We love a good fleet of design savvy vintage Airstreams and the transient lifestyle they encourage for all. So naturally, The Modern Caravan has our heart-eyed emojis going cray right now. With a handful of *gorgeous* Airstream renovations under their belt, this design duo has found their footing in the interior design scene by designing caravans for clients across America.
An amazing couple that not only travels through life and motherhood together but also joined up in business together, Kate and Ellen are the brains and designers behind The Modern Caravan. We recently lucked out and had them give us the full story behind the journey of their business. From quitting their jobs to spending eight months on the road together to falling in love and renovating their first Airstream, it’s been a wild ride to say the least. Read on for more of the story.
Words and Photography by Kate and Ellen of The Modern Caravan
We are smitten with The Modern Caravan, how did you come up with the concept behind it?
Our story started three and a half years ago, after many months of seeking for an answer to the discontent we’d been experiencing in our lives. We’d bought a house and begun to settle into a life we didn’t necessarily want, checking things off a list that was seemingly prescribed for us. The crucial moment for us both was when we realized we were under no obligation to follow a path that society deemed right and only. Only we should and could be in charge of our lives, our story, and the way it would all unfold. While there were many reasons for us deciding to travel, one of the reasons most vital to both of us was to explore artistically and find the things we were most passionate about. We’d both been struggling to create, yet the need to do so was completely intrinsic to us both. Ellen was ready to create for herself instead of teaching and guiding others as artists, and after closing a photography business of four years, I (Kate) was left wondering what was next. Not creating wasn’t an option for either of us. It escaped us in the moment: the very creative passion we were both seeking individually was in that first Airstream we bought.
We threw ourselves into the work, sacrificing time and every last dollar to bring our ideas to life. There is nothing more incredible to us than standing in our art, seeing our designs brought from the sketchbook, the mind, to fruition by the work of our very own hands. In so many ways, it’s the perfect culmination of our individual strengths and talents while answering the questions we both had about the way we are attuned to creating. There was a moment when renovating that first Airstream that we discussed potentially starting a business renovating other vintage Airstreams, but that was a ways off. We were readying to travel, and that was the initial goal, the catalyst that started this entire journey. If we’d not spent those eight months living on the road, we’d not have had the experiences and the conversations that gave us the confidence to start our work, nor the much-needed opportunity to pursue renovating a second Airstream, which really got the ball rolling for The Modern Caravan. We are continually fascinated by how these tiny, minute details have fallen into place for the start of our business. The very concept behind what we are doing is seeing a need, a market. When we renovated our first Airstream, there weren’t a lot of other folks out there in our demographic, and most certainly no one we’d found with our aesthetic.
The OG Airstream Renovators
We can’t help but wonder if we helped propel the now rapidly growing movement of young Airstream renovators that have become our community and our market, creating the very need we are able to fulfill. When deciding to open our virtual doors at The Modern Caravan, the most important component for us was to strengthen our community in story and numbers. We really believe in what we’re doing - to live with intention, to create deeply, and to seek adventure and growth. To commune more closely with nature, blur the lines and defy expectation. To truly focus on what matters: the people around us, the ones we love, reduce our footprint, and be transient and fluid. Much like we set out to accomplish with our first Airstream project, our ongoing goal is salvaging these once-forgotten relics and transforming them into beautiful, tiny, functional works of art that serve purpose in the modern world. Though we certainly didn’t set out to start a business renovating vintage Airstreams, the guiding principles of our work and mission has remained the same from then to now.
Getting started is the hardest part, how did you come to find and begin your first project?
After considering other options and doing a lot of reading and research, we settled on and began searching for a vintage Airstream, a wheeled home we could haul behind us, a space with continuity that offered respite from the grueling task of learning to live on the road. We found a fifty-eight year old diamond, rough and in need of quite a lot of love and the hardest, most involved work either of us had ever known. We drove over ten hours to meet with our first Airstream’s owner, in the dark - and while it was definitely an adventure to get it back home to Kentucky, we knew that was the right Airstream the minute we saw it. Our first days with Louise were mostly surreal - we’d stand at the front door with coffee in hand, just in total disbelief we’d bought this Airstream and were moving forward with our plan. We were terrified. Those first hits with the sledgehammer took us some time to get to, afraid we’d ruin everything.
We kept reminding ourselves, with each step of the way and with each new and intimidating task that we were taking something rotten, something broken, and making it beautiful and functional again, and that we were one step closer to our dream.
Could you give us each of your backstories leading up to The Modern Caravan?
We’re wildly different in so many ways, or at least we were - sometimes we reminisce a bit and marvel at how we ended up together, college best friends who lost touch, but more so - our upbringings and paths prior to falling in love.
I (Kate) am a risk-taker, a bit of a rebel at heart. From a young age, I didn’t quite buy into the norm or the expectation. I knew I wanted to pursue art or design as a career, yet it would take me thirty-one years to find and pursue what I was truly passionate about. There were a lot of failed attempts at various media or creative outlets, and in the moment, those failures were absolutely devastating. While I haven’t spent my entire life working to become a vintage Airstream designer and renovator (wouldn’t have ever come close to guessing that would be it), I’ve also not given up on my goals to pursue being an artist as my career, even when it seemed it would never happen. Failure after failure led to a lot of heartbreak, and there were most certainly times I wanted to give up. In the meantime, I worked elsewhere - taking jobs as a bartender, a nanny, in marketing - I wasn’t under the impression that I should be solely focusing on art at the sake of making a living, especially as I became a mother. All of the experiences I’ve gathered throughout my life, all of my creative pursuits, even those that failed - have taught me, grown me, and prepared me for the work I’m doing now with our business, each one valuable and necessary.
Ellen, on the other hand, is a rules-follower, though she always hoped she’d be able to break away from the expectation for perfection and pursue art as a career. After graduating from college, she returned to her hometown to teach, clear on one thing - she only wanted to teach for five years (she’s now been teaching for almost a decade). During that time, she pursued a masters in art education and fully invested herself in her students, creating and developing a trust-based curriculum, which encouraged the students to use art as a form of inquiry and personal expression as opposed to a more traditional curriculum of simply teaching technique. While teaching, Ellen sought out other opportunities to create and learn - using a studio art requirement for her master’s degree as a way to learn how to weld. She began researching tiny homes, with the goal of one day building her own. Ellen is incredibly resourceful, a problem-solver with a skill set many would be envious of. She learns by simply trying...and trying...and trying again until she figures out how to conquer the task at hand. Ellen has two important goals when she creates: she wants to work with her hands and make functional works of art, and the work Ellen does at The Modern Caravan is most certainly a meridian of the learning experiences she so deliberately sought after and achieves her goals without question.
Your professional and personal relationship is so admirable, how do you balance and manage the two?
We are best friends first and foremost. Our friendship is the base every other aspect of our relationship is built on. It’s where our story started, nearly thirteen years ago, as inseparable college freshmen. Our lives took us in different directions for seven years before we’d find one another again, a whole host of life lived in that expanse of space, yet when we began to fall in love - it was as if we’d always been and it simply grew. As we’ve navigated life - learning to co-parent, living on the road, facing some things unimaginable, and now, working together - we know that no matter what the circumstances, no matter the challenge in front of us, we are one another’s very best friend.
There’s no one we’d rather spend our days with than one another. Through the fourteen hour work days, the days we barely have time to brush a quick kiss across the other one’s lips, we take rest in where we began. A solid foundation. There’s grace in our relationship - grace to fail and still be seen as capable of trying again. For us, this is the most important thing we can give to one another: grace to be human, to be vulnerable, to be imperfect. This isn’t to say we don’t have difficult days, or that we don’t argue. In those moments when we’re stretched thin and the weight of our tasks becomes overwhelming, one of us is quick to remind the other what we’re doing, what we are creating, and how hard we’ve worked to get to this point.
It looks like The Modern Caravan has taken off! What lies in the future for you and your business?
We are both completely humbled by the folks who are making our business possible, from large-scale renovations to design services and consultations. We’ll never be able to express our gratitude in words for all of these amazing people who’ve entrusted their projects with us. Our business is a dream years in the making. Our synergetic skill sets and the way we work so well together, yes - but mostly - it’s quite simply that we have found meaningful work that we are truly passionate about. It makes us come alive, it brings us joy. For our business to unfold so organically, for us to be booked for two years within three months of opening our virtual doors, is...well, we don’t have words.
We’re constantly asking if this is real life. In the next two years, we will be traveling across the country and renovating several Airstreams for some really amazing folks that we’re so excited to work with. While we most certainly have some goals we’ve envisioned for what’s next, it’s also incredibly important to us to continue to allow this business to unfold and transform as naturally as it already has. We’re currently compiling a wait list for 2019 and 2020.
Photography: The Modern Caravan