7 Highlights from Modernism Week in Palm Springs

Design objects and furniture are getting the '70s treatment, while brass is coming back in style.

Amid the usual riot of Easter-egg-colored clothes, caftans and cocktails, there was a sense of discovery at Modernism Week. The allure of all things midcentury remains undiminished, but as time moves on the definition of "midcentury modern" becomes increasingly diffuse. A full slate of tours, exhibitions, talks and disco parties throughout the weeklong design celebration have shed light on both the rich history of desert modern architecture and the future of modern-inspired design.

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According to designer Roger Stoker of Grace Home Furnishings, part of the reason Palm Springs became a preferred retreat for Hollywood stars was the fact that actors were contractually required to stay close to Hollywood while they were shooting. According to Stoker: “Actors at that time could only be as far away as a two-hour return trip. Basically that means Laguna, Santa Barbara and Palm Springs. Palm Springs also became very popular after World War II because there was a huge military camp out here and a lot of people came out for that. It was a hillbilly town — the feeling was cowboy, Western.”

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Enter the Brady Bunch: The '70s have unofficially become part of the "midcentury modern" design juggernaut. A healthy array of 1970s design objects and furniture were on display at the Modernism Week show and sale at the Palm Springs Convention Center. Think late Brady Bunch rock wall orange fun. Bold, saturated wallpaper was a prominent feature in several rooms at the Christopher Kennedy show house in Palm Springs.

THR spoke with Mark Cutler, designer with nousDECOR at the red-carpet opening night party. Cutler: “You see a lot of midcentury modern, but we wanted to go a little later than that and start channeling people like Steve Chase and Michael Taylor — that late modernism of the '70s or early '80s. It is still very modern in its thinking, but traditionalism started to creep back in and the tension between the two is the part that really interests me.


Humorist and the "Ambassador of Americana" Charles Phoenix was in Palm Springs for Modernism Week, and he presented a slide show at the Palm Springs Museum of Art. A laugh-riot parade through American pop culture history, the projection of mostly found slide photographs from the '50s to the '70s was as informative as it was entertaining. His "slibrary" of Kodachrome moments across the nation was a perfect comedic pairing for this weeklong celebration of American design and architecture. Sporting a suit of wide prison stripes, a pink button-down and his trademark bedazzled Western bolo tie, Phoenix entertained the packed auditorium for an hour and a half. His retro travelogue eventually made its way to Palm Springs with some choice images of classic car culture from the 1950s. 


Charles and Ray Eames continue to be the reigning king and queen of Modernism. The iconic chairs designed by this innovative couple can be found everywhere in Palm Springs. A rare custom green lounge chair was one of a bevy of iconic midcentury seats at the official Modernism Week show and sale. THR caught up with Eames Demetrios, the grandson of the design duo and director of the Eames office. Demetrios shared some thoughts about why modernism still has such a hold on our hearts. "If you think about it, most of the truly radical changes in technology and materials happened in the era of midcentury modernism. The first people to wrestle with them made some pretty amazing distinctions about how those things could be incorporated into contemporary life. A lot happened in that time period. Computers started. Certain building technologies that we are still using. In some cases — like with Charles and Ray — the designers were the ones that brought the materials to the design world, but other things happened and obviously World War II was a part of it. Some very thoughtful people were energizing that period of time and making the most of those opportunities."

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In recent years there has been an explosion of new art experiences in places like the High Desert Test Sites around the town of Joshua Tree. Drawing from their conceptual forebearers Walter de Maria, Robert Smithson and James Turrell, artists like Andrea Zittel and Andy Stillpass are going to the desert for inspiration and space. The aforementioned Eames Demetrios is one of these pioneering spirits. Demetrios’ “Krblin Jihn Kabin” is a deconstructed historic monument in the shell of an abandoned tract house. The interior of the heavily perforated building is covered in text detailing significant events in the history of a parallel universe, Kcymaerxthaere. The work questions the ways in which context skews the way we process information, blurring the lines between fact and fiction. Demetrios sees these new artistic forays into the desert around Palm Springs as similar to the way innovative architects used the area as a laboratory for design in the postwar boom years: “On the one hand Palm Springs was a place where wealthy celebrities — Rat Pack, et cetera — went as an escape, but there are also parts that were relatively affordable and architects like Albert Frey could experiment out there at minimal cost. I think that experimentation is always important — especially for an aesthetic movement — to have a place to try things out.


Remember the spiky metallic wall sculptures from your grandmother's living room? They looked like a cross between a futuristic pipe organ and the damaged Death Star. Apparently, brass is back in style. THR asked designer Vanessa de Vargas at the Kennedy show house opening if certain objects were off limits because they fall outside the "midcentury" period. Said de Vargas: "You would actually be surprised. Brass has really come back and sometimes you really can’t tell, 'Was that midcentury or straight-up '80s?' So there are questionable pieces, but it all works. It’s not about pulling from one area, but pulling from all areas."


Throughout Modernism Week, examples of Bbutalist furniture were on full display. This is a term derived from a description of stark, square postwar buildings and furniture/design that was spare, but projected a sense of depth through sculptural elements. Perhaps due to the rise in popularity of brass or the widespread appeal of lavish period pieces like David O. Russell’s American Hustle, this severe aesthetic born of blocky concrete architecture is having a moment.  Whatever the reason, designers seemed really hot for this trend, and the word could be heard rising above the din of cocktail parties across town.

Modernism Week continues through Sunday, Feb. 22. For more information and event tickets, visit ModernismWeek.com.