Desert Modernism Blooms in Palm Springs
BY KATHY A. MCDONALD
Palm Springs has its own galaxy of superstars. These internationally recognized boldfaced names are not typical celebrities, rather architects whose projects embody desert modernism in an impeccable fashion and pair effortlessly with the surrounding environment. John Lautner (Elrod House), Richard Neutra (Kaufmann House), E. Stewart Williams (Frank Sinatra’s 1947-built Twin Palms), William Krisel (Racquet Club Road Estates), and Albert Frey (his Frey House II is owned by the Palm Springs Art Museum) are acclaimed for their midcentury masterworks, which have inspired a decade-long retro revival and influenced a new generation of architects and designers.
Look no further than Palm Springs’ Uptown Design District for an immediate immersion into modernism’s latest incarnation seen in thoughtfully designed eateries. Birba, with seating outdoors, is a steel and concrete Danish style bunker with marble bar, steel accents, and fire pit–lit patio; the pan-Asian diner Jiao’s minimalist décor plays off its long steel counter and metal chairs; and New York–based Soma Architects’ Michel Abboud, took a modernist, design-conscious approach when building out Workshop Kitchen + Bar’s industrial-chic interior.
Opened in September 2012, Workshop’s poured-concrete booths were custom built within the historic El Paseo building. “We left the original space raw and untouched,” explains Abboud. The existing structure—a wood-beamed, barnlike space with 27-foot-high ceilings—contrasted nicely with the contemporary installation, says the architect, who cites the desert modernism of people like John Lautner among his influences.
Hotels, too, that make bold aesthetic statements have popped up in the Coachella Valley like wildflowers after a desert rain. In South Palm Springs, the Ace Hotel fashioned a campy paradise for the tattooed and dog-owning set from a former Howard Johnson. Last year Joie de Vivre Hotels and New York’s Stamberg Aferiat Architecture remade a tired Holiday Inn into the vibrant, rainbow-hued, 245-room Saguaro hotel. The rich, gaudy colors work brilliantly in the desert sunshine. The Curve Palm Springs Hotel, a refashioned Travelodge, launched in November also on Palm Canyon Drive. Cabana daybeds surround the pool and interiors are sleekly updated. Still to come this spring: a remake—described as something between modern and summer camp by owner Douglas Smith—of the rustic El Rancho Lodge into the Sparrows Hotel. Smith was also behind the Mediterranean-glam Korakia Pensione inn.
Palm Springs homebuyers, too, have an affinity for smartly conceived projects. “The old Spanish style isn’t what’s selling; modern architecture is what’s selling,” says real estate agent Paul Kaplan of today’s mind-set. “I’m discovering that the buyer who can’t find a midcentury will buy something new,” advises Kaplan.
“Our demographic [of homebuyers] is very sophisticated and often comes from very affluent markets,” explains HOM Sotheby’s International Realty’s Brady Sandahl. The sweet spot: homes priced between $400,000 and $600,000 that show like a classic Palm Springs residence. He points to the 53 single-family homes in the Morrison (now sold out), a new development that echoed midcentury lines but was outfitted with must-have contemporary upgrades such as oversize en-suite bathrooms, Viking appliances, Fleetwood doors, and natural-stone finishes.
After successfully selling out the 25 homes in the Alexander Estates II in January, the developers, Dos Palmas Developments, will break ground on seven new homes designed to echo midcentury’s finest at Alexander Estates III at Sunny Dunes. Also, the 25 homes now under construction at Alta Verde Escena propose to mix high-end architecture, environmental sustainability, and relative affordability. Essentially urban lofts on compact lots in a resort setting, the two- and three-bedroom residences are the result of a collaboration between the Alta Verde Group and Beverly Hills architect Anthony Poon. Andrew Adler, CEO of Alta Verde, points to the homes’ numerous upmarket design features, from the floor-to-ceiling windows and flexible open-plan layout to the easy connection to the outdoors via Fleetwood sliders. “The next wave of people who are buying second homes are looking for something different and not necessarily retro,” says the executive.
Alta Verde represents the next era of luxury “tract” homes. For a total immersion in all things midcentury design and tours of the Racquet Club Estates and other architectural gems, the upcoming 11-day Modernism Week (February 14–24) welcomes fans of the genre. And in 2014 the Palm Springs Art Museum will open an Architecture and Design Center in a Marmol Radziner Architecture–renovated Downtown bank building.
photography courtesy of beaumondevillas.com (Sinatra estate); david a. lee (workshop kitchen)
Cover shoot: September 2014 issue of Los Angeles Confidential magazine.