Design & DIY

These two RV owners took their trailers from brown to beautiful

Why we love trailers
Less maintenance; easy, unique look on a budget; extra sleep space for guests; a getaway from your getaway; small-space savvy; can pick up and hit the road

Let’s be honest: most trailers are dated at best, downright ugly at worst. Enter two creative owners who were able to make their spaces sing on a tiny budget. Carey Shaw, a photographer in Saskatoon, uses her early ’80s Prowler as a “tin cabin” retreat that’s permanently parked near Saskatchewan’s Last Mountain Lake. Lija Skobe, a director of fundraising and events for a Toronto-based nonprofit, treats her camper as a guesthouse addition to the cottage she shares with her brother on Balsam Lake, Ont. Both prove that trailers are trending in the right direction.

Rustic cabin meets Palm Springs
The story of this summer getaway begins with an offer that Carey Shaw couldn’t refuse. Her friend was selling his trailer and spot at a private campground where she grew up spending her summers. It’s a place where there isn’t a lot of changeover, and spaces tend to be passed down through families like a cottage. 

So it’s no surprise that Carey jumped at the chance to carve out her own retreat away from Regina, where she lived at the time. She closed the deal for the trailer—a 1981 Prowler—for $500. In spite of the attractive price tag, it wasn’t love at first sight. “Every piece of fabric was brown or mustard,” she says. “But it had a good layout, and I knew I could make it my own.” 

Inspired by her travels to California, Carey chose to work with the trailer’s existing wood cabinets and groovy wallpaper, adding new rugs, upholstery, and art, including many of her own photographs of the Golden State in white frames. Her budget for the makeover: between $1,500 and $2,000. “I was envisioning a mix of rustic cabin and Palm Springs style,” she says. 

The kitchen banquette and sofa once sported mustard-coloured vinyl but found new life with grey upholstery-weight fabric that Carey scored on sale at Fabricland. She did the reupholstery herself for a total cost of $50. The kitchen runner is made from several inexpensive jute mats that Carey sewed together. As for the original wallpaper? “I guess you could say it grew on me.”

The overall look is very boho, seen in Carey’s selection of mix-and-match textiles with similar Southwestern motifs and in the row of houseplants above the window that offer visual relief from the panelled walls. Those plants reside in an area that originally housed a bed, but Carey converted it into much-needed storage space. The couch below folds out to create sleeping space for guests, and Carey sleeps on the bottom of a bunk bed tucked behind a curtain. 

Outside, Carey wanted the place to feel enveloped by greenery, so her brother-in-law built a planter that she filled with ivy to cover the trailer’s hitch. With its shape and nautical-style lights, the planter resembles the prow of a ship. Two wooden platforms, which Carey transformed with grey paint, define the outside living zones. “Grey contrasts nicely with the green and natural wood, and makes the trailer feel more modern,” she says; she also refreshed the trailer’s red stripe by painting it black. Finally, she furnished the outdoor living room—fitted with screens for mosquito season—with Muskoka chairs from Costco. 

Carey has learned to live clutter-free in the small space, though there’s a free-standing shed on the property that holds bulky items—such as landscaping tools—and an extra refrigerator. Since she relocated to Saskatoon, going to the trailer has become less about getting away from the city and more about getting to see her family. “I couldn’t pass up only paying $500 for it,” she says. “This place is summer to me.”

We’ve said it once, and we’ll say it again
Bylaws regarding using RVs as permanent extra sleep space vary depending on your location. In fact, some places don’t allow them at all. How can you know for sure? It’s the old CL party line—call your municipality. 

Modern retro with pops of colour
Lija Skobe knows a good thing when she sees it. She’d been scouring the market for a year for a trailer that she could use as extra sleeping accommodations at her cottage (“From Latvia, With Love, June/July ’20). But the options were less than inspiring—until she spotted “Sofia” on Kijiji two years ago.

The four-sleeper was in pristine condition and only needed cosmetic touch-ups. “She was brown and beige all over, but she wasn’t dirty or musty, and the fridge, stove, and water all worked,” says Lija. “I’d seen some really crappy trailers out there, so I knew right away that this was the one.” The seller was moving, so Lija negotiated an excellent price—$4,500, which left about $800 in her budget for the makeover. 

After giving the trailer a name—a nod to a recent trip to Bulgaria, plus her eastern European heritage—Lija set about giving Sofia a new look. Because the trailer is sometimes included when Lija rents out her cottage, she chose durable fabrics for the furniture and more forgiving, darker colours throughout. In the kitchen, she painted the wood cabinets Orion Gray by Behr, a shade that helps disguise dust and fingerprints. 

The main living and sleeping quarters got a new white and grey pattern on the floors, thanks to peel-and-stick tiles, and grey couch covers to match the cabinets. “Upholstery would have been too expensive, so I found elastic couch covers online that can be easily removed and washed,” she says. 

Lija added decorative flourishes with a mix of solid and patterned cushions, ceramic accessories, multicoloured flags, and vintage postcards that she tucked into Ikea frames. Around the perimeter of the bedroom is a storage nook with netting, to keep items secure when the trailer’s in motion: “It’s important to have a lot of storage so you can put everything flat, including the TV, when you’re travelling,” she says.

For now, Sofia sits by the cottage shed with a slice of lake view. “It’s cute, calming, and a great little place to escape,” says Lija. “I haven’t taken her for a full spin yet, but we’re hoping to head to the East Coast at some point this year.”

Beth Hitchcock is a design contributor to The Globe and Mail. She also wrote “Share to Join Us?” in our May ’21 issue.  

Tricks of the trailer

Whether you’re transforming an RV or a bunkie, these design tips have a big impact on the flair and functionality of your small space.

interior living area with stick-on tiles
Photo by Erin Leydon

Go for faux
Lija sourced peel-and-stick decals from a company called Quadrostyle for the floor and backsplash. “It looks like tile for a fraction of the cost,” she says. Better yet, faux tile is a breeze to clean and won’t crack when the trailer moves or the weather dips below zero. 

interior of Carey Shaw's living area with bench
Photo by Carey Shaw

Think in multiples
Carey relies on multi-purpose furniture to get the most from her limited square footage. “A bench can work as a shoe rack, extra seating, or a table for my laptop to watch movies at night,” she says.

living area of Lija Skobe's trailer
Photo by Erin Leydon

Choose a cohesive palette
Too many colours and patterns in a small space can look chaotic. Lija stuck with blue as the predominant colour and layered in gold tones for a warm accent. “I purchased a bunch of inexpensive pillows and candle holders in those colours and they instantly freshened up the trailer, as did the $30 tables from Marshalls.”

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