Updated: Sep 8, 2021
Eric Bricker, an Austin, Texas-based filmmaker, spent several years documenting the history and subculture of Airstream trailers for his next film, Alumination, which debuts this fall. We asked him about the film, the timeless allure of "silver bullets," and embedding himself for a riveting ride in modern nomadic culture.
Eric will be screening his new film and answering live audience questions at our Weekend of Architecture and Design in Palm Springs this October. Read on for a taste of this riveting story and buy your ticket before they're sold out.
Congratulations on your new film! What is Alumination about?
The film takes a look at the spirit of Airstream, which to me is this idea of unbridled wanderlust. An Airstream is more than a design object. It’s the basis of a whole subculture. Wally Byam, who founded Airstream in 1931, had a creed to put adventure first. It’s about the curiosity that drives you to see what’s over the next hill. To me, that’s everlasting youth. Wally’s spirit lives on in these trailers, and its activated by the people who use them.
What is it that makes Airstreams so timeless and iconic?
I think modern architecture is very much about space. The clean, sleek design, the simple exterior. The exposed, unadulterated materials of aluminum and rivets. They’re very womblike. There’s room for an inhabitant’s experience to rise. It invites a connection to the surrounding natural environment.
You’ve called this film is “a blueprint for modern nomadic living.” What do you mean by that?
When you’re living on the road, nature is your living room. You don’t live in the trailer. It takes care of your needs. You’re living outside. It’s a return to another part of who we are as a species. Airstreams are incubators and amplifiers of human connection. Whether you’re sitting inside or outside, that’s what they do. And this power is exponential. When you pull people together, it happens on a truly a communal level. Our film shows historic footage of these rallies, where thousands of Airstreamers are gathered at the foot of a mountain, or in the desert, or somewhere in nature. That for me is magical. The key to connection, happiness, fulfillment—I saw it alive in these Airstream communities.
How did COVID-19 affect Airstream communities?
Before COVID, the biggest encumbrances to living on the road were “We can’t get away from work” and “The kids have school.” It was something people postponed until retirement or after the kids moved out. When the pandemic hit, remote work and schooling were forced upon us. Now Airstream cannot keep up with demand. They have an 8- to 12-month waiting list. Now that the obstacles have been removed, I think it’s only going to perpetuate modern nomadic living.
You started filming this documentary in 2013. What did your journey look like?
Most of the filming was just me, working alone. I traveled to 16 states with a backpack and a roller-bag of camera gear. I followed a bunch of people out Airstreaming. I wanted to get a sense of the living community. I slept in Airstreams and talked to everyone from full-time nomads living on the road to people who have Airstreams parked in their back yards as guest houses.
Your first film, Visual Acoustics (2008), was a documentary about Julius Shulman. How did you meet him?
I met Julius in 1999, when I was working as an art consultant. Macy’s and Nordstrom would buy artwork from me for their store interiors. I needed San Francisco photos from the 1930s, and that led me to Julius Shulman. Julius reminded me of my grandfather, who was born in 1909 in Russia. Julius was born in 1910 and came from a family of Russian Jews. He became my surrogate grandfather. At the end of 2001, I proposed to him the idea of doing a documentary. I wanted people to know “Uncle Julius.” His answer: “I don’t see why not!”
What was it like to turn a camera upon one of the most revered architectural photographers of all time?
He’s the perfect ambassador to bring people into the fold of modernism. He had such a sense of humanity – full spectrum – he had his rough spots too. (We tried to show that in the movie.) Julius wasn’t just a master of photography. He was a master at living life. He taught me so much.
What was the most important thing Shulman taught you?
Follow your bliss. That’s what he did his whole life. Julius would say, in his own words, that he was this anointed golden child. He seemed to just follow his path of life and marvel at where it led him. He wasn’t one to want for more. No matter what he had, there was a sense of fulfillment and wellbeing. Finding pleasure in the trees or the succulents or birds – he was an avid bird watcher – or drinking coffee. Taking the time to enjoy life.
He sounds a bit like Wally Byam.
I think there are quite a few similarities, but Julius seemed to allow things to happen while Wally seemed to will things to happen. I think one would have to be that way in order to lead 106 Airstream caravaners from Cape Town to Cairo.
What do you want people to take from the film?
How good design can enrich and make our lives better. But whether it’s a house or a trailer, it isn’t just about the object. It’s about well-designed tools for living that enable the user, if they wish, to design certain aspects of their life. That’s what Julius Shulman did. So did Wally Byam.
Meet Eric Bricker and other exciting speakers at our Weekend of Architecture and Design in Palm Springs, California, October 9-11, 2021.