Designer Profile: Kate and Ellen of The Modern Caravan
Hi Kate and Ellen! Tell us a little bit about yourselves.
We’re Kate and Ellen, and we’re just your typical lesbian couple raising a daughter, two dogs, and a cat, living on the road (on our third Airstream home!), and traveling around the country, renovating Airstreams for a living. You know, the usual.
What is your background (i.e. education, previous jobs, experiences that led you to create)?
We’re both inherently creative: it’s who we are, individually and as a couple. We’ve known one another for over thirteen years, though together only six, and when we first started dating, we both realized how much the other liked to create. At first, it was just moments - a beautiful porch breakfast, handmade gifts for one another.
At the time, Ellen was teaching high school art and I was a wedding and lifestyle photographer, working weekend gigs while trying to finish my college degree and raise a baby on my own. I do believe a lot of the creativity we have comes from making something out of nothing. We’re both people who were raised with little and went into adulthood with little...and we want to bring beauty into the world, no matter what our circumstance. You think...what can I make with what I’ve got?
Though we both can and do create individually, it’s when we work and create together that the true magic happens. It’s special. There’s something to it that you can’t quite put your finger on, but you can feel it. It’s palpable. Not only do we fit as a couple in every beautiful and passionate (read: we sometimes get in heated fights!) way, but together, we create in ways we never did alone. It’s what began all of this...the desire to make art. We began to realize that when we merged our work, we had something.
What led you to begin The Modern Caravan?
Four years ago, we made a drastic change and began to seriously uproot ourselves and our life. We had goals in mind - we wanted to travel, find ‘home’, create deeply, love passionately, and really live. So we did. We sold most of our stuff and after looking at school buses, vans, old campers, and even a 1970s Apache pop up, we settled on an Airstream to pull around, set up, and call home as we traveled. Little did we know that some of the very things we were looking for were right in our own backyard as we prepared for those beautiful months on the road. We fell more in love, spent every second we could together, and created deeply.
We first voiced our desire to one day start a business renovating Airstreams after that first renovation - we’d fallen in love with the process. The work. The magic of creating together. Yet at that point, the road was calling and we were ready to go. We’d later have to suddenly sell our beloved Airstream (another story for another day), and not two months later, we bought another.
At the close of our second renovation, we were realizing we really had that something. Right around this time, I was sitting by the Christmas tree with a glass of white wine and realized it was time to start our business. The name came to me in a flash, and I jumped up and started building a website and writing a plan. We launched our website on January 3rd, 2017, thinking we’d likely not get inquiries for jobs right away, if at all. Within just a few weeks, we were booked for two years. We now have a wait list of over eighty names and growing. It’s been a whirlwind of a year, and we’ve tackled two full renovations, as well as finishing the renovation of our beloved “June” Airstream, which we sold recently. Much of it has felt like an all-out sprint, just running to keep up with everything.
When you began remodeling mobile homes, did you have experience in renovation?
Some, though certainly renovating our first Airstream was like nothing either of us had ever done before. The semantics of it are unlike a traditional sticks and bricks: for starters, nothing is ever square in a vintage tube of aluminum. We’d never installed tanks, or a water pump, or had any understanding of how DC power really worked. We went into this with some knowledge of building (we’d just finished renovating our house), and the years we’d spent learning different skill sets. For example, Ellen took a metals class and learned to weld during her years getting her master’s degree. We’d both tagged along with our dads (and in Ellen’s case, her mom as well) when growing up, happily helping with building projects.
We have a myriad of random and intentional experiences that have prepared us for this work, though we are still very much learning. Each renovation we do is vastly different from the next and presents it’s own unique set of challenges, and we’re improving, streamlining, and gleaning from each one.
What draws you to Airstreams and mobile dwellings?
This journey started with needing a mobile dwelling to travel with, and we both always wanted to build a tiny house! There’s something really lovely about having a constant while on the road that is yours, a place of reprieve. While traveling looks really romantic on Instagram, the truth is that it’s life...on the road. It’s challenging, often dirty, and sometimes even downright grueling. Always being in a new place with new faces and stores and streets can wear on you. Having a space that you step into at the end of each day after exploring and working brings balance and evens the scale out a bit. It’s the constant when everything is always changing and the miles are ticking by.
Where do you draw design inspiration from?
When I design, I think back on the conversations I’ve had with our clients. If I can, I do a dinner together in the beginning of our time working together. I observe them in their own space: what do they do? How do they prepare food, interact, and move? A kitchen is one of the best places to observe anyone and get a good sense of how they live life: they’re conversing, preparing a meal, doing a dance.
Something most folks may not know about me: I’m very careful to not look at other Airstream renovations when I design our spaces and instead draw inspiration from anywhere and everywhere else. I liken it to presenting a bibliography at the end of a term paper: I certainly couldn’t hand in a paper to a professor in which I only had one source, certainly not had I plagiarized the entire thing. It’s too easy with small spaces to replicate and create something near identical to what someone else has done: layout, cabinetry, tones, any and all.
I work with clients to establish the basics: overall tones, styles, and feel they are drawn to...and then I begin to pull design inspiration. For me, this is in everything. Songs, films, landscapes, textures (our new Airstream home was inspired by Stranger Things!). A friend recently asked if it was difficult for me to continue coming up with a fresh design each time I create, and I replied with yes and no...yes, because no matter what, layering in a fresh, unique design takes hours of work and research...and no, because it feels like breathing. The design comes from a place of story, of heart, of life...of my experiences and who my clients are.
How does your renovation process work? What are your services? Do you travel for different jobs?
We focus on one client renovation at a time right now, given that it’s just the two of us. We’re scaling back in 2019 after our current commitments come to a close, at that point we’ll have renovated five Airstreams in two years for clients (and another one for ourselves), and it’s too much, too fast, especially while living on the road and traveling to each renovation. We do travel to our clients and live on site with the project, which allows us low overhead. It’s certainly a challenge right now to keep all the balls we’ve got in the air from dropping, but it’s a sacrifice we’re willing to make to keep costs low and continue to pay off personal debt so we can expand our business responsibly when it’s time.
The renovations themselves take about 4-6 months, though we plan to extend that timeline out so we are able to have a life outside of work. Future clients can expect our renovations to take anywhere from 6 months to a year, depending on the scope of the project. Each of our renovations is completely tailored to the client: needs, use of the caravan, design.
The process begins with a full demolition, down to the skins and the chassis. Once it’s bare, we begin repair of the frame and the skin (aluminum shell) and begin building back up with a new subfloor, electrical system, plumbing. Everything inside is new, and often much of the outside! We install new axles and tires, tanks, brakes, exterior lights (tail and running). Then we get to the fun part: the build. This is where all the design work for the client comes to life and takes shape. When finished, we present the keys to the clients, grab some shots for our portfolio, and hit the road again.
Why do you think it’s important to shop small and support local?
There are so many reasons for this, and we could dive into all of them, but mainly, when we shop small and locally, we’re voting with our dollar. We’re being mindful of the quality of items we buy and bring into our homes. We become more conscious overall: of the environment, human beings, and our impact on both. We live in 200 square feet, and minimalism has become less about how little we have and instead more about the quality of the items we buy and who has made them. It feels good and right to support other small businesses, artists, and makers in this beautiful, equal trade and contribute to a better work environment for all.
What makes you passionate about the work that you do?
I touched on this a bit earlier, but when we work together, we make something that has heart behind it. We work so synergistically, it’s this wonderful push-and-pull. It’s been less about the Airstreams lately for us and more about who we are and the work we do. I don’t think we’ll always do one thing, we’re going to allow our path and our work to unfold organically as we push forward and onward. We’re passionate about this work because it allows us to create together and work together.
What are some of the setbacks or challenges you face with running your business?
I fear that when I tell our story, folks will think this all fell in our laps, but it has not been without incredibly painstaking work. We work anywhere from 12-20 hours a day (I wish I was exaggerating), and are due for massages. Or a tropical vacation. Instead, we’ll wrap up our current project and head right into the next one.
One thing we’ve learned this year is that it’s one thing to do a vintage Airstream renovation for yourself, and it’s another to run a business and work for a client while renovating. There’s been a steep learning curve for us. Ordering, planning, designing - all of this takes longer when working with a client.
Other challenges we face are budgetary: we need hands, but aren’t generating the income that would allow us to pay employees. We also need to slow down and purchase land next year. All in due time, and until then, we’ll keep plugging away and building this thing. We started all of this with just a few dollars in the bank and a dream!
At The Glossary, we believe in women working together and helping one another. Why do you think it is important for women to support each other?
Such an interesting question to ask at this moment in my life, as I’m finding myself asking why more women don’t support one another honestly. I’ve seen one too many women do this to one another lately. I myself have seen what it can do to a friendship (or what could have been one) between women when it becomes about who’s best, who’s at the top, who’s the most creative, the list goes on.
In my own life, the bit I struggle with most is that it’s becoming more and more difficult to find women who I feel safe with. Those who won’t judge me if I’m not bubbly and positive all the time (which we shouldn’t be anyway, that’s not life), who will understand that my work is really challenging and time-consuming, who will ask me how I’m doing before (or instead of) asking if I’ll do some work for free for them, and most of all, who will let me be the woman I am, dealing with depression and running a business and raising a kid and trying to do everything and be everything for everyone...and miserably failing and needing help and a shoulder to cry on.
I believe that we all need those women in our lives. It doesn’t have to be many, just the ones that matter. I’m lucky to have some, and I’m learning to set boundaries with the women who don’t make me feel safe and loved, no matter the state of my heart. It goes beyond business and it should go beyond competition, ego, and jealousy. Life and work is deeper and richer when you find women who support you, who lift you up when you’re down, and who you can give that back to. The ladies in your life who don’t give you that, who instead make you feel broken and insecure and hurt...they aren’t the ones you want around. Instead, when you find your support circle and draw proper boundaries, life begins to look brighter, you feel that you really can get through, and you accomplish more than ever.
What creative women do you find inspiring?
Too many to name! I’ve long been inspired by the ever-lovely Beth Kirby, of Local Milk, who maintains transparency about her struggles in life and how that has fueled her creativity and how she has found healing. In a time where perfection has become the (unattainable) standard that we all still strive for, and sameness is encouraged and accepted, she continues to blaze the trail and be who she is unapologetically. She doesn’t diminish her success, nor is she a braggart. It’s incredibly admirable, and she’s someone I’d love to meet one day, even if just to say thank you.
Though there are many more, I’ll just name one more special lady. I’m amazed by the kindness of Kym Ventola, photographer, teacher, business coach, and founder of Nine Retreat (which I’ll be teaching at next year, I believe there are some spots left!). Kym truly believes in the transformative power of having supportive women in your life and knowing yourself, so much so that she started Nine! She is a wife and mother who has built a successful business and a beautiful, meaningful retreat, but more than that, she is the kind of woman who really loves people and sees them at their core, accepting them and supporting them. I’m so thankful to know her and have her in my life. She makes me want to be a better friend and sister to other women, and who has taught me about the value of boundaries.
What tools or resources have been most helpful for you in creating/running your business?
I feel things are pretty basic over here for the time being. We started with an Instagram account where we documented the behind-the-scenes imagery for our Airstream renovations that we branded as @themoderncaravan. It grew from a few thousand followers to over thirty-thousand this year, and we’re still so baffled by that! It’s forever encouraging that folks want to follow along with our journey and (let’s be honest, for the most part), are so kind and sweet. We have other social media outlets, but we’re so busy it’s hard to keep up with them all. Instagram has brought in 100% of our sales in one form or another.
We have a Squarespace site that I built (now twice), which was the simplest and fastest way for me to get started. We just did our first official branding with the amazing Cassie of New Over, and she developed a gorgeous family of logos and overall brand for us over the last four months. She helped me tighten up our website as well, and I can’t thank her enough (or recommend her enough). Outsourcing the graphic design was the absolute right decision: I can’t do it all. Budgets sometimes restrict us, but when we can, we’ll hire out what we can’t do.
Other things: I love GSuite for everything. Email, docs, spreadsheets, sharing images for features, it’s all right there and I can access it from any of my devices, anytime. I share design mood boards with clients here. We also love Pinterest for sharing ideas with clients and sharing our work!
How do you manage your time?
This is something we’re learning as we go. Airstream renovation is, as we always say, not for the faint of heart. It asks of you. Running the business itself isn’t just the renovation, though that’s all the client may see, or what folks on social media may see. Designing, ordering, developing vendor relationships, marketing, emails, website building and management, social media, working with designers and consultants, the list goes on. It’s been difficult to find time to do these things unless we work late into the night, because the daylight hours are reserved for the physical labor.
Currently, it’s just the two of us, and we’re also living in an Airstream ourselves, which is a lot of extra work (emptying tanks, constantly tidying, taking care of the compost, etc.) as it is. We’re homeschooling too, and live on site with our project. It’s been fairly challenging to find a balance of time, and we’ve been feeling pretty rotten lately. We feel guilty (to our clients and ourselves) if we take any time “off” and find ourselves working weekends and late hours and neglecting our own projects, family, marriage, and so on. Trying to figure out how to not do this when the renovation tasks and deadline are so pressing and stressful has been quite the challenge. I wish we could offer some advice here, but instead we’ll just leave you all with the honest answer: we don’t know yet. We’re learning!
How do you deal with moments of self doubt?
These are inevitable, aren’t they? I personally struggle with this often. Though I cannot speak for my wife, I have begun to reach out to the women I trust with my heart when I begin to feel that I can’t do this.
We turn to one another often to talk and check in, and on the day after Christmas, I confessed my fear of failure to my lovely wife, who took my hand and with clear eyes, said these simple words: even if we quit right now, we didn’t fail at this. This has not been a failure. It worked. It’s working. We did this.
As we celebrate our one-year anniversary as The Modern Caravan next week, her words ring true.