Separating the design world from Palm Springs requires far more than an oversized crowbar. During the fifties and Sixties, this desert oasis favored by celebrities captured the imagination of avant-garde artists. Creativity is still endemic in this relatively small outskirt of So Cal. Rather than dismiss this phenomenon; Modernism Week now embraces the unbridled enthusiasm from an era that gave rise to atomic power, space travel, and spectacular tail fins on cars.
Midcentury modern design reflects the materials and design ethos of the time. The architecture from the period is the primary touchstone that enshrines this era. While the Coachella Valley feels like home to midcentury modern design, this slice of America is not only baked into Palm Springs but also the entire country.
Long gone are the heady days when Palm Springs, Rancho Mirage, and Palm Desert could cash-in on roaming packs of teenagers and twenty-something-year old students blowing their college savings on spring break. Prior to Indio becoming the home to Coachella music festival and Stagecoach, Palm Springs was in need of a draw. Modernism Week, as the name implies, emerged as a week-long celebration that ran through Valentine’s Day, and attracted older and less rowdy tourists than the G-string clad spring break crowd.
Palm Springs and Valentine’s Day became a perfect draw, and Modernism Week was the perfect excuse to head out to the accommodating climate and tour the homes, furniture, and countless exhibits. Each year Modernism Week stepped up its game, and the public responded favorably. In fact, the February celebration is so popular that hotel rooms are hard to find, and the place is packed.
The organizers are doing the only thing that makes sense, offering another calendar date for what’s now labeled as the Fall Preview during the month of October. As expected, this smaller, scaled down, four-day, bite-sized opportunity is just as tasty… and easier to digest.
The 2017 Modernism Week Fall Preview is filled to the gills with events that capture a period of time that are 60 or so years behind us. Our sampler plate includes exhibiting art dealers in the convention center, the Framed Spaces Home Tour, and the Cul-de-Sac Experience. Numerous other options are available and spread out over the desert floor. And, with a Jaguar F-Type 400 Sport at our disposal, anything would seem possible. As much as the coupe fits our tales of adventure, we’ll save the Jaguar escapades for another story.
Details matter. Our first day trekking through the Show And Sale in the convention center provides a clear view of the Modernism movement, from the inside-out. It’s all the effects that create an aura of 1950-60. Be it the furnishings that would be right at home in Mad Men, or the little things like ash trays and highball glassware, all of this is what the designers hone in on. Each piece tells us what Americans found important and colorful. These are also time capsules that show what materials and technology had to offer at that point in time, and each has a story to tell.
Modernism isn’t for everyone. And, I wouldn’t instantly think that this fits the rock and roll lifestyle, yet I nearly run right into Palm Springs resident and superstar drummer Matt Sorum, who like many is just as engrossed in the incredible display. Matt and his wife dispel any preconceived notion of what a midcentury modern fan is.
40 premier national and international decorative and fine arts dealers displaying at the Show And Sale provide enough eye-candy for several hours without becoming overwhelming. Also, escaping the heat of the midday sun inside the chilled convention center isn’t a bad idea. This is win-win Palms Springs style.
Modernism Week’s Framed Spaces
On day two, the Framed Spaces Home Tour kicks-off, which is sort of like a self-guided scavenger hunt for adults. Maps are provided to the homes on display, and then tourists are unleashed to visit whichever homes tickle their fancy. And, much like a scavenger hunt, you never know what you’ll really find. In this case, we hit on buried treasure.
The West Elm home (named for the interior design firm, not the street) showcases a complete renovation of a typical home from that era, complete with pool and fire pit. It’s hard to not feel the period with the spot-on 60s decade tidbits. But, this house wasn’t about creating an exact reproduction, but provides the sensation of the time when Frank Sinatra was king. This enables the team at West Elm to keep what works, and ditch the elements that no longer cut it. The end result is pleasing to all aside from the hardcore purists.
The second is also from the same period, but substantially more dramatic. Set on the hills of what’s known as Old Tuscany, this has the retro-cool, James Bond-feel that’s hard to duplicate. The stone, high ceilings, wall of glass, and a view to kill for; this embraces much of the midcentury modern style. Without a doubt, this house stands proudly on its own merits. However, the room filled with images of industrial design legend Raymond Loewy’s artwork turns this house into a shrine.
Now, the cherry on top of this sundae just happened to be a couple Raymond Loewy designs, an Avanti and a Studebaker, taking up graceful positions on the driveway. This completes the picture. This is quintessential midcentury modernism.
Before the day drew to a close, our Framed Spaces tour took us to another hillside residence that was of this century, but the MCM influence was clearly evident from the clean and open architecture, along with the concrete and glass. It’s obvious that the sensibilities from six decades ago can still resonate loudly today.
Modernism Week’s Cul-de-Sac Experience
The Framed Spaces Home Tour is a wonderful adventure that would certainly be hard to top. But, the Cul-de-Sac Experience is certainly in the same league. Within one dead-end street in South Palm Springs lies half-dozen William Krisel designed homes of the Canyon View Estates, almost all open for visitation, and all represent the era perfectly. Initially, these homes were designed to be very affordable in their day. So, the walls are cinderblock, and the square footage and yard space is far less than the others we saw the day before.
While each has their own interior décor that is reminiscent of the 60s, it’s what we find in the driveways that turn us on. The well preserved exterior surroundings of these homes offers the ultimate excuse to have a car or two that equally matches the surroundings. The planners for the Cul-de-Sac Experience nailed it. Each make and model completed the picture. With the timeless mountains and palm trees providing a border, our vision of the desert lifestyle is fulfilled. The big Detroit iron seems right at home under an expansive blue sky and vast desert roadway. In spite of the visual stimuli, one could imagine the lack of modern A/C in cars made the 50s and 60s a hot, sticky period in Palm Springs.
The Modernism Week Fall Preview is still a hidden gem. But, like everything else in this day and age, it’s only a matter of time before this becomes the next place to be.
Article and images by John Grafman
Modernism Week, a 501 (c) 3 non-profit organization also helps various local organizations raise funds for charities that focus on the needs of children in the Coachella Valley, and further support their efforts to preserve and promote modernism architecture throughout the community. Information on the 2018 Modernism Week Fall Preview can be found at www.modernismweek.com.