Palm Springs—Sunny, Sexy, Spectacular
From midcentury Hollywood haven to modernist architectural muse, Phoenix’s trendy California neighbor continues to inspire. We take a look at the places, people and styles that make this desert oasis an enchanting escape any time of the year.
Photography courtesy of Greater Palm Springs Convention & Visitors Bureau
“The architectural IQ in Palm Springs is high,” notes Ron Marshall, board member of the Palm Springs Preservation Foundation. “A lot of people move here just for the architecture. Talk to them, and they’ll rattle off the names of architects, homes and building complexes.” Ask them where to find the best midcentury modern design, and chances are their answer will be their hometown.
The tiny desert destination, located about 100 miles south of Los Angeles, has the largest concentration of midcentury modern architecture in the country, according to the National Register of Historic Places. Phoenix comes in at No. 2. Both cities have attracted visionary architects who created sleek residences and innovative commercial structures that embraced the sunny environment.
In the 1950s and ’60s, Palm Springs became the capital of cool, as Hollywood celebrities, seeking respite from the public eye, turned its stylish dwellings and lush landscapes into their private playground. Frank Sinatra was one of the first to purchase property in Palm Springs. In 1948, Ol’ Blue Eyes commissioned E. Stewart Williams to craft an estate, complete with a piano-shaped pool. A veritable who’s-who of stars followed suit, including fellow Rat Pack members Dean Martin and Sammy Davis Jr., Bob Hope, Bing Crosby, Kirk Douglas, Elizabeth Taylor, Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, Clark Gable and Dinah Shore, among others.
Ordinary folk came, too, settling into neighborhoods designed by Joseph Eichler, Dan Palmer and William Krisel, Donald Wexler and Hugh Kaptur.
In 2006, sensing a growing interest in these unique abodes of yesteryear, landscape architect William Kopelk co-founded a three-day event, known then as Modernism Weekend. “We had just six activities and about 300 attendees,” he recalls. “It started with some home tours, because that was the easiest thing to coordinate.”
Over the years, the event quickly grew into an 11-day international celebration jam-packed with tours, seminars, films, car shows and cocktail parties. Now called Modernism Week, the February festival brings in more than 100,000 guests each year who visit many of the aforementioned celebrity homes and get rare glimpses inside some architectural masterpieces. Phoenix follows with its own event, Modern Phoenix, in March.
Two mainstays of Modernism Week are the Double Decker Architectural Bus Tour and the Retro Martini Party. “The bus tour offers an interesting overview of Palm Springs’ architecture,” says Kopelk. “You’re able to see homes from a vantage point that you normally don’t get to have.” During its first few years, between six and 10 bus tours were offered; this past year, 84 were scheduled.
The Retro Martini Party is the signature event for the Preservation Foundation. Held at a home with a strong conservation story and often with a Hollywood name attached to it, it’s an opportunity to break out your midcentury finery and socialize with like-minded aficionados. Tickets to this fashionable fete sell out within hours.
Also popular are the Signature Home Tour, a curated collection of seven exceptional houses, and the neighborhood tours, where groups of neighbors come together and open their homes for viewing.
To keep up with the growing demand, Modernism Week recently began offering a Fall Preview weekend in October. “We like to let people know what we’re working on and remind them to start thinking about planning their spring travel,” explains Kopelk.
More than just house tours, Modernism Week is an opportunity to learn about the designs and people who shaped and continue to shape the American landscape. “We really attempt to make it an educational experience,” says Marshall. “It’s like anything else. The more you understand something, the more you appreciate it. Then you start to recognize the differences between mediocre architecture and good architecture. And Palm Springs is full of really great examples.” (modernismweek.com)
When it comes to clothing, Palm Springs has a look all its own. “Palm Springs style is about vibrant color and optimism with a nod to the vintage fashions of the late 1950s and early 1970s,” says fashion designer Trina Turk, whose chic, breezy creations celebrate the Southern California lifestyle.
The city has been a touchstone for Turk’s designs since her label’s debut in 1995. “When I started my company, I had a clipping of Slim Aaron’s famous ‘Poolside Gossip’ photo pinned to my inspiration board. The idea of ‘cocktails by the pool,’ with a pink desert sunset dropping behind the mountains has inspired many a look.”
For environmental designer and Phoenix Home & Garden Masters of the Southwest award winner Troy Bankord, known for his love of kaleidoscopic pants and eye-popping sport coats, the look is one of nostalgia. “It harks back to the groovy, sexy days of the ’50s and ’60s, when the city was the place to be,” he says. “I want to keep that vibe alive. It’s a lifestyle.”
And for those coming to Palm Springs for the first time, Turk offers this advice: “Wear color, print and pattern, and let your outfit be a conversation starter. If you have something in your closet that you’ve always been hesitant to wear, thinking it might be too bright or bold, now’s your chance. Be the life of the party!”
There are few places in the world where lounging poolside and sipping martinis at noon can be considered worthwhile pursuits. But in Palm Springs, such idle luxury is not only accepted, it’s encouraged. Enhancing the city’s easy-going elan are its many hotels and resorts.
Leading the way is The Parker Palm Springs (theparkerpalmsprings.com), which continues to be the place to see and be seen. Formerly Gene Autry’s Melody Ranch and Merv Griffin’s Givenchy Resort and Spa, the ’50s-era hideaway was reimagined in 2004 by potter, designer and author Jonathan Adler into one of the country’s most Instagrammable attractions. “What I created for The Parker could only be in Palm Springs,” he says. Hedonistic, luxurious and chock-full of color and creativity, the 144-room hotel recalls its mid-mod heyday with a bold look that’s anything but typical. Graphic prints, geometric patterns and eye-catching light fixtures reign supreme, and rooms are filled with an eclectic mix of vintage pieces and the designer’s own creations.
In 2017, Adler returned, giving the hotel a top-to-bottom renovation. “Like any true Californian, it was due for a face-lift,” he says with a smile. Changes are especially notable in the Gene Autry House, a private freestanding structure, which was given new carpets, accessories and furniture indoors and out. “I wanted it to feel like you were arriving at the estate of your favorite glamorous, global great aunt you always wish you had,” Adler notes.
Perhaps the biggest addition, at least in terms of sheer size, is the 7-foot-tall, 900-pound bronze banana sculpture on the lawn. “It’s communicative, evocative, provocative—and well-crafted,” Adler says. “Palm Springs is a place that invites broad, crazy gestures, and there was a patch of grass begging for a focal point as considered as the rest of the property.”
The city’s newest accommodations opened in November 2017. The Kimpton Rowan (rowanpalmsprings.com), located just steps from the Palm Springs Art Museum, is also Palm Springs’ tallest building at seven stories high. Taking inspiration from midcentury design—guests are greeted at check-in by a 16-foot-high macramé owl—the 153-room hotel exudes a sleek California style. Guests can soak up the sun—and the views—while sipping frozen Aperol cocktails at the city’s only rooftop pool.
Midcentury meets 21st-century hip at the 32-room Arrive Hotel (arrivehotels.com). With a nod to the city’s architectural heritage—a butterfly roof runs the entire length of the hotel—and geared toward young, socially conscious travelers, the Arrive speaks to the past without replicating it. There’s no concierge or front desk—guests check in at the bar, and if they need amenities during their stay, they simply text the staff. Stylish furnishings from West Elm and CB2 decorate the rooms and social spaces, and many of the interior and exterior walls are cloaked in the rusted patina of Cor-Ten steel.
For a low-key escape, Sparrows Lodge (sparrowslodge.com) entices guests to kick back and relax at the 1952 property of MGM actor Don Castle. Fully restored in 2013, the 20-room lodge retains its authentic rustic charm, complete with wood-paneled walls, stone accents and open-air bathrooms that feature horse troughs repurposed as tubs. Castle’s original red barn now serves as a dining hall. Guests are invited to kick back among the fruit trees or enjoy an evening glass of wine by the large stone fireplace.
In 2017, the owners of Sparrows Lodge opened Holiday House (holidayhouseps.com), a 28-room boutique accommodation housed in a property designed in 1951 by Herbert Burns. Paying homage to Burns’ original vision, the design features a blue-and-white palette throughout—a cooling respite from the desert sun—and displays an impressive array of art, including works by such legends as Donald Sultan, Gio Ponti, Roy Lichtenstein, Herb Ritts and many more.
4 QUESTIONS FOR JONATHAN ADLER
Prior to 2004, potter, designer and author Jonathan Adler had never visited Palm Springs. Today, he’s an old pro, and his name and design aesthetic have become synonymous with the Southern California town’s look.
Q What was your design vision for The Parker?
A I wanted to create a place that is as singular as Palm Springs itself is, a hotel that captures Palm Springs’ essence—groovy modern architecture meets Hollywood glamour. The vibe throughout is cheeky, hedonistic luxury.
Q How does The Parker embody the soul of Palm Springs?
A It’s a fantastic place in a fantastic city. It hits the right notes of louche luxury, Rat Pack elan and sunshiny vacation. It’s where you want to be when you’re in Palm Springs.
Q What are some of your favorite places in the Palm Springs valley?
A The vintage shopping on Perez Road in Cathedral City is unreal. I always find something at Hedge (hedgepalmsprings.com) that I didn’t know I needed, and Bon Vivant (gmcb.com/shop) has a glassware collection that makes my chakras tingle. It’s magical. For food, I love the new restaurant at The Parker, Counter Reformation (theparkerpalmsprings. com/food-and-drink). It’s small and delicious, just like me. Oh, and Workshop Kitchen + Bar, too (workshoppalmsprings.com).
Q How can I bring the look of Palm Springs into my own home?
A Think groovy, graphic, sun-drenched.
MIDCENTURY MODERN MAN
“When people think back on nostalgic times, they tend to remember the good things, and that’s what I’m trying to do with my paintings. I paint the party, not the hangover,” says artist Josh Agle, better known as Shag (his nom de brousse is a playful blend of the last two letters of his first name and the first two letters of his last).
An icon of the Palm Springs art scene, Shag is renowned for his candy-colored scenes that celebrate all things midcentury modern, from swinging poolside soirees, Rat Pack roués and the cult of the tiki, to, of course, the far-out fashions and trendsetting architecture that abound in the Southern California town. Equal parts “Jetsons,” “Mad Men” and James Bond, the work is informed by commercial illustrations of the ’50s and ’60s—with a soupçon of satire and modern-day sensibilities.
“When I first began doing my own work, it was aspirational. I painted the things I liked and the things I was surrounded by—art I hoped to buy and parties I hoped to go to one day,” says the artist, who got his start as a graphic designer in the record industry. His artwork took off in the mid-’90s after a piece he contributed to an exhibition attracted the attention of collectors and gallerists who wanted more.
In the early 2000s, the Palm Springs Preservation Foundation commissioned Shag to paint a piece featuring local tiki architecture. The image, “Desert Polynesia,” rendered in vivid shades of orange, red and lime, features a group of Hawaiian print-clad tourists on board the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway; a stylized version of the Caliente Tropics hotel looms in the distance. Projects for the Greater Palm Springs Convention and Visitors Bureau soon followed. In 2009, he opened his own gallery, Shag, The Store, on the edge of the city’s famed Old Las Palmas neighborhood.
“Shag’s art captures Palm Springs’ people, style and art. It represents an era of the city that is still as glamorous today as it was when the stars put it on the map,” says CVB vice president Jeff Miraglia.
Many of the environments in his paintings are real places—houses in Palm Springs, where he owns a Donald Wexler-designed retreat, or near his home and studio outside of Los Angeles—filled with quintessential midcentury furnishings. Love an Eames lounge? It’s there. As are classic Noguchi coffee tables, Malm fireplaces and ever-so-groovy Arne Jacobsen Egg chairs.
“The people who were creating the furniture and midcentury modern houses felt like they were improving the world with their designs, that in 10 or 15 years that chair or that home was going to increase the condition of every American,” Shag says of his inspiration. “It’s total optimism in design, and I love that enthusiasm.”
“A lot of the people in my paintings I also know or knew,” he continues. “Now they’ve been turned into archetypes.” There are sophisticated, svelte ladies with beehive hairdos and genteel gents dressed to kill. “And whenever I need a little spot of dark in the foreground, I throw in a cat to balance the composition,” he adds.
The designs are flat, with sharp edges, and the colors—minimalist palettes of purples, yellows, turquoises, greens and oranges—range from the kitschy brights of the 1950s to the earthy hues of the early ’60s. The look is achieved with acrylic paints. Prints are silkscreens, an old-school throwback to the works of such Shag favorites as
Alexander Calder, Andy Warhol and even the attractions posters once displayed at Disneyland.
“There’s a certain whimsical, mysterious element to Shag’s art that is fun and makes people smile when they see it,” says Miraglia. “When people think of Palm Springs, he should be a part of that story. Just as Warhol is a part of the pop culture of our country, Shag is a part of the pop culture of our destination.” (shag.com) —Rebecca L. Rhoades
SHAG’S 4 FAVORITES
FAVORITE ARCHITECT John Lautner. He designed some famous homes in Palm Springs, including the Elrod House and Bob Hope’s residence. He really pushed a lot of boundaries, and his houses kind of look like supervillain lairs.
FAVORITE COCKTAIL Singapore Sling. It’s a powerful gin-based drink, and it’s a lot more tart than sweet.
FAVORITE RAT PACK MEMBER Frank Sinatra. Although I love them all, there’s something about Frank. He was responsible for getting all the celebrities to move to Palm Springs. He built his house there in 1948, and everyone followed him.
FAVORITE THING ABOUT PALM SPRINGS If I have to narrow it down to one thing, I’ll say the architecture. There are a lot of cool getaway places that I like, but Palm Springs is the only one that has a strong emphasis on midcentury vacation architecture.
Midcentury modern architecture is known for a lot of things—swooping butterfly roofs, open floor plans and endless walls of glass. But there’s another design element symbolic of the period that is often overlooked: concrete screen block.
“It was everything the modern movement was about—honesty of materials, functionality, modularity and inexpensiveness,” says Ron Marshall, co-author of “Concrete Screen Block: The Power of Pattern” (Palm Springs Preservation Foundation).
Marshall and his wife, Barbara, spent the past decade researching, identifying and cataloging more than 250 screen block patterns used in Palm Springs and around the world.
The authors wanted to bring a scholarly rigor to the topic, while keeping it fun with stories about its history and uses, a variety of contemporary and vintage photographs, and an identification guide and list of modern-day manufacturers.
“The architects of the era wanted to bring design to the masses, and concrete screen block was a part of that,” Marshall says. “With screen block, you could have the functional tenets of modernism and still have something beautiful.” $45 (pspreservationfoundation.org/journals.html)
While many vacationers travel to Palm Springs to view the unrivaled collection of midcentury architecture, the town and its surrounding region offer plenty of other attractions that blend past with present and design with nature. Here are five you shouldn’t miss.
CABOT’S PUEBLO MUSEUM Located about 20 minutes north of Palm Springs, this Hopi-inspired handmade home of artist Cabot Yerxa is worth the drive. Built beginning in 1941 of reclaimed and found objects, such as telephone poles, wagon parts and dismantled cabins, the 5,000-square-foot adobe house is a four-story jumbled maze of 35 rooms, 150 windows, 65 doors and numerous narrow staircases. Samples of Yerxa’s artwork are seen throughout, while an upper floor contains a well-appointed apartment for his wife, Portia, complete with its own kitchen, balcony, library and bathroom. (cabotsmuseum.org)
MOORTEN BOTANICAL GARDEN Established in 1938 by biologist Patricia and contortionist Chester “Cactus Slim” Moorten, this intimate labor of love remains family-owned and -operated. The Mediterranean-style residence, known as Cactus Castle, features a 0.4-acre garden brimming with more than 3,000 varieties of desert plants from around the world, as well as Native American artifacts, rocks and crystals. The garden also sells plants similar to those on display. (moortenbotanicalgarden.com)
PALM SPRINGS AERIAL TRAMWAY The best way to get a complete overview of the Coachella Valley is from above on the world’s largest rotating tramcar. The 10-minute ride carries visitors more than 2.5 miles—and up 6,000 feet in elevation—to the top of the San Jacinto Mountains. Once there, they’re greeted with dining options, a cocktail lounge, observation deck and more than 50 miles of hiking trails. (pstramway.com)
PALM SPRINGS ART MUSEUM This modern gem features 150,000 square feet filled with contemporary art, glass, furnishings, photography, and Mesoamerican, Native American and Western art. The permanent collection includes works by such masters as Marc Chagall, Andy Warhol, Roy Lichentenstein, Robert Motherwell and Dale Chihuly. In 2014, the museum expanded to include the Architecture and Design Center. Located downtown in a building by E. Stewart William, the center houses exhibitions related to the museum’s exploration of architecture. (psmuseum.org)
SUNNYLANDS Completed in 1966, Sunnylands was the winter retreat of renowned publishers and philanthropists Walter and Leonore Annenberg. Comprising the 25,000-square-foot midcentury modern main house and 9 acres of gardens, the estate is rich in history and design. Guided tours take visitors through the home where the Annenbergs once displayed an impressive collection of paintings, or you can wander the landscape that was designed to reflect the importance of those artworks. (sunnylands.org)
LADY IN YELLOW
Nelda Linsk never imagined that a simple request from a friend would result in an image that would become the embodiment of the Palm Springs’ lifestyle for decades. “It was a February day in 1970, and (society photographer) Slim Aarons called and said, ‘I’m coming to Palm Springs and I want to do some cool shots. Just pull something from your closet and invite some friends over,’” she recalls. The former model chose a bright yellow crop top and palazzo pants, which happened to match the many yellow furnishings and accents on the property. “I thought it was going to be very casual. He didn’t have a makeup artist or a stylist; just his tripod and camera, and that’s it.”
The resulting photograph, “Poolside Gossip,” is such an astounding visual of laid-back glamour—with its mountainous backdrop, sparkling pool and stylish subjects set against architect Richard Neutra’s masterpiece, the Kaufmann House, which Linsk and her husband, Joseph, owned at the time—that it’s long been a source of inspiration. “It shows our casual lifestyle,” she explains. “I think that’s why it’s become so famous. People want to be in that photo.”
In honor of her place in history and for her support of the city, Linsk, a highly regarded real estate professional and humanitarian, was recently awarded a star on the Palm Springs Walk of Stars. “Getting a star was fabulous. I couldn’t believe it,” she says. “And it happened during Modernism Week, which is so cool because I’ve been involved with modernism for a long time.”
A longtime Palm Springs resident, Linsk says she wouldn’t live anywhere else. “You can’t beat our weather,” she says with a laugh. “That and our casual way of life is what makes Palm Springs so special.” —Leah Soto