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
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