Palm Springs is officially hip once more, as a new troupe of design enthusiasts rediscover its mid-century architecture. Zoey Goto headed over to California’s desert outpost for the Modernism Week Preview, to soak up its sunshine and vintage vibes.
Cruising through the bone-dry desert into Palm Springs, you know you’ve arrived somewhere special when you spot the KFC. With an elegant palm tree growing right through its futuristic roof, this fast-food joint is a thing of breathtaking beauty. Keep driving through this quirky city and you’ll soon discover that Palm Springs simply refuses to do bad buildings; whether it’s the high-impact housing of the rich and famous, or the mundane everyday buildings of finger-lickin’ drive-throughs, gas stations, banks or sci-fi-tastic convenience stores, everywhere you look the eye is tantalised.
This is a city that evokes Hollywood’s Golden Era, when Palm Springs became a playground for movie stars when the studios decided they wanted their artists within a two-hour radius of the set at all times. 100 miles to the east of LA and deep in the heart of the desert, it offered A-listers the perfect retreat for privacy and relaxation. Elvis honeymooned here in the radical ‘House of Tomorrow’, JFK fell for Marilyn in this palm-tree-lined paradise, and The Rat Pack crooned and clinked martinis in the historic Racquet Club District.
But in the ’80s and ’90s, Palm Springs’ star faded and “you couldn’t give these homes away” laughs Marty Danielson, a 78-year-old resident who has opened up his stunning mid-century home for visitors as part of the Modernism Week Preview.
“There were streets of modernist homes boarded up. It was like a ghost town,” he recalls, as a steady stream of curious visitors amble through his perfectly preserved 1959 abode, past the original Eames chairs and stainless steel chandeliers.
30 years and the advent of Instagram later, this wealth of monumental design is now being celebrated twice annually, with the 11-day Modernism Week festival in February and its condensed 4-day preview in October.
The main event attracts over 150,000 sun-seeking design enthusiasts, with a jam-packed schedule of talks, parties, vintage sales, film screenings and open-house tours.
The overall tone of the festival is fun and accessible, aiming to appeal to anyone with an interest in vintage culture, rather than just catering for architecture aficionados.
Its mini-me fall preview is also starting to carve out its own niche, with exclusive events such as the time-capsule Cul-de-Sac happening, where you can peek inside perfectly preserved mid-century homes, watch go-go dancers shake their thing on platforms out in the front yard and admire the classic cars parked in each immaculate driveway.
Like many of the Palm Springs homes, Marty’s is in the Desert Modernism style. This branch of mid-century architecture was influenced by the German Bauhaus but adapted to the sunny climes of California, with clean simple lines, flat roofs, living spaces that seamlessly merge indoor and outdoor, and an attempt to reflect the dramatic mountains surrounding Palm Springs.
Starchitects such as Albert Frey, William F. Cody and Donald Wexler, along with the Alexander Construction Company who built vast estates of modernist houses between 1955 and 1965, attempted to create something far more ambitious than just housing; instead offering the dawn of a new American lifestyle, with an emphasis on leisure time and cocktail hour out by the pool.
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As luck would have it, when the city fell out of fashion it became its saving grace, as vast tracts of modernist homes were saved from demolition – not because they were particularly valued at the time, but because they were rarely thought about second homes.
Palm Springs managed to preserve the highest concentration of mid-century homes in the world, and residents such as Marty, a former lecturer at Parsons School of Design in New York, have migrated to the city bringing a renewed energy and appreciation for the mid-century way of life. “I wake up every morning and think I’m so glad I live here, with all of this beautiful design and weather” he smiles, gesturing out towards the succulent-lined backyard, with its turquoise pool and private views of the San Jacinto Mountains.
Along with the manicured hand of gentrification, the make up of the city has also shifted in recent years. Modern day Palm Springs now boasts a thriving LGBTQ+ community, with an estimated 55% of its residents identifying as non-hetero, and hosts year-round events such as the hedonistic White Party weekend, plus the world’s largest lesbian festival, The Dinah.
In the winter months, with temperatures still hovering in the early-twenties, Palm Springs attracts snowbird retirees migrating from the northern states to bask in the 350 days of glorious sunshine.
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There’s also been a recent influx of millennials, who have discovered the city via the nearby Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival, and from overnighters at hipster hotels such as The Ace or the Jonathan Adler designed Parker Palm Springs, with its Insta-worthy lobby filled with pop art. A love of good design, good weather and good times permeates the city.
On the final day of my visit I take a walking tour, organised by the Palm Springs Historical Society as part of the Modernism Week Preview. As we gossip with the tour guide Kathy about Zsa Zsa Gábor’s extreme frugality and swing by the Rat Pack haunt Melvyn’s restaurant, where you can still get Ol Blue Eyes’ favourite dish of Steak Diane, I feel as if I’ve entered a seductive time warp.
Brexit, climate change, the outside world; it all just melts away. Palm Springs graciously offers up complete escapism, inviting you into its glamorised take on a bygone era – an irresistible dose of hazy, gorgeous, technicolor nostalgia.
What Not To Miss at February’s Modernism Week
Mod With A Twist
An evening of pithy talks, set around a swimming pool in a mid-century mod complex. Subjects include Mid-century Cosplay, The Real Mad Men, and Hairspray Madness: Connecting Architecture and Hairstyles.
Premier Double Decker Architectural Bus Tours
Get a bird’s eye view of Palm Springs’ stylish celebrity homes, whilst brushing up on your mid-century architecture knowledge.
Frank Sinatra House Tour
Step over the threshold of Sinatra’s famous Twin Palms Estate, designed by modernist architect E. Stewart Williams in 1947. This phenomenal house combines cracking mid-century design with Hollywood lore, which is what Palm Springs is all about.
Tickets to Modernism Week can be booked here.
The Best Hotels For Design Lovers
Budget: Caliente Tropics Resort
First opened in 1964, this Polynesian-themed resort offers kitsch by the bucket-load, with a bamboo reef bar and tiki style guest rooms.
Mid-range: Ace Hotel & Swim Club
This laid-back resort was originally a mid-century motel and Denny’s Diner, and the redesign takes its retro heritage into account.
High-end: L’Horizon Resort & Spa
Originally created in 1952 by renowned architect William F. Cody, the hotel is now frequented by the likes of fashion designer Tom Ford and has been voted one of America’s top hotels.
Find further information on Palm Springs at Visit Palm Springs.
Words by Zoey Goto