October 13, 2017
Travel: A look at Palm Springs Modernism Week
Modernism Week is the best time to check out Palm Springs’ chic style
By Michael Bernard
It started in 2006 as a way to attract a few more hundred people to a big furniture sale. But over the last 12 years Palm Springs Modernism Week has morphed into one of the largest gatherings in the world celebrating “modern” design in everything from architecture and graphics to the Mad Men-style three-martini lunch of the 1950s and ’60s.
Last February, Modernism Week—actually 11 days of events—attracted more than 97,000 people from around the world, including lots of Canadians, who pumped more than $35 million into Palm Springs while attending more than 350 tours, lectures, films, symposia and gala events in this desert oasis.
So what is it about modernism that has the world beating a path to Palm Springs?
“Good is good and good design is enduring,” says Robert Imber, one of the co-founders of Modernism Week, who conducts tours throughout the year. “I think people always respond to the exceptional stellar qualities of good design, regardless of whether it is mid-century modern or contemporary.”
Modernism is characterized by simple, clean lines, a lack of ornamentation, bold colours, including turquoise and gold, and a form closely linked to function. The movement is rooted in the simplicity of the Bauhaus movement in Europe, but got its real boost following the end of the Second World War, with the suburbanization of America and the public’s appetite for new design and materials. Think plastics.
The traditional home with many self-contained rooms was swept aside in favour of “open concept design,” where architects like William F. Cody, Donald Wexler, William Krisel and Albert Frey created flows between living rooms and kitchens, made liberal use of glass, bringing the outside in and, in Palm Springs’ case, centred many a home around a swimming pool, a new status symbol for an upwardly mobile and increasingly affluent middle class.
Bob Bogard, whose public relations firm represents the Modernism Week non-profit organization that stages it every year, says Palm Springs has become the global mecca of Modernism largely by accident.
“In the 1970s and 1980s the local economy tanked here, so that homes that would have been remodeled or torn down in that period were left intact,” he said. “Then, in the 1990s, people began to look at these well-preserved gems, bought them and updated them so that entire neighbourhoods have been revitalized.”
The Vancouver connection
Interestingly, Vancouver has a special link to modernism, which spread up and down the West Coast, inspiring local architects such as Arthur Erickson, Ron Thom, Fred Hollingsworth and Ned Pratt to develop their own versions of the style.
Modernism Week also celebrates other architectural styles, with what it called “A Peak behind the Hedges” tour of homes of late Hollywood celebrities such as Liberace, Mary Martin and magnate Howard Hughes, among others.
Meanwhile, Modernism Week has also spurred growth of dozens of shops along Palm Springs main streets that cater to the public’s yen for everything from multi-coloured glass vases to genuine Eames chairs, one of which will push your credit card well over its limit.
Imber points out that one doesn’t have to necessarily buy into a tour to enjoy a street-view of the modernist architecture; there are maps available for those who want to wander around various neighbourhoods by car or on foot.
What becomes obvious after a few days is that there is much more than golf courses and tennis courts for those willing to explore the possibilities. For instance, a mere 10 minutes from the Palm Springs airport is the Palm Springs Aviation Museum where more than 59 full scale aircraft are housed in 65,000 sq. ft. of space. They range from a still flyable Mustang tactical fighter to the ubiquitous Huey Helicopter made famous during the Vietnam War.
Parents and kids can easily spend a day roaming the 1,000 acres that is the Living Desert. In addition to learning about desert plant life and the aboriginals who used them for everything from food to shelter, visitors can feed carrots to the “tower” of giraffes.
If You Go
Several major airlines fly direct (two hours, 50 minutes) to Palm Springs from Vancouver, Victoria and Kelowna, including WestJet, Air Canada, United, Delta and American. You can sometimes save a few bucks by flying Allegiant Air out of Bellingham, Wash. Driving the 2,226-kilometre trip takes about 22 hours straight, but most people take three days, with stops in Portland and San Jose.
For historic fun: The Willows Historic Palm Springs Inn.
For straight luxury: Ritz Carlton, Rancho Mirage.
For a cheap place to lay your head: Vagabond Inn.
For a romantic setting: La Maison Palm Springs Hotel.
Eating out in Palm Springs is part food, part design and a lot of people watching. A few places to try: Las Casuelas Terraza for good Mexican food and a convenient downtown location; Norma’s for brunch and the best patio dining; Rooster and The Pig for modern Vietnamese; and Counter Reformation for a stylish wine bar with eclectic food from oysters to foie gras.