Design FOcus Areas
The Golden Ratio
Every design choice in the VITRUVIAN VAN was made by employing this universal, mathematical ratio of ideal proportionality. Whether I was determining the dimensions of my table, the placement of cabinetry and handles, the height of my seats, or the spacing on the shiplap walls: every chosen number was calculated using this ratio.
The rule of two thirds. The fibonacci sequence. Mathematical fractals. All these things rely on the universe’s ratio of proportions: the golden ratio. The ratio is an irrational number like the more commonly known 𝜋 or pi and is symbolized by the greek character 𝜑 or ‘phi’. Whereas pi defines the relationship of the width of a sphere to its circumference, the golden ratio defines the spatial relationship between connected objects in space.
It seems to illustrate a natural breaking point in the ‘design’ of the universe, where objects give-way to one another, allowing optimal distance while maximizing proximity. The ratio can be seen in breaking ocean waves; the expanding spiral of a sea shell; or in the twist of our own DNA and even our milky way galaxy.
Since I was personally going to live in this space, I determined a cascading set of numbers derived from my own height to use in the layout and creation of the interior space. In this way, I intended to create a naturalistic 'nest’ and employ the same universal design principles that would intuitively motivate any plant or animal in the creation of their own s p a c e in nature.
If you’re like me, it’s hard to wrap your head around how the golden ratio is even a thing. I found this video helpful: Numberphile - The Golden Ratio: The Most Irrational Number
By its nature, living in a van is minimalistic. There simply isn’t room for extra things. However, I noticed a growing desire in the vanlife community to include more and more of the features of a traditional American home: indoor showers, full kitchens, plumbing, and storage for lots of clothes and big toys. I wanted to separate myself from that trend because I felt those luxuries could potentially distract me from the purpose of living small and nomadically: to engaging with the world outside, and reflect on my lived experience.
In creating the VITRUVIAN VAN, I intentionally limited the amount of my storage space to hold things, and instead prioritized living space. However, in doing so, I also labored to ensure that storage was easy to access and designed and optimized for diverse cargo.
For example, instead of building a dedicated power supply cabinet, I created a space that could be a power cabinet… or not. I designed the space to fit the largest removable battery pack currently on the market, and wired universal hookups so that I, or a future owner, could choose whatever power system they needed for any given adventure. If they found they didn’t need to fill the entire space with 300 AH of batteries, they could use the space instead to hold books, a box of tools, or a few gallons of water.
Designing intentional, versatile s p a c e s instead of built-in appliances and cavernous gear garages incentivizes me to take only what is needed and focus my attention outside the van more often. While this van was built specifically for me and my goals as a nomadic writer and visual artist, I believe this design methodology can be helpful for anyone looking to add intentionality and flexibility to their space.
Obsolescence is when something is no longer wanted, even though it may still be in good working order. We can see this as an effect of modern marketing, when new color trends or ‘seasons’ are promoted to consumers as fresh and new, even though the underlying product may be the same or very similar. This can make us feel like we are ‘behind the trend’ or afraid we will be perceived as obsolete too. That fear motivates us to buy something ‘new.’
Corporations even plan obsolescence into their products, and have been since the invention of the lightbulb. If things ‘break’ sooner, people buy more. It’s as simple as that, and it’s something I want nothing to do with. The VITRUVIAN VAN was designed to be repairable, removable, and upgradable.
I achieved this, in part, by creating my walls as panels, applied after the counters were put in, so that they could be removed without disassembling anything. Further, I created flexible spaces for my utilities and storage. As mentioned above in the minimalism section, creating s p a c e for things allows you to both take only what you need, but also allows you to upgrade the van without remodeling.
Playing off the idea of outdated style trends, I decided on a juxtaposing rustic-modern aesthetic. I mixed clean lines, flush fittings, and geometric balance with natural materials, matte finishes, and early American home design to blend the past and present. This builds aesthetic resilience, bolstering the design as tastes and trends change.
If you want to learn more about widespread obsolescence in society, listen to this recent podcast from NPR: Throughline - “The Phoebus Cartel”
Connecting easily to the other design focus areas, it was important to me that the van’s interior design notably and artfully incorporate negative space. Generally speaking, negative space is the ‘empty' air space surrounding the positive ‘filled’ spaces, such as walls, cabinets, and seating. Understandably, positive space in compositions are often given significant focus as they usually include the subject. However, negative space provides opportunity for balance and, in a way, defines the boundary and the identity of the positive space.
I approached this build equally, if not specifically concerned with the negative space, which strangely seems to be overlooked in many van and RV builds. I often see layouts where occupants are corralled into a narrow hallway, boxed in by storage, and yet it is the negative s p a c e that we actually live in.
Inspired by the natural proportions of the golden ratio, I sought the golden balance between optimal distance while maximizing proximity. This manifested in low counters, seating and very minimal over-counter storage to allow for vertical space; asymmetrical cabinetry for weight distribution and to encourage a greater sense of width; a free-floating table and cantilevered bed platform to maintain freedom of movement; and visual and physical, obstruction-free passages to the outside.
Negative space inherently allows for adaptation and change where positive space remains largely defined and static. In this way, paying specific attention to the creation and maintenance of negative space supports the project’s goal of designing with nature by leaving room for dynamic movement and growth.
texture & COlor
Creating a living and working space for yourself in an extremely small space means that you will be engaging with the physical space often, using both your eyes and your hands. This posed an interesting challenge. Shinny, smooth materials often provide more durability and washability, however they also tend to create a feeling of cold and sterility — not very cozy.
To combat this, I only used natural materials like wood and felt on the visible surfaces. I also committed to significant coatings research to find the most durable, soft, natural, and matte finishing options available. The cabinets are finished in a rich, matte blue, which evokes productivity, calmness, and stability. This eco-friendly paint was designed for nurseries and is extremely washable and resilient. The counters are reclaimed walnut and finished with a custom-mixed natural tung oil that penetrates the wood creating a waterproof, highly durable finish without changing the feel or natural low-luster of the wood.
The walls are similarly finished with a penetrating, natural white wash, allowing the character of the wood to come through. The ceiling, however, is finished in a medium gloss, toxin-absorbing white paint, which helps reduce odors and airborne chemicals, and also helps prevent moisture incursion from rising steam during cooking and breathe during sleeping. Medium gloss was chosen both for the increased durability and to increases the feeling of height as the white paint reflects light from the windows.
High-grade F-1 wool felt was used throughout the build to add even more softness, warmth, and sound dampening. This highly durable wool felt, in a natural grey and black, is a sustainable, renewable product that adds a luxurious ultra-matte texture. With these textural choices the interior offers overall warmth and softness, while maintaining durability and visual and tactile diversity.