Spring Forward

Palm Springs’s architectural past is being propagated by a new generation of designers, making it the perfect host for the annual Modernism show, held last month. Yolanda Zappaterra looks at what the future holds

The organisers of the Milan and Cologne fairs may not be quaking in their well-heeled boots just yet, but they might do well to take note of what’s happening across the Atlantic in, of all places, Palm Springs, California. For this 1950s desert resort town, made famous by the likes of Frank Sinatra, Bob Hope and Raymond Loewy (all of whom had houses here), boasts an architectural pedigree that isn’t just based on past achievements, but is being built on by a new generation. A key part of that process is the Palm Springs Modernism show, held every year, for the past six years, in February.

Originally established as a straightforward, mid-century Modernist show in the city’s stunning convention centre, 100 or so dealers of vintage furniture, glassware, art, ceramics and knick-knacks began to sell their wares to a discerning clientele, made up of both city residents and sophisticates from the East and Pacific North West, who ‘overwinter’ in the desert or fly in fortnightly to their second homes.

But it’s not just the clientele that make Palm Springs and the show such a ‘perfect fit’, as Gordon Merkle, spokesman for show organiser Dolphin Promotions, puts it. As co-originators Jacques Caussin, a dealer and founder of the original Miami Modernism show, and William Kopelk, president of the Palm Springs Preservation Foundation, saw it, the Modernist desert architecture of Palm Springs – a clean, spare aesthetic that integrated indoor and outdoor space, and materials inspired by the mountains and deserts of the Coachella Valley – was the perfect catalyst for the show, and the fact that it has expanded to incorporate new as well as vintage design and architecture services suggests they were right.

Stands, such as the innovative lock-and-fit circular ply boards for the Architecture and Design Council of the Palm Springs Art Museum, highlight the growing, symbiotic relationship between old and new in the city (a feeling heightened by the inclusion of impressive pieces by contemporary artists, such as glass designer Dale Chihuly in the Palm Springs Art Museum). It is a forward-looking event that has had a galvanising effect on the city’s interest in design and architecture, acting as a focus for seven days of cultural activities, including symposiums, film screenings, exhibitions and lectures – which this year included a talk by furniture designer Karim Rashid.

Best of all is the rare opportunity to visit private buildings in the area, designed by such architectural giants as Richard Neutra, William F Cody, E Stewart Williams, John Lautner, Paul Laszlo and Albert Frey – indeed, a tour of the stunning Frey II desert house last weekend sold out within a few days. The house is small, compact and almost perfect in its use of materials, light and space, and offers an intriguing link between European and American Modernism. It’s everything you would expect from the Swiss-born architect who worked with Le Corbusier and Pierre Jeanneret before his move to the US.

Los Angeles architect Marmol Radziner, involved in the restoration work on the Frey II house (now owned by the Palm Springs Art Museum), showed its own recently completed, prefab desert house, which made a fascinating contrast. Manufactured by the practice in California, the house links the heritage of the past to future architectural development of the city. Modular spaces constructed of recycled, steel-framed glass panels, with prefab decks, were configured to frame the magnificent views of the San Jacinto mountains, but should homeowners want their own configuration, there’s a step-by-step guide to designing their own version on the website, even down to obtaining planning permission – definitely a late, rather than mid-century concern. And, if final proof were needed that Palm Springs might eventually provide more than an enjoyable busman’s holiday for designers worldwide, Sunday’s opening of the impressive Artemide lighting showroom at the Ligne Roset Atrium Center provided it.

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