As I’m not nearly as jet set as I’d like to be, flying is always an adventure – and a chance to reflect on the lessons airplanes provide in small space design for van conversion.
Reflecting over a posh recovery coffee in land-side Heathrow, this is what stood out.
Creative use of lighting can make us feel more alert, calm or effectively ‘paint’ a wall. Whilst a few battery powered fairy lights bunged up at the end of a build provide a certain bohemian charm, there is a massive range of affordable LED lighting options for more advanced effects.
On the airplane at night, recessed deep purple ceiling light strips gave minimum disruption for those trying to sleep, but sufficient illumination for passengers stumbling to the lavatories. Use of bright white recessed strips in the same location provided excellent time-zone busting light to start the day.
Reflection of light off an opaque ivory panel provided a splash of colour on a different wall. It could be exciting to see vans using the same technique to change part of their interior colour at will.
Lighting was also used to create a type of glowing wallpaper: a grid of geometric lit shapes behind a translucent wall created a retro lounge feel. Shining LEDs through an opaque ‘stencil’ pattern layer onto a translucent top panel layer could create a similar outcome. For very intricate shapes a local sign maker or other shop with a CNC machine might be able to help.
The geometric backlit feature wall was in Upper Class. Unfortunately, when I had a chance to peek through the curtain from the riff-raff section (where I fly) I didn’t have my phone with me to take a photo. But, you can see it on Virgin Atlantic’s own blog.
2. Odd spaces = opportunities to recess for storage
The flight used several shelves of only approximately 2-3” of depth to good effect, storing snacks, juice cartons and mini cans. The same space would be adequate in a van to store glasses, thin books, pens, dry food items, electronica and any other small items. Pockets could be a good option in even smaller slots – thanks to this I now am thinking of in-built glasses cases under the bedside reading lights.
Inconvenient horizontal surfaces gained storage mojo with the use of inset ‘bucket’ style recesses on the airplane. I think a particularly interesting riff on this may be to create a small drop-in vase in a far worktop corner; the flowers could even remain in situ during transit!
3. Creative wall covering
Just about any thin, lightweight sheet material can be used to cover a large surface. There is life beyond lightweight board, panelling or old skool carpet! (NB: I’ve got 2 out of 3 of these in my van, this is no disrespect to any of the above, but a suggestion to consider alternatives too.)
Being a major airline, Virgin Atlantic had this lightweight textured plastic panel custom made. Whilst bespoke moulding is usually impractical for most self builders, it speaks to us keeping our eyes open for almost any new or upcycled thin material as potential ‘feature wall’ option.
4. A little pattern
I love bold colour. So much so I chose a light, conservative interior van theme to counteract my tendency to use ALL of the colours. Left to the abandon of my own preferences, the van cabin was at risk of feeling like being trapped in a kaleidoscope.
However, this flight gave me an idea of how to experiment with pattern without making the space too close or busy. The airplane had grey dots on an ivory background on both airplane side walls which gave visual interest whilst preserving a spacious feel. A repeating pattern in the light colour scheme used elsewhere in a small space is a way to keep things cohesive and calm.
5. Origami makes good furniture
Airplane purpose-built pivoting and folding armrest tray table hardware is amazing. Clearly the result of a dedicated team with access to bespoke machining, these folded twice then pivoted once more to store in the armrest.
The armrest tray design demonstrates the advantages of considering multiple planes (ahem) of movement in van conversion design to use space more efficiently or add more features.
One of my favourite examples of this is by YouTuber Dreamside Out, here. His table is space efficient, has a large surface and even has an easel mode thanks to clever use of pivot points.
6. Rubbish piles up quickly
It is a small miracle airlines are able to serve hot food miles above the ground, whilst travelling at high speed, to hundreds of people. As a trade-off, all airlines have to use a fair amount of pre-packaged items. Even when trying to be careful to be tidy, I felt like I was under a mountain of packets once my meal was fully unwrapped.
It was a reminder that incorporating suitable rubbish, recycling and composting bins is an integral part of a campervan build. This is also one more reason to go for less packaging and reusable containers wherever possible.
By the way, the food was really nice.
7. Travel organisers save space in a van, too
My idea of a good night off is a glass of wine and a travel blog by the fire. I especially adore figuring out how to use space efficiently and make things easy to find later (partially because if something could be lost, I am likely to lose it.).
It is fair to say we live in a golden age of lightweight organisers aimed at the travel market. Packing cubes have changed my life, and if anyone is in need of a pen I do not hesitate to whip out this darling from my commuter backpack.
Clever packing organisers are hugely effective in maximising the space in a campervan and reducing the effort of finding something. In fact, the large packing cubes in most mixed sets are really too big for use in a suitcase, but are ideal to tame fluffy bedding or towels in the tight space of a van.
Have you be inspired by airplane design in your builds? Leave a comment if there is something you’ve incorporated, or would like to do in a future project.