Compact Creativity: The Vision Behind Living Vehicle

The Tiny House movement has been both a fixture and a curiosity of North American culture; in stark contrast to decades of broadening house footprints and McMansions, small living has been gaining ground in both practicality and popularity. 

Living Vehicle is taking the idea of compact living to a whole new — or perhaps old! — level. Drawing inspiration from the classic American Airstream, those iconic and vintage trailers of a different time, company founders Matthew and Joanna Hofman are changing the way we live and travel, and doing so in a way that turns a purposeful eye towards a sustainable, eco-friendly future.

Matthew, Living Vehicle began as a side project when you decided to renovate and sell a trailer for a little extra side income. What gave you the idea to embark on flipping a trailer as opposed to a house? (Given that you’re an architect, one might assume that the latter would be the more obvious course of action.)

Matthew: It’s typical for architects to design traditional brick ‘n’ mortar structures; however, a handful of us innovative designers and architects have stretched the design limits by focusing on alternative living spaces. I’ve always been motivated by thinking out of the box because it’s essential that I’m excited about what I’m designing. The comedian George Burns once said, “I’d rather be a failure at something I love than a success at something I hate.”

At what point did you realize that this new venture could be more than a side project?

Matthew: Around 2011, I received such a positive reaction to my first 1978 Airstream renovation, named Visionary. Right away, I knew this was a business with potential. A year later when I sold it, I realized this could be a viable niche that I could use to pay my bills, but I also loved the challenge. So I gradually stopped accepting traditional architecture jobs and focused on mobile spaces. Within a year we fully transitioned into a legit concept that was growing in popularity, so I brought on my father to handle customer relations and operations. Together we hired a team of talented renovators, designers, and project managers. Eight years later, we haven’t looked back.

Joanna, what was your initial reaction to the new business? And what made you want to move in this career direction as well?

Joanna: When Matthew and I were first dating, I was working for a nutritional services company  in Hollywood. He said he lived in a vintage Airstream and I had no idea what it was — so I did a Google search! As I became more involved with the business beyond the lifestyle, I realized that what we were doing for people was the same effect I was trying to have in the nutrition field. Our mission of giving people more freedom to be their best selves is fundamental to Living Vehicle, and I was able to bring that to light in our marketing.

You both practice what you preach, splitting your time now between a boat and your own Living Vehicle. Did you inhabit a more “traditional” home — a house or condo, say — before opting for this lifestyle? How did you both deal with the transition?

Joanna: Having moved from an apartment in Los Angeles to a small mobile space in Santa Barbara, I definitely had to adjust to the realities of living a more minimalist lifestyle. It became an exercise of choosing the items that I couldn’t live without and getting rid of the rest. What I found was extremely liberating. I became more focused on the experiences that were important to me as opposed to stuff that I had thought I valued.

We understand that the Hofmann family mantra is “experience is the best teacher.” Matthew, how did your own upbringing prepare you for what would seem, to many, like a radical lifestyle choice?

Matthew: My upbringing was in a very natural environment — the California High Sierra. The mountains were my playground. My father owned the local newspaper and my mother was a realtor. They both encouraged me to explore my world, and what a world it was: snowboarding, mountain biking, and hiking. The outdoor world challenged me to think out of the box and dare to solve problems with creative solutions.

It all started when I was a 7-year-old and I built a 7-story treehouse. Ever since then, I’ve had a passion for building unique projects that fit the situation. When I designed and renovated my first vintage Airstream, it was a natural process. At 26, I created my first mobile small space and I lived in it for a year. I loved the creative process of designing a small space and I loved the simplicity and cost savings, too!

Early in my architectural career, I realized that the most valuable tool in my office was my trash can. I learned how to not hesitate discarding a previous idea for a better one. I truly believe our minds have a great deal of power to work in the background of our conscious thinking — it’s the creative process. Finding solutions to problems used to frustrate me to the point of not being able to sleep well at night. Then one day I decided to just step back and allow the subconscious part of my brain to figure it out. The next morning, [after] a good night’s sleep, I’d have the solution!

What is the design and production process of each Living Vehicle?

Matthew: Living Vehicle comes from nearly a decade of experience designing and living in mobile spaces. After completing over 400 custom projects as Hofmann Architecture, I realized that my team and I had this innate knowledge of what a mobile lifestyle required from a design perspective. Joanna and I took a trip to Portugal for several months, where the design and first LV prototype were initially created. We’re proud to have partnered with one of the leading manufacturers of aluminum trailers in the USA, called Aluminum Trailer Company. Their state-of-the-art facility in Napanee, Indiana produces high-quality consistent units, backed by their unmatched reputation in the industry and comprehensive warranty.

There’s definitely a retro factor at play in these designs, which mimic the old Airstream trailers of decades past. Why this particular choice?

Matthew: Vintage Airstreams are one of America’s most iconic symbols that have passed the test of time. After WWII, entrepreneur Wally Byam introduced these polished silver beauties and he — along with a merry band of Caravan Clubbers — traveled all over the world. Their wanderlust passions are inspiring, but it’s the classic mid-century design of the Airstream that has captivated so many today.

Probably the simple truth of why I focused on Airstreams is similar to what George Burns said at 90+ when people asked why he dated younger women. He replied, “I would go out with women my age, but there are no women my age.”

I guess I could have chosen another 75-year-old trailer if there were any, but the fact was, the Airstream is the only one that survived.

Any particular space-saving design elements in your Living Vehicles that you’re particularly proud of?

Matthew: When it comes to creating a fully-functional home in 212 square feet, you have to be efficient with ALL of your space choices. One of my favourites is the EuroLoft, which lowers out of the ceiling. It is a very efficient sleeping/relaxing space. The pullout kitchen pantry is pretty neat. The countertop trash chute, with exterior access for emptying two large trash containers, is pretty cool, too. However, my favourite open space element is the massive windows and skylights. Well-placed openings create unlimited opportunities [for expansive views], allowing copious amounts of sunlight and starlight.

Is there one element of living in a house or apartment that you find yourselves missing and wish you could include (or perhaps one day plan to include) in a Living Vehicle?

Matthew: A jacuzzi.

You’re big on the sustainable nature of small living, striving to create a completely self-supporting, net-zero product. You’ve described your long-term goal for the company as creating a “sustainable solution to the global housing crisis.” Where do you see the company ten years from now? Or even fifty?

Matthew: We will have created a completely off-grid, solar-powered, driven or towed mobile living space that’s capable of sustaining life for all human needs, including food, fresh water, and waste water treatment. My dream is to provide a source for generating your own food and water. Stay tuned — that’s where we are heading.