The Norfolk based Gypsy Caravan Company are traditional caravan builders and restorers. They have recently worked on a partnership with Farrow & Ball to decorate some of their traditional caravans in Vardo, one of the nine new colours from Farrow & Ball. Read the interview with Laurence who first started the Gypsy Caravan company over 30 years ago below:
TC: How did you first discover that you wanted to start designing and creating traditional caravans?
GC: Through an interest in working on horse drawn vehicles, we become involved in restoring some older caravans – or ‘vardos’ and realised that very few of the grander styles, like the Reading caravan, were still around. So we decided to start building our own.
Please talk us through the method that you usually go when you’re creating one of your pieces.
Every caravan is unique. We work closely with each client finding out how they plan to use the caravan, discussing the design, colour scheme and soft furnishings to ensure the finished result is exactly what they want. Some people see the caravan as a practical way of providing a spare bedroom for visitors, others want a den or study. Sometimes it’s aimed at the younger members of the family and often it’s for the grown ups to have a place to relax. The beauty of one of our caravans is that they can be used for all those things.
Where do you usually look to get your design inspiration?
Over the years we have seen hundreds of caravans in museums, private collections and indeed those that we have worked on ourselves and have built up a substantial library of photographs from which to draw ideas. There is so much to learn from the early carriage builders – why things were designed a certain way, why a particular type of wood is used for a specific purpose etc. Key to all our Reading caravans are the wooden wheels which are still made in the time-honoured way. There are cheaper alternatives, but they just don’t look right.
This style of caravan has such evokes such a sense of nostalgia, how does it feel to know that you’re contributing to keeping an age-old tradition alive?
It’s tremendously rewarding to see people’s reaction when they see one of our caravans, whether it’s the ‘wow’ factor when prospective customers first enter our workshop or the many people who stop and smile as we drive past on our way to deliver a caravan. Maybe it’s something remembered from a childhood storybook, but everyone seems to have a soft spot for them. So whether we’re building a new Reading caravan in the style of an older one or possibly restoring a vintage caravan, we get a great sense of satisfaction from what we do.
What’s your favourite caravan that you have produced?
That’s a hard one as we love them all. Of course our very first caravan will always be special, but we’ve since built many. To be honest, as much as the caravans, it’s the customers we remember…as well as the many couples and families who have bought one, there’s the inner city school who bought one as a creative area for the children, the pop star who bought two as family Christmas presents, the children’s library who persuaded us to build a miniature version so it could fit indoors and was used as a reading area, the man who bought one as a silver wedding anniversary surprise for his wife, the classical composer who uses his for inspiration and the lady in her seventies who had always dreamed of having one –there wasn’t a dry eye the day we delivered that one…
Why do you think it is so important that the more historic ways of life and methods of production are still used today?
So many things are now mass produced, lacking in originality or of poor quality and I know our customers value the care, expertise and individuality that goes into every caravan we produce. It’s often the case that we only value something when it’s gone and it’s too late to bring it back, but we have been fortunate enough to have been helped and encouraged by some very gifted people who learned their trade many decades ago and still do things the way they used to be done.
What advice would you give to someone looking to learn a traditional craft.
There seems to be a growing appreciation of cottage industries and things that are hand made, so I would encourage anyone with an interest in a particular craft to do as much research as possible, read books, visit museums, but most importantly, find someone prepared to share their knowledge and skills and work alongside them.