Cool, iconic, modern—that’s the collective theme of Palm Springs Modernism Week, but it might as well be the theme for the city of Palm Springs. Thanks to its desert landscape with dramatic mountains and its trove of modernist masterpieces, this city doesn’t have to try and be cool; it just is. And now that these pristine buildings are garnering the worldwide attention they deserve, Palm Springs is having its moment.
Mid-February brings back the yearly tradition of Modernism Week. What began as a small local event in 2006 has grown into a large celebration of mid-century modern design, architecture, art, fashion, and culture. The event drew 45,000 attendees last year, and even more visitors are expected in 2015.
The 11-day festival takes place February 12 to 22 and features more than 100 events. There are tours of iconic homes; a world-class lecture and film series; architectural tours via foot, bicycle, or double-decker bus; guided visits to the historic Annenberg Estate at Sunnylands; vintage fashion; classic cars; live music events; garden tours; and much more. If you’ re in the market for a modern treasure, The Modernism Show & Sale features 80 top national and international dealers specializing in the era.
And that’s just during the day. Modernism Week After Dark is a series of special nightly events at stylish hotels, music clubs, and other distinctive venues. Live music, Martini mixers, and cocktail parties are held at swanky spots throughout the week. This year, the lineup features private dinners in famed modern homes curated by celebrity chefs. For tickets and a full listing of the events, visit www.modernismweek.com.
A short modern history
On view during the week is the architectural style known as desert modernism. Defined by clean, simple lines, this design aesthetic flourished in Palm Springs throughout the 1940s, ’50s, and ’60s, when the area became a living laboratory for modernist architects such as Albert Frey, E. Stewart Williams, Donald Wexler, and William F. Cody. These innovators built custom homes inspired by the optimistic spirit of the times, taking cues from the colors, shapes, and materials of the desert. They also lent their talents to creating never-before-seen civic buildings, banks, and churches, many of which are still in use today.
During the late ’50s and early ’60s, the Alexander Construction Company set out to bring affordable modernism to the masses. It began with a test-run of 10 stylish, low-slung homes designed by architect William Krisel, who also collaborated with Dan Palmer. When the homes sold immediately, George Alexander and his crew went to work, constructing more than 2,000 Alexander homes between 1957 and 1966. Among the first houses in town to feature in-ground swimming pools, many even came with palm trees already installed. In high demand today, their A-frame and butterfly-shaped rooflines still look futuristic. While once forgotten and overlooked, the modern buildings of Palm Springs are now admired and appreciated.
Built in 1959, the Seva House was designed by Hugh Kaptur, a Detroit architect who vacationed in Palm Springs and never left.
Staying, dining, and shopping under the sun
With the city’s bright blue skies, dramatic mountain views, and flair for fun, it’s always a good time to visit Palm Springs. Smaller hotels with vintage panache include The Chase (www.chase hotelpalmsprings.com), The Cody (www.casacody.com), and Orbit In (www.orbitin.com). The Saguaro (www.thesaguaro.com) has a great big pool and is awash in eye-popping color. The crown jewel is Parker Palm Springs (www.theparkerpalmsprings.com), where pink-jacketed valets whisk you from your car (hopefully a vintage T-Bird in aqua blue) and welcome you to a wonderful world—with interiors by Jonathan Adler.
As for dining, the desert has some wonderful options. Cheeky’s (www.cheekysps.com) is the morning favorite of those in the know, but lines are long unless you get on the list as the sun comes up. Koffi (www.kofficoffee.com) has a beautiful backyard and always makes a great cup. For a down-home breakfast, Bit Of Country (760-325-5154) will give sustenance to your modern meanderings. At the ever-popular Trio (www.triopalmsprings.com), dinner and drinks are always lively amid the orange-and-white Austin Powers décor. Relative newcomer Workshop (www.workshoppalmsprings.com) occupies a soaring space at the end of a charming alley; the atmosphere is as stylish as the mixed drinks and the menu.
Sunnylands, designed in the ’60s by architect A. Quincy Jones, today serves as a global retreat for the world’s political leaders. During Modernism Week, Sunnylands tours are always a top draw.
Need a cocktail dress or dinner jacket for the evening parties? Housed in an original Albert Frey building, Trina Turk (www.trinaturk.com) has what’s colorful, cool, and Californian. But for something from the actual era, head to The Déjà Vu Room (www.dejavuroom.com). Owner Bill Miller and his right-hand woman, Julissa Perez, are sure to have just the vintage piece you’ll need to not only celebrate modernism, but to look the part, too.
What You Should Know: Visiting Palm Springs is usually a relaxed affair. But during Modernism Week, it’s a whole lot busier and livelier. Plan ahead for dinner reservations at hot tables like Trio and Workshop—and book events early at www.modernismweek.com.
Details: Palm Springs has hotels of all sizes and price points. For a full listing, go to www.visitpalmsprings.com.
Getting There: Virgin America, Delta, United, and American fly from New York-area airports to Palm Springs, but most flights require a stop. The open-air terminal is just two miles from downtown. Ontario Airport is a one-hour drive from town, and Palm Springs is about a two-hour drive from Los Angeles.