We knew it was going to be good but never in our wildest mid-century modern loving dreams did we expect Palm Springs to be such a Mecca for vintage loveliness. This architect-created oasis in the middle of the desert between Los Angeles and Joshua Tree National Park may have a reputation as the place the older generation head for their last dance but it is fast changing back into the Hollywood play area of the mid-twentieth century with its celebrity-attended film festival, Palm Springs antique stores, plethora of fabulous boutique hotels and painstakingly restored Modernist houses.
Just two and a half hours from Los Angeles, this small jewel in America’s crown has more Modernist buildings packed into its tiny frame than anywhere else in the world. Disneyland for all midmod lovers, there is such a glut of Butterfly roofed houses and flying concrete buttresses you cannot possibly see it all in one trip. Elizabeth Park alone is made up of over 20 blocks of Alexander-built real estate, much designed by architect Donald Wexler. If just one of those missed-out houses was on a street in Ealing in the UK or Queens outside New York, Modernistas would arrive in their droves to pay homage like teenagers to a boy band. Here we pick and choose as if giving ourselves a time limit in an art gallery. You become a glutton, over-sated by fifties and sixties houses with perfect gardens and the shop upon antique shop packed with twentieth century design classics that might just entice you to hire a small crate or failing that, wear a rare walnut-bottomed, bronze-topped Saarinen side table as a hat home on the plane. It was a close call.
Thanks to Hollywood, the most inventive architects flourished post WW2 with commissions to create beyond their imaginings here. Inventive architects like the young and brilliant Richard Neutra were called in to create unique vacation houses designed to be cooler and more party-tastic than their neighbours, Ten years earlier Edgar J Kauffman, a department store tycoon, commissioned Frank Lloyd Wright’s masterpiece Falling Water. Neutra’s Kaufmann house, the family’s holiday residence built in 1946, also became a modernist classic with its technologically advanced materials, floating planes, flowing space and glut of glass designed to bring in the awe-inspiring views. Barry Manilow once lived here. Brad Pitt was interested but wanted to make it secure. While this masterpiece is looking for a buyer willing to pay over $13 million, as a museum piece for the people it should be viewable from the road. No one puts a wall around Neutra’s baby.
Not everyone could afford a Modernist masterpiece but most middle class families could buy into the dream on the Twin Palms and Racquet Club estates. Between 1947 and 1965, the Alexander Construction Company built 2,200 houses in Palm Springs, doubling its housing capacity, to reflect the new Modernist ideal. Houses focused on leisure as they merged inside and out. Most had coffee table book gardens with pools and outside bars and eating areas. Need to know name architects for your trip to Palm Springs include William Krisel, Donald Wexler, William Cody, Albert Frey, E. Stewart Williams, A Quincy Jones (not the Quincy Jones, A Quincy Jones) Frank Lloyd Wright, Paul Williams and John Lautner. No wonder lovers of modernism with a US visa are constantly on the lookout for the latest email from Desert Modernism’s realtors as the death knell sounds for another of Coachella Valley’s older citizens. You can still pick up an original Krisel butterfly roofed beauty for under $300,000.
Soaked in almost year-round sunshine and surrounded by mountains, palm trees and mid-century booty it is no surprise that Palm Springs has become a destination for the laid back architectural traveler. There may be exciting new bars and restaurants popping up to cater for a younger crowd and plenty of parties going on behind closed doors but streets are quiet in the day apart from the occasional honk from a vintage car horn. It feels a bit like the child catcher from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang has visited with his hook and net. Where are all the kids?
“Palm Springs is for greys, gays and gamblers,” says a guy called Alejandro when we quiz him at the roulette table at Agua Caliente Spa Resort. Built by the Cahuilla Indians, the rich tribe that still owns the Indian canyons South West of Palm Springs, Agua Caliente is under threat from the new Hard Rock casino that arrives in Palm Springs in May with its DJs in order to give LA’s young rich weekenders somewhere to dance all night.
We are here for Modernism week, which happens every February for 10 or 11 days depending on which Modernist-loving Palm Spring’s soak you talk to. It includes architectural tours, cocktail parties, fashion shows, cocktail parties, Airstream trailers, cocktail parties, vintage cars, cocktail parties and a rather splendid show full to bursting with dealers toting Nelson, Eames, Ponti, Jacobsen et al. This is the best time of year for all fans of Modernism but do book the tours NOW, many of them fill up within six months. If you can get on one by the lovely Matthew Reader of Paul Kaplan Realtors, he is the only estate agent in Palm Springs to properly live the dream in Seventies clothes snatched straight from the rails of his and partner Bill’s shop Deja Vu on North Palm Canyon drive, where all the famous mid-century furniture shops are located. He drives a vintage car and lives in a Krisel house. This is one guy who clearly loves his job as Palm Spring’s hippest estate agent and reaps the spondoolies to prove it.
Thank you for the lovely tour in your car Matthew and for taking us home to meet the cats. Do go and visit his shop Deja Vu Vintage Finery at 664 North Palm Canyon Drive. If you are going to any parties during Modernism week his Mad Men style dresses would have the secretarial pool at Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce drooling.
Lucy Ryder Richardson and Petra Curtis of Modern Shows travelled to Los Angeles with Air New Zealand
To apply for the right to produce this or use any part of this c Modern Shows feature please contact Lucy@modernshows.com. Modern Shows produces Midcentury Modern, Midcentury East, The Modern Marketplace and Inside Modernism
- Shop – head straight the vintage mecca that is Palm Canyon Drive
- Deja Vu Room
- Palm Canyon Galleria
- a la Mod
- Modern Way
- Studio One 111
- Bon Vivant
- Shop – further afield
- JP Denmark
- Colin Fisher Studios
Be prepared to queue around the block for this amazing sandwich spot on North Palm Canyon drive.
Sadly not modern enough to spurn the “Hi, I am Patrick and I will be your waiter for the day” but the Yankee stew was knockout.
Voted the best Mexican food in the desert by the readers of Palm Springs Life.
Toupees and tuxedos galore, glammed up waitresses and talented piano players. A MUST if you want to feel like you have stepped into a scene out of Goodfellas.
- Our Favourite Boutique Hotels
Le Parker Méridien
Once called Melody ranch and owned by the singing cowboy Gene Autry, this boutique hotel saw a renaissance in 2004 when the witty ceramicist slash interiors tycoon Jonathan Adler stepped in to play devil’s advocate with the interiors. A huge sign saying DRUGS above the fireplace is just one of the details that suggests boutique hotels are keen to get away from Palm Springs early image as the place old people go to retire. Maybe it is where we now go for a mid-life crisis. If you can’t afford to stay you can always pop to the bar of a night-time or have brunch at Norma’s “five-star diner with a twist” where you can sit on Bertoia chairs and play with Jonathan Adler’s retro birdie bird salt and pepper pots before strolling around the sensational gardens.
The Movie Colony
It is whispered that Jim Morrison made the leap from balcony to pool here in 1969 and Frank Sinatra was resident while his nearby home was renovated. What we do know for sure is leading desert modernist architect Albert Frey drew up the original plans and the building process went through three phases over the twenty years between 1935 to 1955. While there is no bar the hotel’s “sunset wine hour” is a great excuse to sit around the fire-pit with the owner, artist Donald Smith, whose abstract artwork decorates the site.
Designed by William F Cody, The Horizon Hotel was originally built in 1952 for Jack Wrather (who produced the Lone Ranger and Lassie) and his actress wife Bonita Granville, the original Nancy Drew, as a getaway for them and Hollywood friends including Marilyn Monroe and Betty Grable. Bungalow bedrooms were created in a pseudo-diamond shape with all angles at 72 or 108 degrees clustering around a natural hot-spring-fed pool and spa. The place is uncluttered, simple and now very white (it was pink in the Wrathers’ day). With just twenty-two rooms scattered in little white houses around the spacious garden you cannot fail to notice the San Jacinto mountains and big desert sky. A “no kids” policy means the large, central salt-water pool at Horizon is unlikely to get rowdy. Oh and room 4A has a huowge patio we are told.
The Ace’s fourth outpost (with hotels in Portland, Seattle and New York) is aimed at what Americans call Hipsters, we call Shoreditch types. Which as awful as it sounds is actually very relaxed and lovely. The staff is unpretentious, laid back in jeans and t-shirts, food is deli style with plenty of options for veggies and Ace says it LOVES KIDS, maybe the child catcher didn’t come after all. Life is an endless pool party or bingo night and, if you ever make it to bed, furnishings will make the travel-weary feel right at home. Canvas dominates, dressing gowns have Jedi style hoods and larger rooms come with a turntable and selection of cool hipster vinyl. The phrase “We’re all in this together” can be spotted here and there, and there are yurts for massages. If you are not already relaxed enough head for the herb garden.
You may remember the imposing A-frame entrance and 50′s Polynesian Tiki theme from the Justin Timberlake true-life crime movie, Alpha Dog (2006. This resort has plenty more going for it: a recently refurbished restaurant (with a dirt-bike mural), a huge pool, new bar and refurbished rooms. Elvis Presley and Nancy Sinatra both stayed here in the 60s. It’s a motel not a hotel but what’s not to like with its pedigree.
This teeny tiny John Lautner gem was a wreck until Ryan Trowbridge and Tracy Beckmann transformed it. Ryan restored the angular metal frames and concrete then reconstructed the redwood, having lost most of it to termite damage. Then he and Tracy updated the interiors fixtures and fittings mixing modern with mid-century eye-poppers sourced locally. After a setback that involved a new complex up the hill sending shifting dirt and excrement their way (the Lautner is now walled) the place has fans of interesting architecture queuing up to stay in it and photo shoots booked regularly. With no bar or reception, its more of a posh holiday let. But with terrarium style gardens within the mini studio rooms, view of the sky above your bed and the knowledge that you are staying in a work of art what’s not to love. You will only be able to see this place if you either book it or are lucky enough to bump into two fans of the Midcentury Modern show and get invited back for drinks, as we did. It’s your chance to feel (almost) at one with the desert as you sit by the fire pit with like-minded Modernism-spotters or sip your martini in the plunge pool under the stars. Most details are handled by Rick, a dude of a caretaker who lives nearby. Not for people who expect on-tap nightlife. It’s quiet, serene and a fifteen-minute ride into town.
- Other must-sees for the Jet-setting Modernist
The furniture show itself is stocked full of all the American greats. The week-long festivities help support young designers in the Palm Springs area.
Palm Springs Aerial Tramway
There is no shuttle. You will need to drive 10 minutes from the visitor’s centre. Once you get in the tram you will see rocks and rocks and then up to amazing views. Dress to expect a little snow if you travel between October and March. It’s amazing to go from eighty degrees at the bottom to ski-ville at the top but not quite the weather for bare legs, pumps and a thin jacket as Petra found out.
Palm Springs Art Museum
Founded in 1933, the museum hosts special exhibits and houses work from its permanent collection focusing on international Modern and Contemporary painting and sculpture by artists such as Henry Moore, Barbara Hepworth, Robert Motherwell, Helen Frankenthaler, Duane Hanson, John Chamberlin, Anselm Keifer, and Anthony Gormley. It includes works by historically significant west coast artists Sam Francis, Robert Arneson, Nathan Oliveira, Mark di Suvero, and Edward Ruscha, among others, as well as contemporary Native American artists. The modern building, designed by the Californian architect E. Stewart Williams is newly renovated. Treats for architecture lovers include the Albert Frey Archive and Frey House II, the E. Stewart Williams Architecture Archive, and a drawings collection, including works by prominent architects Richard Neutra, Frank Gehry, and Daniel Libeskind.
Palm Springs International Film Festival
Make like a vintage Hollywood star in an outfit plucked from the rails at Deja Vu, at this stunning event held in the first two weeks of January. One of the largest film festivals you can buy into in North America. Enjoy the star-studded black tie gala by purchasing tickets here.
- A Crime to Miss
Joshua Tree National Park
Close by Hotel Lautner is the incredible Joshua Tree National Park full of crazy cactuses and trees you have never seen the like of. Feel like a cowboy or girl as you trek around the park with its mini rocky mountains and desert wildlife. Watch out for snakes which you may also spot draped around the odd local from Joshua tree itself who seem to get a kick out of scaring the tourists. Better than being stuck in front of the TV we suppose.