Palm Springs: An Oasis of Modern Style
Explore midcentury design at its finest—not to mention haute hotels, creative eats, and world-class shopping—in this desert city.
Midcentury architect Donald Wexler’s designs—such as this Palm Springs steel house—embody the desert-modern look.
Photo by Dan Chavkin
Frank Sinatra, as the legend goes, discovered Palm Springs after World War II, when composer Jimmy Van Heusen flew him to the desert oasis after dinner one night—and before long, Sinatra was hooked. He built a house there in 1947 and soon became synonymous with the desert lifestyle.
His timing was perfect. In the late 1940s, a contingent of notable architects—many of whom had designed Southern California’s best-known estates—began to transform the sleepy village in the Sonoran Desert into a glitzy retreat for the rich and famous. For the next two decades, visionaries such as William Krisel, Donald Wexler, E. Stewart Williams, and Albert Frey erected hundreds of buildings bearing the hallmarks of their “desert modern” aesthetic: clean lines, flat roofs, walls of windows, and indoor-outdoor living spaces.
These days, Palm Springs is undergoing another renaissance of sorts. A renewed interest in midcentury modern design—as well as high-profile events such as the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival and the Palm Springs International Film Festival—has brought the region an influx of tourism. Much like their Old Hollywood counterparts, today’s visitors flock to the desert to relax, indulge in excellent food and drinks, and marvel at the dizzying array of spectacular modern architecture on view.
The greater desert region has responded to its refreshed popularity with another building boom: Haute hotels and trendy restaurants are popping up along Palm Canyon Drive in droves, while a number of can’t-miss art and design events cater to sophisticated sojourners. Meanwhile, many of Sinatra’s classic haunts still remain—making Palm Springs a veritable visitors’ paradise: a perfect blend of iconic midcentury class and contemporary chic.
A Designer's Dream
Modernism Week—an annual celebration of midcentury design, happening this year February 14 through 24—makes this month the ideal time to descend upon the desert. The extravaganza features close to 350 events, ranging from neighborhood tours (via bus, bike, or foot), art exhibitions, and cocktail parties to film screenings, lectures, and of course, exclusive access to an exquisite array of private residences that exemplify the desert-modern aesthetic.
Among the program’s highlights are tours of architecturally significant properties including the Lautner Compound—a collection of inspired buildings designed by the master architect John Lautner (known in the desert for his work on Bob Hope’s iconic “volcano house”)—which only opens for public viewings once a year. Two residences by the legendary architect Albert Frey are also on view: the Frey House II and the Cree House, known as “the forgotten Frey,” which outsiders have never been able to visit, until now. There’s also a full-scale, furnished replica of the glass-walled Walker Guest House, designed by leading midcentury architect Paul Rudolph. This is only the second time ever that the innovative property has been shown—and the first time on the West Coast.
Of course, Modernism Week also includes tours of historically star-studded neighborhoods, as well as showings of Sinatra’s Twin Palms estate and cocktail parties at the former retreats of Kirk Douglas, Lawrence Welk, and Cary Grant.
Also not to be missed are the featured homes at Modernism Week. Spectacular renovations or re-creations of modernist residences, these properties—referred to as Green Gables, La Vie en Rose, Axiom Desert House, Sackley Shagadelic, and Desert Eichler—are outfitted with vintage and new period furnishings by interior design dynamos. Especially spellbinding is La Vie en Rose, a 1958 home in the glamorous Vista Las Palmas neighborhood that recently underwent an extensive renovation. It features a series of disappearing retractable doors that separate each room from the lush pool area, creating a seamless indoor-outdoor concept that integrates the natural landscape—including the dramatic San Jacinto Mountains, which frame the property—into the living space.
Interior design also plays a large role in the festival. A 1962 residence in the Indian Canyons neighborhood serves as the Modernism Week Show House, in which different designers each create a room. And for visitors who want to bring the desert-modern aesthetic home with them, there’s the Palm Springs Modernism Show and Sale, where about 90 vendors from across the country sell vintage and modern furniture, jewelry, art, and home-decor objects. The wide range of high-quality, original pieces on offer make this Modernism Week’s best-attended event.
To learn more about Modernism Week or to buy tickets for specific events, visit modernismweek.com.
Sleep It Off
One of the great pleasures of Palm Springs is exploring the wealth of fabulous accommodations in the area. To relive a slice of Palm Springs history, stay at Colony Palms Hotel. Located between the Uptown Design District and the Movie Colony neighborhood—which once housed dozens of show-business legends—the 1936-built property boasts a fascinating backstory involving gangsters, gambling dens, exclusive supper clubs, the champion racehorse Seabiscuit, and yes, Frank Sinatra, who lived in a grand suite at the hotel for a spell.
A refreshing departure from the modernist style so prevalent in the desert, the Colony Palms features Spanish Colonial architecture—the region’s dominant aesthetic in the pre–World War II era—with an exotic, Moroccan twist. A distinct Old Hollywood vibe pervades the place, thanks to star designer Martyn Lawrence Bullard, who oversaw the property’s renovation. Particularly stunning is the on-site Purple Palm restaurant, with its Middle Eastern flourishes including the intricate (and original to the property) tile floor. The eatery dishes out scrumptious New American cuisine, and serves as an ideal spot for people watching, as its indoor-outdoor bar overlooks the chic pool area.
In a city where the aquatic scene reigns supreme, the Colony Palms boasts perhaps the most glamorous pool in Palm Springs, with luxe, canopied, cushioned chaises and private cabanas (available for rent). This is not a hipster-pool-party type of place; the clientele is sophisticated, ranging from Los Angeles movers and shakers to design-world luminaries. For the full VIP experience, book one of the 10 luxurious casitas, each of which has a soaking tub or a fire pit on its private patio. Other hotel amenities include Tesla charging stations, yoga sessions in the garden, and an on-site spa (book services well in advance). colonypalmshotel.com.
Offering a completely different experience is the hip, new Holiday House. Located just off the bustling heart of Palm Canyon Drive, this property feels more like a guesthouse than a traditional hotel. Upon arrival, visitors are greeted with a complimentary glass of rosé—a bar replaces a conventional check-in desk here—in a retro living room space, complete with a fireplace, library, Legos on a communal table, and original artworks by the likes of David Hockney and Roy Lichtenstein. Designer Mark Sikes created a playful atmosphere that invites guests to tune out from their everyday lives. Each of the 28 rooms features a king bed, yoga mats and weights, Silly Putty, a wide selection of books, and no television.
Alongside the pool, Holiday House adds fun details such as a shuffleboard court (which dates to 1951) and an old-fashioned frozen-dessert cart. Complimentary s’mores are offered at the fire pits, and fried chicken is served family style to guests and locals on Friday nights in the outdoor dining area. Indeed, the inclusive environment at this 21-and-over lodging is part of its appeal. holidayhouseps.com.
Eat, Drink, and Be Merry
In Palm Springs, the focus on design also extends to eateries. Case in point: Workshop Kitchen and Bar, which won the 2015 James Beard Award for best restaurant design in all of North America. Located inside the Uptown Design District’s historic El Paseo Building, the stark, industrial-style space features towering ceilings dripping with hanging Edison bulbs, and a 32-foot cast-concrete communal table, where diners can befriend one another over aperitifs. Many guests, however, prefer to sit in the spacious outdoor courtyard, where hip 20-somethings snap photos of their meals as stylish older couples chat convivially.
Executive chef and co-owner Michael Beckman trained in France, where he developed his nuanced take on French and Mediterranean cuisine. He sources most of his ingredients locally and maintains restraint when exploring flavors. Decadent diver scallops mingle over a mound of rich Anson Mills grits dotted with braised pork jowl, while the zing of Cara Cara orange dances with a salty-sweet shallot-bacon marmalade in the house-signature mesquite-grilled pork chop entree. As for small plates, two preparations of brussels sprouts are offered—shaved into a salad, with apple, persimmon, walnuts, and pecorino; and a candied roasted version with pancetta, honey, and thyme. Both are sublime. Bread baked fresh in-house daily and creative cocktails incorporating exotic liqueurs and seasonal flourishes sweeten the deal. workshoppalmsprings.com.
For a classic Palm Springs experience, the iconic Melvyn’s is worth a visit. The dimly lit restaurant and piano lounge frequented by the likes of Sinatra, Cher, and the rest of Hollywood’s A-list back in the ’70s recently underwent a renovation by its new operators, the Bay Area–based PlumpJack Group, following the death of its legendary proprietor, Melvyn Haber, in 2016. But the swanky, old-time vibe remains—as do most of the staff; maître d’ Brian Ellis, who acted as the establishment’s gatekeeper in its heyday (famously turning away superstars Steve McQueen and Ali MacGraw on opening night in 1975 because they weren’t properly dressed), still mans the podium. Here, tuxedo-clad waiters serve flaming plates of steak Diane to locals in the white-tableclothed dining room, while friendly bartenders pour wine for tourists hoping to capture the glamour of a bygone era. The piano lounge features live music seven nights a week during the “season” (late fall through early spring); when there’s no live music, Rat Pack standards often echo through the speakers. And despite the preponderance of chandeliers and the Old World ambience, the crowd isn’t entirely made up of gray-haired golfers: Younger patrons are now discovering Melvyn’s and its historic charms. inglesideinn.com/melvyns-restaurant.
While Palm Springs tends to have a boutique-y feel, some of the other desert communities offer more breathing room. Palm Desert—a city about 14 miles away—boasts many larger-scale resorts and golf clubs (not to mention the region’s longest luxury-shopping strip). Nearby, Indian Wells is home to what may be the region’s buzziest new retreat: Sands Hotel and Spa. Opened in March 2018, this property epitomizes the chic desert vibe that has replaced the kitsch the region was once known for. Celebrity designer Bullard created the hotel’s eminently Instagram-able look: Moroccan-themed, with intricate black-and-white tilework, and a soigné pool area similar to the one he designed for the Colony Palms, with private cabanas and bedlike chaises. Of the 46 guest rooms—most of which include a balcony or private patio—the standout is the two-story presidential suite, which features a billiard table and a kitchen. Perhaps most alluring is the spectacular spa space; its ethereal aesthetic—with mirrored mosaics, downy textures, and rose-colored accents—is reason enough to book a rejuvenating treatment.
Even if you don’t stay at the Sands, you must visit its restaurant, The Pink Cabana; every in-the-know desert local is talking about it, and for good reason. Executive chef Jason Niederkorn—who worked under the legendary Jeremiah Tower at Stars restaurant in San Francisco—has created a unique, Mediterranean-style menu with nods to Morocco. (Tower visited, and cooked with, his onetime protégé at a special event at the Sands last fall.) The “grilled yogurt naan” (pillowy, yogurt-infused flatbread) that arrives with a meze platter takes two days to make, and it’s out of this world even without the delicious dips and spreads. Indeed, many of chef Niederkorn’s signature creations are masterfully prepared and burst with layers of flavor. The delicately spiced lamb tagine is melt-in-your-mouth tender. Supremely fresh day-boat catches are flown in straight from Hawaii.
The Pink Cabana’s bar program deserves special attention too. Cocktail enthusiasts rave about food and beverage director Mollie Casey’s clever twists on classic libations, such as a Jalisco Sidecar, made with reposado tequila, pear, ginger, and fresh lemon juice; or the Fig Orange Old Fashioned, which mixes Japanese whiskey with orange-fig marmalade and bitters. Casey—who, like Niederkorn, honed her skills in San Francisco—is a certified sommelier with a deep knowledge of vino, so her esoteric wine list contains dozens of unexpected and tantalizing choices.
Add in Bullard’s updated take on throwback tennis-club chic—complete with a palm fern–leaf motif and classic photos of the hoi polloi frolicking in Palm Springs’ midcentury heyday—and a professional, accommodating waitstaff, and The Pink Cabana amounts to a desert hot spot that’s not to be missed. sandshotelandspa.com.
Of course, there’s more to Palm Springs than modernism and food. Many visitors flock to the region to indulge in retail therapy. Palm Desert is the place to find luxury designer boutiques—such as Ralph Lauren, Bottega Veneta, Burberry, and Gucci—which line El Paseo near the corner of Highway 74. This upscale shopping strip boasts about a dozen blocks of retail, restaurants, galleries, and cafes, including the delightful Il Sogno—the perfect spot to break for an espresso, panini,or decadent baked good. elpaseocatalogue.com.
In Palm Springs proper, Palm Canyon Drive is where you’ll find big-brand outposts including H&M, Free People, and Kiehl’s, among smaller fashion boutiques. A few blocks north, Trina Turk’s landmark store—housed in a Frey-designed building—serves as the jumping-off point to the Uptown Design District. Turk’s colorful apparel, accessories, and homewares embody the sunny Palm Springs aesthetic—as does Christopher Kennedy’s midcentury modern–inspired furniture, which you’ll find at his eponymous store a few doors up. In fact, the Uptown neighborhood is known for vintage and vintage-inspired furniture and home-decor showrooms, as well as galleries and independent womenswear boutiques such as the fabulous Elizabeth and Prince.
Another not-to-be-missed retail destination: The Shops at Thirteen Forty Five, a series of 14 mini-stores and galleries that flow together inside a fantastic, mazelike building designed by E. Stewart Williams. Vintage Murano glass, midcentury furniture, art, contemporary menswear, souk rugs, and handmade jewelry are some of the items you’ll find here—as well as pottery by the renowned ceramicist Stan Bitters. theshopsat1345.com.
If you can’t bear to leave Palm Springs without a swoon-worthy souvenir, there is a hidden treasure trove full of original modernist furnishings in nearby Cathedral City. Few tourists make their way to the nondescript industrial park sequestered behind Highway 111, but those who do marvel at the row of little shops—including Spaces, JP Denmark, and At Hom—filled with some of the best curated, high-end vintage furniture in the area. Perez Art and Design Center, 68-929 Perez Rd.
Thankfully, many local shopkeepers will gladly ship their wares to the East Bay. Because luxuriating in Palm Springs among midcentury masterpieces and relics of the Sinatra era—as well as the contemporary takes on modernism—will inevitably inspire you to inject some of that high design into your own life.
Discover more of the desert’s charms at visitgreaterpalmsprings.com.
Meet the design-world influencers shaping the desert aesthetic.
Renowned for translating the midcentury modern aesthetic to contemporary life, prodigious interior designer—and Bay Area native—Kennedy is a titan of the Palm Springs style scene. He’s been called “the Ralph Lauren of the West Coast” for his growing empire, which encompasses furniture and upholstery lines, lifestyle products, art and pottery collections, and two home-style books. Explore his work at various Modernism Week events, including the La Vie en Rose house and the Modernism Week Show House (known as the Christopher Kennedy Compound), or at his eponymous store on North Palm Canyon Drive. christopherkennedy.com.
Howard Hawkes and Kevin Kemper
Married couple Hawkes and Kemper—the principals behind H3K Design—are known for renovating midcentury desert homes, adding 21st-century conveniences while paying immaculate attention to period details. The duo are also key players at Modernism Week: At the 2019 event, H3K will produce a poolside fashion show, participate in a panel discussion, host a vintage-inspired yard sale, and outfit the Modernism Week headquarters (called Camp). Hawkes and Kemper also remodeled Green Gables, one of the festival’s featured homes. To see their expertly curated selection of furnishings, visit H3K’s Palm Springs showroom. h3kdesign.com.
Palm Springs’ “unofficial ambassador” (and Diablo’s February cover subject), Lee is an Instagram influencer who spreads the desert-chic gospel via her lifestyle blog, Kelly Golightly. The website—which covers fashion, design, and entertaining (among other subjects) and has drawn praise from the likes of celebrity stylist Rachel Zoe and lifestyle guru Martha Stewart—casts Lee as a modern-day Audrey Hepburn, drawing from her background as a style editor. So significant are Lee’s taste-making powers, in fact, that the Modernism Week team selected her desert estate as its 2017 show house. kellygolightly.com.
Another visually enticing reason to visit Palm Springs soon: the thrilling Desert X biennial art exhibition, which occurs February 9 through April 21. Curated by art-world heavyweights including Neville Wakefield (known for his work at Frieze Projects in London), Desert X showcases site-specific works by internationally acclaimed artists that incorporate or respond to the desert landscape. The 2017 event featured a much-buzzed-about installation by artist Doug Aitken: a ranch-style structure covered entirely with mirrors, which reflected the surrounding earth, sky, and sun. Insiders expect the 2019 Desert X to produce some similarly unforgettable offerings. desertx.org.
Stay and Play
Check out these other top-tier events happening in the desert before summer.
• Art Palm Springs: February 15–18
This major art fair exhibits works from nearly 80 galleries from across the globe. art-palmsprings.com.
• BNP Paribas Open: March 4–17
Tennis’ top superstars compete in this tournament, held at the Indian Wells Tennis Garden. bnpparibasopen.com.
• Fashion Week El Paseo: March 16–23
A series of fashion shows highlight the sartorial talents of designers from Southern California and beyond. fashionweekelpaseo.com.
• Palm Desert Food and Wine Festival: March 22–24
A lineup of acclaimed chefs; wine, beer, and spirits purveyors; and local desert-area restaurants present tastings and other culinary experiences. palmdesertfoodandwine.com.
• American Documentary Film Festival: March 29–April 4
More than 150 documentaries, both short and feature-length, are screened before cinema luminaries and aficionados alike at this popular festival. americandocumentaryfilmfestival.com.
• LPGA ANA Inspiration: April 1–7
This annual women’s professional-golf tournament is held on a course in Rancho Mirage named for the late entertainment icon—and longtime Palm Springs resident—Dinah Shore. anainspiration.com.
• Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival: April 12–21
Ariana Grande, Tame Impala, and Childish Gambino headline this year’s massive music showcase, which draws some 125,000 partygoers each year. coachella.com.
• Stagecoach Festival: April 26–28
Luke Bryan, Sam Hunt, and Jason Aldean anchor this year’s fest, considered to be Coachella’s country cousin. Lynyrd Skynyrd will also perform, as part of its farewell tour. stagecoachfestival.com.
• Spring Joshua Tree Music Festival: May 16–19
An eclectic array of international musicians takes the stage at this hippie- and family-friendly arts fest held at the edge of the iconic park. joshuatreemusicfestival.com.
• Annual Memorial Day Flower Drop and Air Fair: May 27
At the fantastic Palm Springs Air Museum, a vintage military aircraft drops thousands of carnations on spectators below. Flight exhibitions, live music, food vendors, and children’s activities round out this Memorial Day event. palmspringsairmuseum.org.