The Birth of the Nuppie

High-end designers target nomadic urban professionals


At 31 inches long and 48 inches wide, weighing approximately 300 pounds, Casulo may be the largest, heaviest gadget in the history of gee-whiz technology. And yet for a few days in February, as news of its existence traveled from one trend-spotting blog to the next, the bulky rectangular box captivated the attention of those normally preoccupied by much tinier fare.

Created by two German designers, Casulo is an almost magically compact trunk crammed with enough stylish furniture to outfit a studio apartment. The pieces include a slatted bed frame and a twin mattress, a sizable armoire, a desk with a four-drawer cabinet, a six-shelf bookcase, one height-adjustable stool, and two square seating cubes that moonlight as additional storage space. Its footprint matches that of a standard European pallet, making it easy to ship and store. Its contents can be unpacked and assembled in approximately 10 minutes, no tools required.

Casulo's streamlined surfaces are devoid of any non-functional ornamentation—the mood the system projects is one of clean, efficient, and fairly institutional playfulness. If there were a high-security prison for criminal Playmobil figures, it would be equipped with this stuff. But if whatever comfort Casulo's spartan furniture offers the body remains largely untested—so far, only a prototype exists—the comfort it affords restless souls is obvious.

Thanks to an ever-expanding array of wireless technologies, we can now fit our jobs, our record collections, and our five favorite friends into our pockets. But even our most state-of-the-art futons and entertainment centers remain hopelessly immobile, their practical range limited to one side of the room or the other. Products like Casulo attempt to remedy that: Any day now, they promise, our physical property will be just as portable as our intellectual property.

No doubt old Tom Joad would be surprised by our kinetic aspirations. On one hand, mobility in the service of leisure is a hallmark of the richest among us—these days, you can easily spend more than $1 million on a luxury RV, and if you have a spare $100 million, Space Adventures, Ltd. will be more than happy to send you to the moon next year. On the other hand, mobility yoked to domesticity, mobility as an economic strategy, have traditionally been hallmarks of the underclass.

In the last decades of the 19th century and the first of the 20th, what the historian Carlos Schwantes has dubbed a "wageworkers' frontier" existed in the American West and Canada. Millions of migrant laborers provided temporary manpower for the fisheries, mines, lumber operations, farms, canneries, cattle ranches, and construction companies operating in the new territories, and mobility was the key to their livelihood. As soon as one job ended, they hit the rails or the highways looking for the next. "There are 300,000 hobos in the country, and we want good roads so it will be easier for us to find work," exclaimed Jeff Davis, the self-proclaimed "King of Hobos," at a 1913 meeting of automotive industry executives in Detroit.

But however important this just-in-time army of human labor may have been to the region's economic development, the hobos (whom Davis always took care to distinguish from "tramps" because of their desire to work) weren't particularly respectable. Without families to support or mortgages to pay, these highly mobile workers, most of whom were young men, spent their money in saloons, gambling dens, and brothels.

In the 1920s, John Grissim explains in The Complete Buyer's Guide to Manufactured Homes & Land, a nationwide craze for family camping inspired some car owners to build trailers comprised of "little more than folding canvas tents on a wooden platform mounted on a single axle." Eventually, commercial vendors began producing trailers too; when the Great Depression hit in the 1930s and people started moving west in search of better prospects, they often turned their erstwhile leisure vehicles into home sweet home when they got there. "It wasn't long before campgrounds that accepted these semi-permanent tenants were dubbed trailer parks," Grissim writes.

Citizens with more permanent roots dubbed these parks "trailer slums," and mobile living became the province of the poor—and, to a lesser extent, plucky retirees piloting Winnebagos across the country at a pace that would make even Jack Kerouac weary. But why let the oldsters have all the fun? Why should rock stars and power forwards have a monopoly on traveling from urban playground to urban playground in pursuit of new customers for their services?

In the current bestseller The 4-Hour Workweek, the 29-year-old slackerpreneur and self-improvement guru Tim Ferriss insists that the greatest assets of the "New Rich"—and the keys to creating "luxury lifestyles"—are "time and mobility" rather than huge bank balances. To put it another way: That homeless guy sleeping in his own urine in your building's doorway? He isn't as poor as he looks!

Ferriss, a self-described tango champion and online dietary supplement tycoon, disdains the notion of slaving away in white-collar serfdom for the deferred promise of geriatric adventure. Instead, he preaches the virtues of economic autonomy, extended travel, and "mini-retirements" that last months or years instead of weeks. And thus Tom Joad's nightmare becomes today's white-collar dream. What is Casulo but the creative class's version of a homeless guy's shopping cart? And what are vehicles like the Design Within Reach Airstream Trailer or the GMC Pad but more elaborate and mobile versions of Casulo?

Introduced last year, the $50,000 DWR Trailer updates Airstream's iconic, aluminum-shelled asphalt dinghy with an interior suitable for a Dwell centerfold. The GMC Pad, so speculative it doesn't even exist as a prototype, is a concept for something General Motors describes as a "mobile urban loft" for modern city dwellers who've been "priced out of Southern California's escalating housing market."

Along with side panels decorated with graffiti murals, it includes all of the touches that deliver the "cultural & geographic freedom" that today's migrant copywriters demand—Thermador kitchen appliances, a personal spa designed in collaboration with Kohler, satellite TV. "Whether located in walking distance from your job @ TBWAChiatDay, spending a couple evenings along PCH, or wintering at Mammoth, with the GMC PAD, home is where you want it," General Motors advises. "And commuting is what other people do."

No doubt it's easy to mock the idea of, say, rebel handbag designers lighting out for the territories in their DWR Airstreams, mad to live, mad to be saved, mad to admire the matte ebony finish of their eco-friendly flooring and burn, burn, burn like recessed halogen lighting tastefully exploding across the laminate doors of the roomy cabin's overhead lockers.

But it's a seductive vision too. Ever since Huck Finn decided to go downriver on a raft for no other reason than to escape the bounds of sivilization, hyper-mobility has stood as one of the purest expressions of American liberty. Now, as gas prices and gridlock threaten to constrain us, as Minutemen and TSA officials do their best to keep the flow of human beings in check, it's no wonder products like Casulo and the GMC Pad are so appealing. Shouldn't we be able to move around the planet at least as freely as our credit histories and embarrassing party photos do?

And must we really sacrifice comfort and style just because we want to live the itinerant life? In On the Road, Sal and Dean remain so committed to constant movement, one suspects, in part because the accommodations are so squalid whenever they actually arrive anywhere. In 2008 shouldn't you be able to consort with winos and hookers all day and then, after managing your online dietary supplement business via your on-board WiFi connection, fall asleep on pin-tucked Baltic flax linens?

Today's merry entrepreneurs and migrant knowledge workers can combine the liberating mobility of the Beats with the liberating autonomy of having a simple, Walden-like shelter even Martha Stewart might envy. The dream doesn't get any more American than that.

Contributing Editor Greg Beato is a writer in San Francisco.