On the opening evening of February’s Modernism Week in Palm Springs, a pop-up cocktail lounge curated by Christopher Kennedy (“one of the nation’s freshest voices in home furnishings and interior design”) drew people to the lobby of the Saguaro Hotel.
Guys in throwback bowling shirts and women in capri pants mingled and sipped sangria as Kennedy himself wove through the crowd, making small talk. Not far away, the hotel displayed dioramas of Southern California’s pool party culture, with Barbie and Ken dolls dressed in swimming suits set against iconic photographs of poolside frolic.
Someone wondered whether the furniture used for the impromptu lounge, meant to spread the wealth of this popular event around the city, was part of Kennedy’s exclusive collection. It was not. There was some fear that the inevitable crush of young hipsters from Los Angeles for the winter weekend poolside dance-a-thons might ruin the upholstery.
It was my first SoCal moment. The only thing missing was Joan Didion taking notes in a dark corner.
I have been to Palm Springs several times, drawn by the guaranteed exceptional weather in February and March, by the stunning mountain that seems to soar straight out of the city’s small center and for the stark, magical scenery and incredible hiking.
This was my first visit during Modernism Week, when old fogies mix with millennials in porkpie hats to attend lectures, documentaries, parties and tours by bus, bike and foot of Palm Springs’ internationally acclaimed modernism architecture. The zeal for modernism has grown exponentially, fueled in part by the retro style brought back by the television show “Mad Men.”
Some visitors are architects or students, while others, like me, wouldn’t know a brise-soleil if it fell on them. After living a decade in a Victorian home, then moving into a condo, I came to appreciate the clean, simple lines of modernism, and the lifestyle it suggests.
In 2015, 59,000 visitors attended the 11-day event, 30 percent more than in 2014. Named one of the top tourism events in the Coachella Valley by the Desert Sun newspaper, Modernism Week brought in an estimated $22 million in revenue for local businesses this year.
My wife and I spent the whole of Modernism Week in Palm Springs. During the event, it’s much more fun, with lots of buzz on the streets. It’s much harder, but not impossible, to get into good restaurants. It’s much more expensive, with some hotels almost doubling their rates.
It also raised the question: How many times can you tolerate hearing “bringing the outside in” and “form follows function” while on vacation?
‘The place to be’
Modernism Week continues to grow, and now offers a dizzying number of events. Want to hear a roundtable by the elegant ladies captured poolside at the “Desert House” in the famous 1970 Slim Aarons photo? Or toast to architect Albert Frey at the North Shore Beach & Yacht Club? Maybe a film on the works of William Cody?
We started with one of the scores of double-decker-bus tours of significant and famous homes around Palm Springs (hat, lotion and water are mandatory, or the sun will show you its own version of Brutalism), this one given by local architect Jim Harlan.
Back in the day, sick people came to Palm Springs to recuperate in the sunshine and dry heat, Harlan explained. Then the rich and famous of Hollywood began to arrive, spawning luxury homes and golf courses. “Wealthy people were easier to deal with than tuberculosis patients,” Harlan said. “Like Aspen, Palm Springs was the place to be.”
Passing through an area once called the Financial District, with its homes from the city’s heyday of the 1940s to 1960s, Harlan proclaims, “this is all world-class.”
Indeed, while many cities have areas of modern architecture, Palm Springs is a living museum of the style, with block after block of elegant gems that date from the 1920s to the 1960s.
Downtown, we pass the Merrill Lynch Building, a clean geometric marvel set against the slant of the mountains that soar skyward a few blocks away. The building is one of many credited to the genius of Donald Wexler, a graduate of the University of Minnesota School of Architecture, one of the more formative Palm Springs architects. Many of the Modernism Week attractions revolved around Wexler and his landmark work.
“People study the influence of Wexler homes on ‘Mad Men’ outfits,” said Harlan. (I had planned to visit with Wexler during our trip, but he fell ill and graciously postponed. Wexler died in June at the age of 89.)
The bus wove through the glamorous Tennis Club neighborhood, the oldest in Palm Springs, at the foot of the mountains. “This is the last gasp of old Palm Springs,” said Harlan. We passed the Viceroy Hotel, “where the hipsters stay for $400 a night.”
“Palm Springs is back on the upswing,” said Harlan. “Young people have discovered it.”
Ah, the hipsters. Younger Hollywood stars have recently moved to the city, bringing a new sense of life, as well as soaring real estate prices.
As we approach one sprawling complex, Harlan said that the home, formerly owned by Dinah Shore, presents “an excellent sense of arrival.”
Now it does so for Leonardo DiCaprio, who bought it in 2014. He rents it out for $4,500 per night. Talk about the Wolf of Wall Street.
The truth is, you have to pretty much be in love with modernism to take in a small fraction of the events. The sheer number can be overwhelming, and dear. A trip to the sprawling Annenberg Estate and Sunnylands Gardens (booked a couple of months in advance) cost $60 per person, but was worth it. The bus trips and numerous tours each cost more, from $35 for walking tours to more than $150 for exclusive parties. I could see a true student of the art form spending hundreds of dollars on events.
But a lot of them are free or cheap, including documentaries, lectures and shows. We spent a couple of hours at the annual Modernism Show and Sale ($20), where you can browse, and buy, everything from Eames furniture to vintage 1960s memorabilia.
The vintage trailer show in a lot nearby was outstanding. Travel trailers were all tricked out in period detail, down to the martini bars and swizzle sticks. One 1960s Airstream drew my eye with its retro designs hiding 2015 features, such as a flat-screen television that magically appeared at the touch of a button.
“I could live in this,” I said.
I checked the price online later that day, and alas, it was already sold.
I went on a couple of historic walks. During the Hollywood stroll, we saw the house where Tony Curtis and Janet Leigh lived while she was shooting “Psycho.” It was a “discreet to the street” approach like many exclusive Palm Springs homes, where the properties are disguised by towering palms or Zen cactus gardens. We learned that one of Curtis’ biggest regrets when the marriage ended was that Leigh got the house. Can’t blame him.
Nearby, a William Cody enclave was “a compound of organic perfection.” The neighborhood was a legendary party place, as famous neighbors got together around the pool. Frank Sinatra used to hoist a large Jack Daniels flag at cocktail hour, drawing neighbors such as Al Jolson, Dinah Shore and George Montgomery.
That’s life in Palm Springs, that’s what all the people say.
When we got burned out from the modernism events, a friend and I took a couple of hikes in Indian Canyon. At night, we sometimes did happy hour at one of the casual/swank restaurants teeming with modernism junkies, then went back to our rented midcentury-modern, Alexander-designed home and played dominoes under the covered porch. In a sense, “bringing the outside in.”
We sipped homemade margaritas from vintage glassware, and it tasted just right. Form, indeed, follows function.