are still open to one-off projects, they have to be pretty compelling in order for us to allocate the resources to do that. It does cost a lot, and there’s a lot of time involved to do it right.