Timeless Modernism

Edgar Orlaineta, Narcissus, 2002, two LCW chairs (Charles and Ray Eames, 1946, for Hermann Miller, reproduction), steel cables, courtesy Sara Meltzer, New York © Edgar Orlaineta.
Originally published in California Homes magazine, 2016

Dotted with softly swaying palm trees and set against the colossal backdrop of Mount San Jacinto, the little desert city of Palm Springs is known for many things — its wailing cicadas at sunset, its film festival, its golf tournaments, its retirees who mingle happily with Coachella-going Millennials, but perhaps most of all, its world-famous mid-century architecture and design, celebrated each February during Palm Springs Modernism Week.       

When Modernism Week started in 2006, it wasn’t actually a “week”. The niche event, organized by a group of local design and architecture aficionados, was a compact one-day celebration of the city’s renowned mid-century modern architecture, tapping into the mid-2000s rebirth of interest in mid-century “star-chitects” like A. Quincy Jones, Paul R. Williams, Richard Neutra, John Porter Clark and Albert Frey, John Lautner, Wexler & Harrison, Palmer & Krisel, along with builders like Paul Trousdale and the Alexanders. 

Around the same time, Mad Men, which premiered in 2007, began beaming the neat lines of mid-century modern into millions of households around the world, re-establishing names like George Nelson, Eames and Arne Jacobsen in the mainstream vernacular; then Coachella sparked a cultural and real estate boom in Palm Springs. In less than a decade, fueled by both Modernism’s and the city’s renaissance, Palm Springs Modernism Week has grown into an 11-day extravaganza, featuring 240 events, tours, lectures, galas and dinners, for upwards of fifty thousand attendees from all over the world. 

They’ll marvel at Elvis’ “House of Tomorrow” honeymoon hideaway, the famed “Twin Palms” estate of Frank Sinatra, Richard Neutra’s architectural masterpiece, the Kaufmann Desert House, Donald Wexler & Rick Harrison’s Steel Development Houses and E. Stewart Williams’ legendary Twin Palms estate, another former residence of Frank Sinatra — these are time capsules, whose long term upkeep and survival have been ensured by the tireless work of the Palm Springs Preservation Foundation, whose efforts are partially funded by the proceeds of Modernism Week. 

Many Modernism attendees are now enhancing their experience by renting private pool homes in the style of (or by) their favorite modernist architects, through Airbnb or increasingly, boutique vacation rental companies. True Modernist vacation rental homes in Palm Springs include “Alexander’s Blue Hawaiian”, “Enclave in the Sun”, “Enjoy Life”, and “The Aperture”, through ACME House Co. (see sidebar). A stay in one of these homes ensures a totally immersive Modernism experience, complete with dry martinis by a glittering private pool.

British film director and modernism aficionado Ben Charles Edwards (who debuted his feature film Set The Thames on Fire at the Palm Springs Film Festival this year, and stayed at an ACME property), likens the Sinatra residence to a Grade 1 listed British castle from 1,000 years past. “From the solid steel rods holding up giant concrete ceilings to the sun holes carved out of these ceilings, it all feels here to stay, never changing, standing strong,” he says. “Much like a castle, these structures are built to last into the future, never needing adaption.” 

For Edwards and other Millennial Modernism aficionados, Modernism represents a timeless philosophy for living, that can be easily be reimagined within the context of a post-modern, some might say post post-modern world … a world some academics are calling the meta-modern.  Brooke Hodge, Palm Springs Art Museum’s new Director of Architecture and Design (appointed in June 2016), will give a lecture as part of Modernism 2017 looking at artists who are “appropriating modernist design icons to create entirely new and evocative pieces, altering the meaning and our perception of the original”. Like Edgar Orlaineta, who takes the iconic Eames chair, dissects it and glues it back together in the shape of a modernist butterfly.

Orlaineta explores the quirky, shadow side of Modernism—because behind the mirage of perfection were pill-popping housewives (also the subject of a lecture at Modernism Week 2017) who sweltered in uninsulated glass boxes in the Palm Springs summer months. Unlike their Brutalist, more heavy set counterparts — like the Elrod house, or Kahn’s Salk Institute — mid-century modern homes were not always built to survive the harsh extremes of the desert.

But for actor and furniture collector Udo Kier — who lives in the converted 1965 Francis F. Crocker Library, designed by Porter Clark and Frey — the occasional downsides to authentic Modernist living in Palm Springs (say, the air conditioning bills) are far outweighed by the joy of living among designs by icons like Arne Jacobsen and Eero Saarinen.“Modernism’s timeless in the way Art Deco is timeless,” he says. “I personally don't think it will ever go out of style. And if it does, I don't care.”