Here in the Vista Las Palmas district of Palm Springs, the only sound comes from the hissing of irrigation systems behind high walls. Garden lawns in this part of the Californian desert are a vigorous shade of green. There are few people about — possibly because there are few pavements. But turn a corner and at 1177 North Vista Vespero, a chattering queue has formed in the afternoon heat, outside a sleek, white house with a front door painted Pacific-ocean blue.
“Oh look at that roof!” says one visitor to her companion, pointing to its elegant tilt. “It’s Krisel, you know. He was the master.”
They have come to join a house tour — long sold out — of Maison Bleue Moderne, a 1950s home by William Krisel, one of a generation of “desert modernists” who specialised in the postwar architectural glamour this town epitomises. Krisel was also responsible for the so-called House of Tomorrow across town, where Elvis and Priscilla honeymooned in 1967.
Maison Bleue, with its poolside view of the San Jacinto Mountains, is even more dazzling. We are free to wander around, though volunteer guides are on hand. The decor has recently been updated with a candy-coloured interpretation of 1950s chic by local interior designer Michelle Boudreau. In Boudreau’s words, the visitors come in search of “a piece of that design paradise”. Promotional brochures for everything from the poolside furniture to the paint manufacturers are scattered around for our perusal.
Stepping out on to the sun-drenched terrace, the visitor cannot help herself: “Oh, imagine the FUN we could have here!”
Welcome to Palm Springs Modernism Week, the biggest mid-century design and architecture festival in the world, according to the organisers. This 11-day extravaganza is held every spring with nearly 400 events including tours, lectures, book signings, exhibitions, sales — and especially parties.
About 150,000 Modernism enthusiasts are expected to land in town — population just under 50,000 — over the course of the festival. “This year will be almost as if the pandemic didn’t happen,” says Lisa Vossler Smith, its executive director.
What started in 2006 as a handful of tours and talks to coincide with an annual design expo has grown into big business. The festival generated about $61mn in 2020 for the local economy, with visitors from all 50 states, and about 25 countries. Many are escaping the Midwest winter in search of a dose of decadence. Eight architectural bus tours depart full from the main campus every day. There is plenty to see, with hundreds of modernist buildings of all kinds: residential, civic, commercial, and in every style from art deco to kitschy atomic to sleek high-modern to brutalist.
Many visitors wander between tours and lectures wearing fancy dress: the pavements are a parade of 1950s couture, 1960s Pucci-print minidresses and white gogo boots. Everyone is determined to indulge in the pleasures of this very optimistic, very Californian expression of the mid-century aesthetic. Palm Springs, a two to three-hour drive from Los Angeles (depending on traffic and desert storms), was favoured by Hollywood stars for their extravagant holiday homes, and much of its building was driven by the expansion of the film and consumer industries. Bob Hope and Frank Sinatra owned extraordinary modernist houses here. Department-store mogul Edgar J Kaufmann ordered a sublime piece of high-modernist real estate from the Austrian-American architect Richard Neutra as early as 1946.
After a scaled-down online programme in 2021, Modernism Week organisers have returned this year with their biggest-ever schedule. Hot tickets include an opening-night red-carpet party; a tour of the sprawling Sunnylands, the 1966 mansion designed by A. Quincy Jones, now run by the Annenberg Foundation as a place for world leaders to “discuss matters of international importance”; a cocktail party at Sinatra’s Twin Palms estate, and a keynote lecture by world-renowned architect Jeanne Gang.
The founding principal of Studio Gang and architect of the St Regis tower in Chicago — the world’s tallest designed by a woman — is here to give a talk at the Art Museum on the relevance of mid-century modernist principles to her 21st-century practice. Why did she want to come? “Just to have this much enthusiasm about architecture — I get real energy from that,” says Gang, at a reception in her honour in the museum’s concrete courtyard.
Over at the Hyatt hotel lecture theatre, a self-described “architecture fan girl” is waiting for a presentation on Alfred Hitchcock’s “architectural infatuations” to begin. “I love it all,” she tells me, shouting to be heard above the crowd in a standing-room-only event. She has flown in from Chicago and booked her trip nine months ago. “Though of course, the very best things are the house tours.”
More than 250 private homes like Maison Bleue are open to the public. “In the purists’ homes everything is highly detailed. Then you have people who have done it on a low budget, and bring in different kinds of design,” says Vossler Smith, who spends much of her year persuading Palm Springs residents to open their doors for Modernism Week. “That’s why the home tours are so intriguing: seeing how people really live in a modernist structure.”
It can all feel overwhelming. The social media team tells me their aim is to “generate a sense of Fomo [fear of missing out]”, so visitors are more likely to come back.
Behind the glamour is a not-for-profit endeavour. Modernism Week is a charitable organisation dependent on ticket sales and sponsorship for income. That money goes back into running costs, college scholarships to architecture and design students and grants to local preservation organisations. More than $200,000 has been awarded to date.
How did it all get so big so quickly? Just seven years ago, Modernism Week laid on only half the number of events and attracted just under 60,000 visitors.
Vossler Smith is catching a quick break in the gardens of the brutalist Hyatt hotel, where a crowd is pogoing to The Dreamboats, a local rock and roll revival band, as they hammer through a rendition of “Misirlou”.
“About eight years ago, we decided we could only grow if we increased ticket capacity,” she shouts over the twanging. “So we started going from two bus tours a day to eight, and from two house tours a day to 11. We started repeating the repeatable things — and as our attendance grew, so did sponsorship.”
Today, more than 70 corporate sponsors include hotel chains, news outlets, interior-design suppliers — and of course estate agents. “The realtors are thrilled because the visitors are all looking at open houses,” says Vossler Smith. “Palm Springs home sales are always huge the month after Modernism Week, because they get home and they just decide they’re going to move, they’re going to do it.”
One of her biggest worries is the (very low) risk of a California downpour: “Our events are rain or shine, and it becomes a muddy mess in the desert when people are traipsing through your home. We have to provide booties.”
Over at the Palm Springs Convention Center, a mid-century art and design fair is in full swing. Between a Memphis Group floor lamp and a pair of John Dickinson plastic tables, a group of visitors is admiring a very phallic scarlet armchair: an original Up, by Italian designer Gaetano Pesce and made in 1969.
It is identical to the chair that Sean Connery lolls about on in Diamonds Are Forever, in a scene shot at the John Lautner-designed Elrod House here in Palm Springs. A tag reveals the chair to be up for auction in March, with a guide price of $2,000-$3,000.
“This is a very successful show,” says Todd Schireson, vice-president of Abell Auction of Los Angeles. “It matters because people from all over come to see curated booths.”
On the other side of the hall, Peter Moruzzi, historian, author and founding president of the local heritage and preservation organisation Palm Springs Modern Committee, sits in front of a display charting the city’s modernist buildings saved and lost.
The committee, which is separate from but works with Modernism Week, has more than 400 members. Today, Moruzzi is here to sign up more.
“Modernism has become Palm Springs’ brand — but that sure wasn’t the case in the ’90s,” he tells me.
All this enthusiasm, says Moruzzi, started with a gas station — the striking Tramway by architects Albert Frey and Robson Chambers, completed in 1965, and now the town’s visitor centre.
Frey was born in Switzerland and briefly, in the 1920s, worked for Le Corbusier in Paris. He was one of the earliest desert modernists, arriving in the 1930s, and had already established himself in town with the Cree House in 1955, partly clad in yellow fibreglass, and the canopied City Hall in 1952. Tramway, an ambitious structure, marked the entrance to Palm Springs, where the road into town joins Highway 111 to Los Angeles.
Moruzzi describes how, by the mid-1990s, the gas station was derelict and the owner planned to demolish it to build a Spanish-revival style sales house for a new housing development. A group of mid-century architectural preservationists, including Moruzzi, put pressure on the owner and the town authorities to stop demolition.
“It was very controversial. Modernism wasn’t fashionable at all. If anything, they were embarrassed about their Modernism in Palm Springs at that time,” he says. “We realised, oh my god, there’s this wealth of mid-century architecture that is not only being neglected, it is starting to be torn down.”
The group saved Tramway and went on to save Frey’s 1955 Fire Station No 1 and 1959 North Shore Yacht Club, with preservation campaigns.
But not every effort was successful. In 2002, Maslon House, an elegant villa designed by Neutra in 1962 in the Rancho Mirage district, was demolished — to a national outcry.
“That was our biggest loss in terms of architectural significance,” says Moruzzi. “The only good that came out of it was that we worked really hard to get publicity about its demolition. And Rancho Mirage started designating local buildings as landmarks. They probably never would have done that had it not been for the embarrassment of allowing that demolition to happen.”
Today, in between the cocktail masterclasses and vintage car shows, a lecture on the lost, saved and endangered buildings of Palm Springs is one of the week’s most popular events.
But there is a challenge for Modernism Week. It is boomer-centric, and heavily geared towards nostalgia (most visitors are aged between 45 and 65).
Most are old enough to remember the mid-20th century. But in future, how will Modernism Week stay relevant to a generation who will neither remember the mid-20th century, nor care about where Marilyn Monroe played tennis or where Elvis spent his honeymoon?
Vossler Smith concedes it is a challenge, but she does have a strategy — and it involves attracting younger, affluent homeowners looking for “a flavour of Modernism”.
“Today’s interior designers and architects bring a younger audience with them,” she says. “Interior designers especially have a following and attract a broader audience not necessarily visiting for the festival.”
The trick, she says, is to have those designers and architects participate in talks and panels. “We are not always for the purist.”
Modernism Week runs every February, modernismweek.com; a “fall preview” week runs October 13-16, 2022, visitpalmsprings.com
Helen Barrett was a guest of Visit Greater Palm Springs
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