December 13, 2022 Students Transform Airstream into Mobile Design Lab for Local Children

lighted inside of renovated Airstream trailer


What’s silver and shiny and rolls down the interstate on its way to great adventure? The logical answer is the iconic Airstream travel trailer.

For the School of Interior Architecture, however, the answer is a little more involved: an Airstream travel trailer transformed by students into a mobile design lab for children in the community.

For the second year, a grant-funded 4th-year Interior Architecture studio, led by Professor David Matthews, has embarked on a project to introduce joy (and learning) through design. In 2021, Matthews led his students to build a mobile lab that contained hand-crafted musical instruments and design-related activities in partnership with nearby Lenoir City Intermediate/Middle School.

Airstream trailer with building in background

This year, Matthews and his students undertook a more complex project: the complete restoration and renovation of a 1962 Airstream Land Yacht Flying Cloud trailer. The objective? Create a mobile design lab that converts to an outdoor learning space to give teachers the freedom and supplies to teach design-related activities.

“The studio provided a collaborative, design/build experience to create a real-world renovated trailer to expose children to design exploration,” Matthews said. “The design/build is an amazing opportunity for students to learn how their design ideas come to life through construction and interactions with the school children. The construction helps the students think through the implications of their design and how it relates to the program, budget and overall concepts driving the project.”

The 22-foot Airstream was purchased in Asheville, N.C., and delivered to campus over the summer. As fall semester launched, Matthews’s students applied their wealth of knowledge, creativity and energy to transform it. First, they visited the Airstream manufacturing facility in Ohio to understand the history of the iconic trailer and to become inspired by the brand.

inside of old Airstream trailer

Back in Knoxville, students rolled up their sleeves and began deconstruction. They removed the trailer’s interior, including furnishings, windows, plumbing, wall coverings and flooring. This revealed the need for repair of extensive rust damage to the frame. Not to be deterred, students promptly welded using training they received at the college’s 20,000-square-foot Fab Lab and facilities loaned by the UT School of Art. They polished the dulled exterior to recall the famous reflective airplane aluminum skin to its glory.

Next, students designed the new interior that includes integrated storage for design supplies; six removeable tables and seating for 25 middle and elementary school students; shelving and dramatic recessed lighting. The finished design includes gracefully curving maple plywood fixtures with hidden fasteners, fluorescing bright orange windows and a fun under-the-sea mural based on sketches and ideas of school children.

The college students didn’t design the mobile lab alone. In fact, they had the best co-designers possible: middle school students who would be using the lab. Throughout the fall semester, UT students visited with students in Dustin McCarter’s class at Lenoir City Intermediate/Middle School and in Jessica Reiner’s class at Knoxville’s Beaumont Magnet Academy. There, the UT students led design activities to help the young students express their ideas for the mobile lab. LCIMS is a Title 1 STEM school that focuses on students’ personal development, and Beaumont provides students with a fine arts, museum and honors focus.

“Being able to bring a small taste of design thinking to kids is extremely rewarding,” said Interior Architecture student Barrett Taylor. “It hopefully will bring more future designers to the world.”

Student Anna Grace Calhoon agreed. “This project outlives our time as students at UT, and I am beyond excited to hear how it will impact students in our community,” she said.

UT students gained skills that come only through a design/build project that addresses a need in the community.

“I learned during this build that how you address the mistake and move forward from it is what really matters,” said Interior Architecture student Makena Roe. “Sometimes the mistakes we made presented us with new design possibilities we hadn’t even considered.”

“Completing this project has been very empowering, especially since it’s an all-women studio,” said student Cara Guiffre.

students in welding attire

The hands-on construction and design project required the use of many technologies, from hand tools to digital fabrication equipment. Students used the three-axis CNC cutter and laser cutters in the Fab Lab. Not only did students in Matthews’s studio gain construction skills, but they also learned with their hands by executing their ideas. They worked collaboratively, and they gained knowledge of project management.

Student Abigail Pilcher said, “I learned to be patient and think methodically and how to communicate on a large team. I also learned a wide variety of construction/demolition tools, from rivet guns to chop saws, and even how to weld!”

“Learning how to actually build our designs is so fulfilling and empowering,” said student Cate Taylor. “It was extremely rewarding in the end being able to watch how this trailer has already had an influence on many people.”

The fall 2022 design/build project, like the project in fall 2021, was generously supported by the Angelo Donghia Foundation, which was founded in 2001 to honor Angelo Donghia (1935-1985), an award-winning and successful American interior designer. The foundation gives grants and scholarships to support education in interior design and interior architecture.


Photo credits: College, Interior Architecture student Kaleigh Powers, others


Learn more!

Read more about the fall 2021 grant-funded mobile design lab built by the School of Interior Architecture.

Learn more about the School of Interior Architecture.