What they no longer have to picture is hours of traipsing through flea markets and thrift shops to pull the Palm Springs Modern look together. With cheap and cheerful contemporary products on the shelves at Target and Ikea, and a host of auction and vintage furnishings sites on the Web, the signature pieces for a Modernist makeover are just one mall trip or a few mouse clicks away.
In Palm Springs, it's even easier. Next weekend, the Palm Springs Modernism show will include high-end midcentury dealers from across the country, displaying sought-after furniture and promoting previously underappreciated designers. The rest of the year, dozens of furniture galleries, consignment stores and thrift shops line Palm Canyon Drive with Modernist classics, Hollywood Regency designs and custom furniture by local decorators. Davis' year-old store, Modern Homes, has hardware and furnishings for every inch of the house: poolside furniture, '50s-style upholstery fabrics, Mod wall coverings and address numbers designed by Richard Neutra.
Modernist design is the catalyst of the tourist and real estate explosion in Palm Springs, "one of the most concentrated preserves of Atomic Age architecture in California," according to Alan Hess, author of "Palm Springs Weekend." Tract homes that measure less than 2,000 square feet and cost less than $25,000 in the late '50s now list for $500,000. Often they are, in house-flipper lingo, "staged" with classic midcentury furniture by Harry Bertoia, George Nelson and Charles and Ray Eames, allowing purchasers to buy the lifestyle — lock, stock and barrel-back chair.
Now that anyone with a credit card or a preapproved mortgage can buy Modernism as an easy-to-assemble kit — copying room arrangements from fashion ads promoting Rat Pack swank — style mavens are tweaking the formula. The Palm Springs look is morphing to embrace new design elements.
The interior palette — normally white with accents of orange, green and a shade of blue to match the swimming pool outside — now sports chocolate brown and yellow. Geometric floor screens, railings and other peek-through architectural elements with a Hollywood Regency vibe divide the floor plan without disrupting the flow. Surfaces remain sleek and polished, but terrazzo has the edge over Formica and concrete. Shag rugs? Yeah, baby. Kitchens and bathrooms now almost universally sport sparkling mosaic glass tiles.
Throughout the typical Palm Springs Modern house, the furniture — a mix of vintage items and contemporary pieces from designers such as Philippe Starck and Jasper Morrison — seems to float. Typically the formula includes platform beds, low-slung white sofas, glass tables, see-through chairs made of wire or plastic, and open shelving units (often from the West Elm catalog) decorated with colorful tchotchkes. The pared-down aesthetic is even more noticeable from the curb, where stones and cactuses fill in for lawns, corrugated metal substitutes for white picket fences and lacquered front doors replace natural wood.
The result, reminiscent of boutique hotels and layouts in the hip British shelter magazine Wallpaper, may induce design déjà vu. But it is also the coin of the realm for desert contractors, landscapers, decorators, retailers and homeowners.
"It would be nice if city officials realized how much the architectural movement has done to revitalize the city, to rebuild neighborhoods that were virtually slums," Davis says.
"Modernism is doing for Palm Springs what Art Deco did for Miami Beach," says John Lewis of Steichen Lewis Designs in Orange County that renovates Palm Springs houses primarily built from 1958 to 1962.
"People realize that they don't have to live in stucco boxes with red tiled roofs that have as much to do with Spanish architecture as the local 7-Eleven."
Screenwriters Peter Cooper and Elizabeth Harrison-Cooper are among the converts. They live part-time in an undistinguished two-bedroom Beverly Hills apartment "which we never invite friends to" and spend weekends in Palm Springs entertaining in a 1959 Donald Wexler post-and-beam renovated by Steichen Lewis. The Coopers purchased it from comedian Andy Dick, who had decorated it, they say, a "bit more mix than match."
"It was our first shot at applying Modernist design to our home and life," Peter says. After poring over architectural books and vintage magazines, he decorated with period-authentic basics: a pair of Eames chairs that his wife had inherited from her grandfather, an Isamu Noguchi pedestal table for which he built a new top, wire side chairs by Bertoia and a Nelson wooden ball clock. Soon he was scouring EBay, picking up a pair of chrome ball table lamps ( $46), Eames fiberglass shell chairs ($48 each) and a walnut slat bench ($88).
While shopping for a curved white sofa at the Palm Springs outpost of Room Service, the Los Angeles retailer specializing in contemporary furniture based on midcentury classics, Peter was struck by large canvases depicting pop culture heroes. Suitably inspired, he soon filled walls with his own renditions of Dirty Harry, the Clash's Joe Strummer and Steve McQueen in "The Great Escape." Soon, neighbors came knocking at the Coopers' orange front door.
"I've never experienced this before," says Peter, 36. "People do the 'pop-in.' They want to walk through your house and see what you've done." Before long, the residents of Rancho Vista Estates had their own Yahoo e-mail group to trade home improvement resources and schedule social gatherings.
"Our neighbor behind us gave us a pirate flag," Peter says with a smile. "When we raise the Jolly Roger, it's his invitation to come over for cocktails."
Visiting other houses, the Coopers "did notice that a lot of people were, in a good way, stealing from each other. It was definitely an awakening in terms of discovering our own design sensibility," Peter says.
Like many new Palm Springs residents, the couple also has been influenced by the city's hip hotels. The Orbit In and the Del Marcos offer quick studies in fab '50s décor, but the most imitated properties in town are the newest: Designer Kelly Wearstler's pop version of Hollywood Regency at the Viceroy Palm Springs and Jonathan Adler's witty and colorful mix of vintage and contemporary décor at Parker Palm Springs, formerly the Merv Griffin Resort and Givenchy Spa.
"We wanted to explore the possibility of mixing styles," Peter says. "You can load a house with midcentury furniture, but it doesn't say a thing about your personality until you put in the accents, the artwork, pillows, rugs — everything from the bar to the bathroom."