Palm Springs: Where mid-century modern design reigns

Marcie Geffner and Beth Daddono February 22, 2019

Palm Springs, one of 8 desert towns south of I-10, is a storied destination that rises like an emerald Phoenix from the rugged desert landscape.

Originally founded as a sandbox playground for old Hollywood's glitterati back in the studio days, when strict contracts dictated a moral high ground within L.A.'s confines, the region has evolved into a resort oasis.

Here, where swimming pools are as common as the striking wind farms that greet visitors coming in from the northwest, a mid-century modern vibe evolved. Dating to the 1920s, Palm Springs attracted architects interested in designing sleek and functional homes for discerning clients. Now named by the National Register of Historic Places as having the largest collection of mid-century modern architecture in the country, Palm Springs style stands alone.

Notable for large open spaces, clean lines, geometric shapes and bold colours, these mid-century modern homes and offices mix the use of traditional material like wood with non-traditional materials including vinyl, plastic, Plexiglas and Lucite.

A sensibility that flourished into the late 1950s, what's being revived and revered elsewhere today is classic, contemporary and timeless in Palm Springs. It's not unusual for homes to feature walls of glass, open to breathtaking views of crystal blue sky and the sculpted crags that ring the Coachella valley.

Welcome to mid-mod land

Decades ago, the drive to Palm Springs from Los Angeles, or other points west, took about two hours. Today, the trip is more likely to last three hours since so many suburbs have popped up along the two main routes.

You'll know you've arrived in the region when you reach the Palm Springs Visitors Center, capped by a dramatic boomerang roof that punctuates the mountain backdrop.

Originally a gas station, the building on Highway 111 was designed by Albert Frey and Robson C. Chambers and completed in 1965. It's impossible to miss the 2,300-square-foot space with its wing-shaped roof that tapers into a shady pointed awning out front and looks as if it could be a spaceship's runway.

There's little but desert here, with hot, dry air, desert wind, sand and majestic mountains all around. It's the mountains that protect Palm Springs from anything more than an occasional wisp of cloud and provide 350 days of sunshine each year.

Go bold

The Palm Springs Art Museum, nestled against the Mt. San Jacinto foothills off Palm Canyon Drive, showcases works by Alexander Calder, Roy Lichtenstein, Robert Rauschenberg, Andy Warhol and other modern artists. From Calder's sense of delicate balance, which makes the massive sculptures seem light as a paper clip, to Lichtenstein's eye-popping graphics style, the museum's collection reflects and enhances the city's mid-century modern sensibility.

Learn more about mid-mod architecture in the museum's collection of photographs by Julius Shulman and its collection of archives and contents from Frey House II. An iconic Palm Springs residence designed by architect Albert Frey in 1963, it features walls of windows to better take in the verdant green views and sculptures in the gardens.

Less than a mile away is the house itself: an 800-square-foot steel, concrete and glass residence, where the boulder appears to loom over a bed. Perhaps it would seem threatening if it didn't also fit so well in a home designed to let as much of the natural view in without compromising the structure. Cold northern architecture this isn't. Tour companies, such as The Modern Tour sometimes negotiate entrance into these wonders of glass, steel and wood.

Stay stylishly

For more mid-mod design, stay at one of Palm Springs' historic mid-century hotels, such as ArriveHoliday House or the Ace Hotel & Swim Club, which was once a Howard Johnson. These hotels have been comfortably refurbished with clean lines and lots of natural light. But this is not your standard cookie-cutter business-beige hotel decor. Colourful rugs dot parquet floors around natural wood furniture. Your room won't be hidden in a labyrinth of hallways or on a high floor inside a tower at these low-rise garden-style joints.

Eat modern

To make your meals part of the theme, grab a table at King's Highway, a roadside diner at the Ace Hotel that was a Denny's in its past life. Feel like a retro time traveller in a space that could double as the Brady's living room, with hanging globe pendants, faux-stone backdrop, classic 70s earth tones and simple, Scandinavian lines. It's a fine setting to tuck into bacon-wrapped local dates and grilled Pacific salmon. Or have brunch at the glass-walled Escena Lounge & Grill, a golf course eatery with simple, sharp lines and a distinctive awning surrounded by dramatic mountain views.

With all this uncluttered mid-century modern design to delight your eye and relax your mind, Palm Springs is the ideal place for your next rejuvenating getaway.

Opinions expressed are those of the author, and not necessarily those of CIBC or its partners.

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