WRITTEN BY Alejandra Saragoza
Alejandra is the managing editor of California.com. She's a California native based in the Bay Area and enjoys writing about all things food and travel related. Her work can also be seen in Diablo, T…See full bio
With its palm-fringed thoroughfares, striking arid landscape, stylish hotels, and posh restaurants, Palm Springs is synonymous with a desert-chic lifestyle—but it hasn’t always been that way. While it may be hard to believe now, the hot California destination was nothing more than a sleepy village until post–World War II. As the story goes, Frank Sinatra discovered Palm Springs when composer Jimmy Van Heusen flew him to the desert oasis after dinner one night, and before long, Sinatra was hooked. He built a house there in 1947 and many of his Hollywood-elite friends followed suit, drawing increased attention to the largely unexplored city.
Sinatra’s timing couldn’t have been better. In the late 1940s, a number of notable architects—many of whom had designed Southern California’s best-known estates—began to transform the town in the Sonoran Desert into a glitzy retreat for the rich and famous. For the next two decades, visionaries such as William Krisel, Donald Wexler, E. Stewart Williams, and Albert Frey constructed hundreds of Palm Spring buildings bearing the hallmarks of their “desert-modern” aesthetic: clean lines, flat roofs, walls of windows, and indoor-outdoor living spaces.
Thanks to a renewed interest in mid-century modern design—as well as coveted events such as the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival and the Palm Springs International Film Festival—the region has maintained its popularity over the years and experienced a continuous influx of tourism. Much like their Old Hollywood counterparts, today’s visitors escape to Palm Springs to relax, indulge in excellent food and drinks, and marvel at the array of spectacular modern architecture. While the renewed development is evident given all the glamorous golf courses and exclusive, high-end housing communities popping up, many of Sinatra’s classic haunts still remain—making Palm Springs a veritable visitors’ paradise year-round.
But February is an ideal time to descend upon the desert, because you won’t want to miss out on the bucket-list event of the month: Palm Springs Modernism Week—an 11-day celebration of mid-century architecture, interior design, landscaping, and vintage culture—happening February 13 through 23 this year. The extravaganza features 350-plus events, ranging from neighborhood tours (via bus, bike, or foot), art exhibitions, and swanky parties to film screenings, lectures, and of course, exclusive access to a dazzling array of private residences that exemplify Southern California’s desert-modern aesthetic.
“Mid-century modern architecture in Palm Springs fully embraces the idea that our backyards are simply an outdoor room extension of the house; the unique combination of indoor-outdoor living is California at its best,” says Modernism Week Executive Director Lisa Vossler Smith. “Modernism Week provides a unique opportunity for participants to celebrate the mid-century modern lifestyle.”
Last year, the internationally acclaimed event welcomed more than 152,000 attendees from all 50 states and 14 countries, generating an estimated $57 million for hotels, shops, restaurants, and other local businesses from Palm Springs to Indian Wells and beyond. Much of the same—if not more—is expected for Modernism Week 2020. The 15th annual celebration will focus on landscape design and outdoor living, reiterating the California home decor trend of creating spaces that complement and capitalize on the surrounding environment.
“Modernism Week’s popular Landscape Design and Outdoor Living series offers exceptional insights into indoor-meets-outdoor living,” says Paul Ortega, Landscape and Outdoor Living Captain. “All of our events bring together ideas, talent, research and practical advice for people who want to know more about authentic California desert living.”
It all kicks off with an opening-night bash on February 13: Space Modyssey 2020, where partygoers can celebrate 15 years of Modernism Week in space-inspired style. The Palm Springs Air Museum will transform into a futuristic space station, complete with intergalactic beverages, atomic cuisine, and live tunes by a David Bowie tribute performer.
But the biggest party of Modernism Week takes place the following evening. Held at the Palm Springs Convention Center, the Palm Springs Modernism Show & Sale Preview Party features 85 premier national and international dealers offering handmade furniture, jewelry, decorative and fine arts, and home-decor objects—plus live entertainment, hors d'oeuvres, and celebratory drinks. The impressive range of original, high-quality pieces on offer make this Modernism Week’s best-attended event, which is a must-see for visitors who want to bring the desert-modern aesthetic home with them.
The fun continues over the following days, with other popular events including tours of architecturally iconic properties that are rarely open to the public, such as the Gillman Residence. Designed by renowned architect Herbert Burns, this newly restored architectural gem reflects the natural beauty of the region and captures the indoor-outdoor California lifestyle. The 1948 home seamlessly blends into its surroundings, featuring a color palette that mimics the hues of the desert, wood and sandstone accents, and floor-to-ceiling windows.
Also not to be missed are the new featured homes at Modernism Week. Spectacular renovations or re-creations of modernist residences, these properties—referred to as Mesa Modern, Guggenheim House, and Divine Du Bois—are outfitted with vintage and new period furnishings by interior-design dynamos. Particularly stunning is the Miles Bates “Wave” House; designed by the local-born legend Walter S. White, the 1955 property is known for its curving roof that mirrors the San Jacinto Mountains towering behind it and is being opened publicly for the first time since its remarkable restoration. It was one of 40-plus houses in and around Palm Desert designed by White and recently became the first Palm Desert landmark to be listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Two residences by the famed architect Albert Frey will be on view, too: the Frey House II and the Cree House, also known as “the forgotten Frey,” which outsiders can only access during Modernism Week.
Other new events for Modernism Week 2020 include:
Of course, Palm Springs Modernism Week 2020 also includes the fan-favorite tours of historically star-studded neighborhoods, as well as showings of Sinatra’s Twin Palms estate and behind-the-scenes glimpses into Indian Wells’ most iconic and exclusive country club.
Modernism Week aficionados will be pleased to see that the beloved annual events are returning this year—and many will feature new enhancements, including the Premier Double-Decker Architectural Bus Tours, Illuminated Modern (an after-dark architectural lighting display in downtown and sunset architectural bus tours), Modern Garden Tour, and Ask a Landscape Designer.
The 11-day festival provides enough variety to appeal to first-time attendees and repeat visitors with diverse interests. “I love that the mid-century modern design aesthetic continues to resonate with people,” Vossler Smith says. “It not only appeals to people who grew up in that era, but also to younger generations. Good design is timeless. Modern and minimalist designs have an enduring high style and association with luxury, even though they are often modest.”
No matter which events you want to attend, don’t hesitate to grab your Modernism Week tickets; the most popular parties and tours sell out quickly. Make a trip out of the celebration, and spend a few days soaking up the laid-back ambience and enjoying the attractions of Palm Springs.
“As the world becomes more fast-paced and hectic, I think we long for a simpler, more carefree time,” Vossler Smith says. “Life in Palm Springs is like one long weekend, so why not enjoy the life of leisure? Modernism Week certainly provides that—and much more.”
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