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Beyond the bubble

If what we use today is made with art, and not thrown together by chance or caprice, then we shall have nothing to hide, says Italian artist Bruno Munari in his book Design as Art.

But hiding stuff is a big part of Gisborne furniture designer and artist Katy Wallace's design for her Caravannex project.

In 2017, Creative New Zealand awarded Wallace a Craft/Object Fellowship to create, from scratch, an experimental caravan. The object was to explore the intersection of craft and design but Wallace and partner Paulus McKinnon's Caravannex combines design-as-art and engineering in a work that is to be useful 12 months of the year.

Wallace's concept was to optimise use of the caravan's space, largely by building into its fabric multi-functional areas. These can transform from storage spaces to utility surfaces.

“The shell of the caravan will function not just as a skin, for instance, but an integral part of the furniture,” said Wallace two years ago before she and McKinnon embarked on the project.

“I'd love to do things that protrude out of the walls. Furniture will have the potential to penetrate walls, push from inside to outside, hang and expand.”

The design was inspired by this region's freedom-camping culture.

“The main concept is that it is a caravan, a holiday home, but also useful for the rest of the year,” says Wallace.

“It is architecturally designed so you can berth it next to the house.”

Hence its name — Caravannex. The designer caravan can be annexed to a house as a spare room.

An early sketch shows the caravan cladded in timber in which case, once butted up to a house, it could look like a cabin — except a caravan is a caravan. Team Wallace-McKinnon decided on an eggshell-blue, aluminium shell stamped with a diamond pattern that hints at sophisticated tile finish. The pragmatic outline also sets the Caravannex apart from regular caravans.

Step inside

The interior layout aims at an economical use of the space. Bespoke furniture items fold away into the fabric of the design or can be transformed into an alternative function. With plug-ins such as a rubber washbasin and tap, mirror and soap rack, a compact shower unit that can be hung on the wall, or a compostable toilet hidden until needed, the doorway vestibule is multi-functional.

The small deck can fold out or can be abutted to the deck of the home Caravannex is berthed to, or it can function as a back doorstep. A concealed awning above the door can be rolled out to provide veranda roof.

Portal, deck and tarp are mirrored on the other side of the caravan. When both are open the exterior/interior relationship bigs up.

Photographs of various interior details show almost sculptural, abstract forms that make sense in context. These details are functional as well as aesthetically pleasing in their unobtrusive, on-trend materials and understated colour scheme.

The dining tabletop rests atop a cupboard and can be slid out when needed. With one edge wedged under a rail the tabletop needs no hooks, nails or screws to hold it in place. It can be arranged in various configurations to meet the needs of whoever is using it at the time. The flat-packed seats are as simple as they are elegant in design. When folded out, the rope hinges that holds the planes together are made visible as a design feature. Again, there are no hooks, clips, flanges, tabs or brackets.

Wallace based the stool hinge on a rope hinge often used for boat tillers.

“We wanted to get away from visual equipment so the overall design is virtually seamless,” says Wallace.

A small office space is created by the rearrangement of a few pieces adjacent to the pillar-like bookcase to provide a desk with table light. A cupboard door can be turned into a desk-top — not in the improvisatory, No.8 wire-minded, temporary-permanent fashion that has helped define the character of New Zealand, but as a design solution.

While Caravannex incorporates modern fittings such as gooseneck LED lights, exposed, lightweight marine ply joinery and polyurethaned cork-tiled floor, the old-fashioned squab is almost a nod to the sandy-floored caravans of the 1970s. This sofa folds out to provide a bed with a lightweight slat base as does the mezzanine floor above it.

An unadorned timber ladder is fixed to a wall by the door by two leather brackets. Simplicity is key to the Caravannex's layout but deliberate design, even if deliberately unobtrusive, can be seen in its features.

The colour palette is simple. Pops of colour in the pale blue and darker blue pastel tones complement the orange-beige of exposed marine ply.

The conceptual basis of the Carvannex was the idea of a space becoming a home, and what makes that space become a home, says Wallace.

“Once I had the idea, it was a matter of working out how everything fits together and how the space performs and how the patterns of daily use work together.”

Transformable space

Hidden corners

What is necessarily an open space to accommodate one or more people also has the capacity to offer private areas.

“There are hidden corners where people find their own spaces. The ability to set up home is really a personal thing.”

Wallace created several models to try out various arrangements — then the couple used the spare room to house a life-size, cardboard and duct tape mock up.

“A space like this is really hard to get right on paper alone,” says Wallace.

The mock-up enabled Wallace and McKinnon to see where someone might bump their head, and resolve that design issue, and to see where cupboards could go. How Caravannex might function as a recreational space was also put to the test.

“One Friday night we were having a couple of drinks and the kids were getting annoyed with our music so we came out to the caravan for a little party,” says McKinnon.

They found, despite McKinnon's idea for speakers inset into the ceiling, no speakers were needed. A small, well-placed Logitech speaker was powerful enough to create ambience in the caravan.

“You can set up different zones as and when you need them,” says Wallace.

The Carvannex has the functionality of traditional New Zealand caravans but it is not off the shelf, says McKinnon.

“It's considered. It magnifies those everyday things.”

“Different things reveal themselves during the day. I think you'd only discover those details if you lived in it.”

For the Tairawhiti Arts Festival, the Wallace-McKinnon team will set up the transformable caravan at Te Putahi, the festival hub at Marina Park on Friday, October 2 and Sunday, October 11.

OFF GRID: Designed by Gisborne artist/designer Katy Wallace and partner Paulus McKinnon after Wallace was awarded a Craft/Object Fellowship two years ago, Caravannex was inspired by this region's freedom camping culture. Pictures supplied
COMFY AS: Exposed lightweight marine ply joinery in Gisborne artist/designer Katy Wallace and partner Paulus McKinnon's experimental caravan design glows in a wash of soft LED light.
DESIGN DESIGN: Caravannex's platforms and awnings create extra room while the folding interior can transform for various functions.