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The Secrets Behind RV Interior Design: Past, Present, & Future

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Have you ever walked into a Classic Era (1971-1989) or a Neo-Classic Era (1990-2007) RV and said to yourself, Good Gracious that’s Green! Other travel trailers and motorhomes of those periods have had faded maroons, sea blues, beiges, and browns. Those eras’ classic RV interior designs made sense back then, like today’s contemporary monochrome and post-modern color palettes. Our discussion will take you behind the scenes into the interior design departments of the RV industry. We’ll show you the evolution of how design teams make their decisions on the look and feel of their products. You’ll learn about the challenges they now face, their process, and how much power consumers have over their decisions. Finally, we’ll give you some insider info on the future trends experts are preparing for the next few years. 

The Process of Designing an RV Interior

Before we continue, we’ll show you who they are, the challenges they face, and how the interior design team accomplishes their work. They work interdependently with the various other departments and outside vendors to create new products to use certain materials. 

Who Are the People That Work In An RV Design Department? 

In the RV industry, interior design can be more challenging than the residential counterpart. Issues like weight restrictions, safety measures, and other concerns aren’t as much of a priority when designing a freestanding house. People with an interior design degree and experience are a hot commodity for any RV manufacturer

RV designers are continually working with vendors. Finding the right material, adjusting it to the proper specification, and adjusting order quantities are some of the broad spectra of tasks that fill up their days. 

Stunning RV Interior of Marc & Julie Bennett of RV LOVE. Photo by GabrielaPhoto.com
The Stunning RV Interior of Marc & Julie Bennett of RV LOVE. Photo by GabrielaPhoto.com

How the Process Works

To explain the process, we’ll use a manageable example. Suppose the RV manufacturer you work for wants to launch a new lightweight travel trailer that’s family-friendly. It’s going to compete with Forest River’s best selling R-Pod. It’ll be 25 feet in length, have an off-door slideout, and many features typically seen in bigger trailers like a central vacuum. 

As the interior design department manager, the head of the project gave you a modest budget, the layout of the interior, and a tight time-frame to present your concept for the prototype. Although you don’t have much time, you have many ideas rushing through your mind. Once you get to your department, you fill the team in and get to work.

Many RV interior designers find it wise to start things off by choosing the wood for the framing, cabinetry, and other features. You saw Jayco’s new Jay Feather Micro and loved their two wood color idea. They used a lighter shade of wood on the kitchen cabinetry to separate the space from the coach’s other areas.

If you use the same type of cabinetry facing but a different shade, it could work. When you look in your primary vendor’s catalog, the darker shade is a higher cost. Your secondary vendor has both facings for the same price, but the primary vendor may negotiate since he’s supplying other models. The primary vendor also has the wood stain needed for the cabinet doors and drawer fronts.

Once you come up with your wood plan, you discuss it with your team, and they agree. You send one of them to the phone to get the ball rolling with the primary vendor. All of you continue by matching sample fabrics, wallpaper, cabinet hardware, and other things to the woods. 

“I’ve bought and renovated around 15 houses, but the challenges of designing an RV are the most gratifying,”

Trina Sholin – Interior designer

RV Countertops

During the planning stage, you receive a note from the project lead. The CEO wants to see a granite countertop in this model. So far, all of your materials have come under the weight limit set by engineering. Granite is a heavy material restricted to full-size RVs. Most RV brands no longer use it because of the weight. If that’s what the CEO wants, you’ll figure it out.

You pull the granite catalog off the shelf, blow the dust off it, and open it up. Finding the lightest possible stone that fits the color palette of your design, you call the vendor. You explain the situation and what you have to do. For the next week, you have video conferences with their representative and come up with a solution.

The stone company will grind down the granite to a quarter of an inch. They’ll add a composite plastic material underneath that’s lightweight and maintains the stone’s integrity. The best part about this is how cost-effective it comes out. They can make three countertop pieces from their standard raw stone block. Also, you’re still within your weight limit and budget.

The Secrets Behind RV Interior Design: Past, Present, & Future
The Tiffin Zephyr offers luxury countertops in its beautiful, modern kitchen – Photo: Tiffin Motorhomes

A Completed RV Interior Design

When the interior design is complete, you bring in the project lead for his approval. With his sign off, your team orders all of the materials, and the production crew builds the prototype. The top management and executive board come in to see the new family-friendly lightweight travel trailer that’s going to beat Forest River. Once everyone approves, every department contacts its vendors for materials so that production can begin.

You and the team take a half-hour to enjoy the accomplishment. Then it’s back to work to update current materials for existing models and come up with three variations for the new prototype. 

In this example, we’ve presented an idealistic walkthrough of how an RV’s interior design works. The reality is, if it works half as well as this example, most general managers are happy. It’s a complex process that balances many internal and external factors all at once. At any stage during the planning process, changes happen. At worst, the team has to start over.

Challenges Interior Designers Face

We mentioned some of the challenges above, but there are many more. Besides internal politics, the most significant internal challenges are budget and weight restrictions. Even the multi-million dollar RVs have design budgets that can’t have overages. In some cases, it can be tough to design the interiors at that level. 

The decision-makers and customers expect the best, but vendors can only go so far with their negotiations due to their costs. If there’s a specific type of European wood, the RV manufacturer wants, but the vendor has to raise their prices due to increases in operation or shipping costs. The RV company could adapt the budget or find a substitute material.

When it comes to weight, every ounce counts on an RV. In this fuel-efficiency period, consumers are choosing SUVs that have lower tow capacities because the vehicle has a higher MPG. RV manufacturers had to acclimate to their consumer’s needs. If there’s a method to lighten countertops, cabinetry, and even fabrics, RV manufacturers will explore the benefits of using it.  

How Cable TV and the Internet Changed RV Interior Design

Video killed the radio star on August 1, 1981, when MTV first aired. Cable TV and the internet changed RV interior design’s entire dynamic in 1984 and 2010, respectively. For the Classic and Neo-Classic Eras, RV manufacturers stuck to the “wait-and-see” design method. The classic country interior design with beige-on-beige or colors that worked well to compliment personal RVer finishing items was the standard. 

RV interior designers would lag behind the housing market between three to five years, observing how residential designs played out.  If a specific idea made it past a short-lived trend, they would consider incorporating the concept into RVs.  

On December 1, 1984, HGTV aired for the first time on cable TV. It was a channel wholly devoted to home design and outdoor gardening. The interior design TV channel’s programming was so popular; it didn’t take long for broadcast channels to create their versions of interior design shows. While these programs focused on the residential sector, RVers began watching too. The RV community started asking, why can’t an RV have a modern, post-modern, or contemporary interior design?

Today's RVers expect multiple flat screen TVs and space for a mobile office - Photo: Tiffin Motorhomes
Today’s RVers expect multiple flat screen TVs and space for a mobile office – Photo: Tiffin Motorhomes

Sharing RV Interior Ideas

When Mark Zuckerberg’s Facebook launched the social media world, the RV community found a new way to communicate with each other. RVers would share ideas and pictures of their customizations and remodels. When Pinterest launched in January of 2010, the RV community found a home to post their DIY RV interior remodeling ideas. 

As this all came together, RV manufacturers started seeing interior designs by individuals online that had mass appeal. Even though they already knew their consumer base was already asking for alternatives to the country design-style, social media showed them how popular these modern, post-modern, and contemporary design styles were among their buyers. Consumer feedback always influenced the industry, but social media gave RV companies real-time numbers comments. 

Did RV Interior Design Save the Industry From the 2008 Financial Crisis?

The RV industry was one of the hardest-hit sectors during the 2008 recession. Some companies shut their doors permanently, others merged, and new brands saw the opportunity to hang their shingle. Each of the surviving companies had to come back to the marketplace strong.

The 2008 financial crisis started the Modern Era of the RV industry. The changes in building techniques, materials, and other innovations haven’t been this big since post-WWII. One of the most significant changes was the crossover from the country design style to the contemporary interior design style in most RV brands.

Consumers saw monochrome grey and white RV interiors for the first time at RV shows. Airstream presented RVs with European-styled cabinets with curved doors and a bright interior. The general concept that all RV brands adopted was to use white or light colors to give the illusion of a larger space. Even when the designers used dark woods or furniture, bright walls and cabinetry would offset darker colors’ claustrophobic nature.  

The leap in RV interior design breathed new life into the industry. As a result, from 2010 to 2017, RV sales continued to increase each year. 2010 had the most significant increase of over 46%, according to the RVIA.

The RV industry’s turnaround from the financial crisis wasn’t solely due to interior design advancement. Other innovations in exteriors, lightweight advances, many different systems were apart of the new appeal. It was a gestalt effect where each of these individual innovations made the new RVs better overall. 

The New Age of RV Interior Design

We’ve seen how the RV industry considered brown and beige as the RV version of neutral colors. You also saw how they used a wait-and-see approach before incorporating new ideas into their designs. We also showed you the challenges design teams face and the catalyst that pushed them forward into contemporary style techniques.

With the latest technological advances in the past decade, RV interior design has advanced even further. RVs have stylistic features that are practical and aesthetically appealing that wouldn’t have been possible even a decade ago. We’ll also show you what’s on the docket soon.

New Technologies That Aided RV Interior Design Concepts

One of the greatest inventions for the RV industry has to be the LED light. When many RVers are looking for energy alternatives like solar, LED lights are the most energy-efficient lighting you can get. They’re brighter, come in any color, and are a fraction in size of a standard RV incandescent bulb.

RV Interior Lights

Using lighting to set a particular mood was unheard of in the RV industry in years past. When ambient lighting first hit the RV industry, you would see it in the top-end million-dollar Class A diesel motorhomes. Many consumers thought that the technology would be unreachable for the more affordable coaches. Today, we see it in the faux fireplaces, behind glass-paneled cabinet doors, and other locations in some travel trailers under 25-feet.

Colored LED lighting can set the mood for your RV interior
Colored LED lighting can set the mood for your RV interior

Another key material that’s advanced RV interior design is vinyl. In 1930, vinyl replaced metal recording discs that gave the best sound reproduction (Google record player). The early 1970s brought vinyl into the flooring industry. Soon after, you would see it in RVs. 

RV interior designers started phasing out carpeting within the last few years and replaced it with vinyl wood flooring. Vinyl slates have many benefits:

  • Come in any color and style
  • Adapt to any temperature
  • Easy to clean
  • Textured to avoid slipping
  • Simple to install

We could go on and list all of the new or updated innovations that are defining RV contemporary style, but we could go on endlessly. What can be said is that the clean lines and solid color furniture scheme of the contemporary design style is well suited for travel trailers and motorhomes. The style likes low profile furniture that adds an illusion of open space. 

What’s the Future of RV Interior Design?  

In an article from RV-Pro, the author poses this question to several interior design RV managers. The author received many different answers. Some themes currently being used will continue, some new concepts will come from variations of existing ideas, and others will have a place at the RV Hall of Fame.

Regardless of color palette or a specific style, RV interiors will continue to mimic residential spaces. Like many fashions, once was old may become new again. Brass hardware may return as warmer tones give consumers an alternative to the travel trailers with white interiors.

You’ll see non-traditional woods like teak replace the standard oak or cherry. Browns, natural, and painted woods could show up as soon as 2023 model years. Grey is still strong in the flooring and cabinetry, so expect to see interior designers keep that as a base within the future interiors.

The industry is moving away from the floral and leaf fabric patterns seen in traditional and country styles. The fabric in RVs will draw from the solid color influence from the roots of contemporary and some modern subsets. Textured and wood colored fabrics experimentation is underway as new ways to develop the RV contemporary style.

The original term for a motorhome during the Antique Era (1910-1945) was a “House Car.” As RV interiors continue to evolve closer to residential homes, the term RV may have to revert to House Cars since they’ll look and feel more like a home than a mobile recreational vehicle.

Where Do RV Interior Designers Draw Their Inspiration?

Many people think there is some insider journal or some special access that designers have the public can’t access. The truth is that RV interior designers get their inspiration everywhere—TV, the internet, other RV brands, residential houses, apartments, and other places. 

They also get feedback based on how well their designs sell. If a particular interior pattern sells better than another, the manufacturer may offer that pattern on other models. The ones that don’t sell may get scrapped quickly and replaced by something else. Ultimately, the consumer is the final decision-maker.

Keep sharing those RV interior design ideas on Pinterest and other social media sites. Fill out those comment cards or comment sections on the RV manufacturer websites. Your thoughts and feedback does make a difference. 

About The Author

Although he’s from Motown, Brian is a legacy RVer that grew up on I-75. He, his wife, and three working-class fur-babies have enjoyed the full-time RV lifestyle since 2017. Like John Madden, he hasn’t “worked” in years because he gets to write about his passion. When he’s not working, he supports his daughter’s dog rescue efforts and disability causes.