June 16, 1997 12:00 PM

FIND IT HARD TO BELIEVE THAT Airstreams—yes, those campground stalwarts reminiscent of giant aluminum Twinkies—have become the utmost in jet-set chic? Tom Hanks, Anthony Edwards, Sean Penn and David Duchovny swear by theirs, as does Barbara Jakobson, an art collector and trustee of New York City’s Museum of Modern Art. MTV has installed a ’57 model—decked out in AstroTurf—as a waiting room in its new West Coast headquarters. Even the networks have caught on: CBS’s Promised Land follows a family Airstreaming cross-country.

“We’ve been inundated with requests to provide vehicles to celebrities,” says Larry Huttle, president of the Jackson Center, Ohio-based Airstream. “All of these people [use] some sort of RV on location. They want to be in something that reflects their personality.” Andy Garcia, whose 1995 model serves as a dressing room, says he admires its “classic design and durability,” while Jakobson simply judges them “gorgeous objects.”

Invented in the ’30s by businessman Wally Byam, whose wife refused to go camping without a kitchen, Airstreams hit the mainstream in the 1950s when Byam started leading mass excursions through the Wally Byam Caravan Club International. A few of the roughly 120,000 sold have rolled into history: Neil Armstrong was quarantined in an Airstream after walking on the moon.

But they’re not for everyone. “You either have it in your blood or you don’t,” says Andy Rogozinski. As owner of Inland RV Service in Corona, Calif., he has customized trailers for Matthew Modine and director Tim Burton, who recently bought his third Airstream as a gift for his girlfriend, Mars Attacks! actress Lisa Marie.

Could be, though, that Tom Hanks touched off a fad by bringing his 34-foot trailer on location for Sleepless in Seattle. Another who beat the rush was Sean Penn, who lived out of his used ’84 for three years after his Malibu home burned down in 1993. ER’s Edwards is just as snug in his “silver love sub,” he told The Wall Street Journal. “The roundness, the curvature of the interior,” he said, “makes a really pleasing environment to be in. It’s very womblike.” Make that a womb with an ever-changing view.

SAMANTHA MILLER

JOANNE FOWLER in Chicago, MICHELE KELLER in Los Angeles and ANNE LONGLEY in New York City

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