Modernism, take 2: tweaking the cliché

The tall, brightly colored bottles in Brad Cook’s Palm Springs home create a midcentury Modern mood as soon as you step through the door.
(Mark Boster / LAT)
Special to The Times

When people think of Palm Springs, says Mark Davis, owner of the city’s first store devoted to midcentury Modernism, they picture a butterfly roof house, a rock fireplace, the classic 1956 Eames lounge chair, the Nelson bubble lamps.

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.”

“As far as what the architects were trying to do,” adds Elizabeth, “there didn’t seem to be any limitations. It was daring us to be different.” That, she explains, is why the guest bedroom has a white tufted headboard against a deep gray wall, and the media room is hand-painted in a blue and white pattern that looks like a chain of TV screens.

Modern Homes’ Davis says that people tend to cut loose a bit more out in the desert.

“What they normally might think is too wild for their ordinary lifestyle,” he says, “they can have fun with in a second home.” Though most of the new Modern homeowners are “passionate, hands-on renovators who want to update the kitchen and bathrooms but keep the integrity of the architecture, a small percentage are period purists who prefer to have everything done just the way it originally was.”

When he moved to the Palm Springs area more than four years ago, Davis was one such stickler. He purchased the 1957 Keneston House, a U-shaped home in Rancho Mirage made of stucco, corrugated aluminum, glass and local rock. He restored its original form, down to the floating fireplace and indoor succulent gardens.

Though the project was a success — used for advertising shoots and as a location for Bravo’s 2003 gay dating series “Boy Meets Boy” — the search for restoration materials was so arduous that it inspired Davis to open Modern Homes. The venture was financed in part by the sale of the Keneston House for $1.2 million, roughly twice what Davis paid for it.

Now he and his wife, Kristine, and their two daughters, Madeline and Noelle, live in a “work-in-progress” 1965 house by an unknown architect.

“We’ve grown up a decade,” Davis says, “and we consider this house a blank slate because it has no particular pedigree.” He has experimented with wallpaper, a terra cotta-colored grass cloth on the living room walls and a sparkly paper encrusted with mica chips on the fireplace hood.

“The first couple years in Palm Springs I noticed everybody doing their houses almost kitsch, with vivid chartreuse,” he says. “My concern is that look will have a burnout factor if the homeowner doesn’t add a bit of personal warmth and sophistication.”

His goal is less “I Love Lucy” and more Darrin Stephens’ office in “Bewitched.” Although he recently purchased a pair of Bertoia wire chairs with yellow leather seats and a custom sofa from Futurama in Los Angeles, “we don’t concern ourselves with name brands as long as the piece has the right feel,” Davis says.

Brad Cook, the interior designer who owns Show in Los Angeles, agrees. When he bought a three-bedroom house in a 1961 Palm Springs development, Cook was determined to find the Eero Saarinen dinette set he remembered from his family home in Michigan.

“My parents got rid of it,” he says. “You used to have to hunt to find one in good condition, but Modernist design is so accessible these days, I just found a new one on a website.”

With its trumpet-shaped base and swiveling fiberglass “tulip” chairs, Saarinen’s mid-'50s dinette set is the perfect complement to Cook’s concrete-floored dining-living room. It’s also the ideal color.

“I’m in my white lacquer phase,” the designer says. “Whenever I find a vintage lamp or a cool beat-up chair, I have it lacquered.” In Palm Springs, apparently, white is the new black.

“I do white everywhere because I want the furniture and upholstery and art on the walls to speak for themselves. Midcentury Modern is already getting to be a tired phrase, but as long as there is this kind of architecture in Palm Springs,” he adds, pointing to the soaring, angular beamed ceiling overhead, “the clean and minimal look — white walls and classic modern furniture — will accompany it.”



A home décor show next weekend as well as an ever-increasing number of stores are showcasing the Palm Springs Modern look.

The show

Palm Springs Modernism runs Feb. 18 to 20 at the Palm Springs Convention Center, 277 N. Avenida Caballeros. The event includes high-end midcentury dealers, lectures and book signings. Admission: $10. (954) 563-6747, or .

Select resources

111 Antique Mall:

A supermarket-sized vintage consignment store with ‘50s designs and Americana. 2500 N. Palm Canyon Drive, (760) 864-9390. Its Cathedral City outlet has even more outrageous finds at bargain prices; 68-401 E. Palm Canyon Drive, (760) 202-0215.

Design Within Reach: 20th century furnishings. Stores nationwide. (800) 944-2233, .

Highbrow Furniture: Classic midcentury Modern furniture, including Saarinen dinettes, at this Nashville-based retailer. (888) 329-0219, https://www.highbrow

Modern Homes: An emporium for the midcentury look, with hardware and yard goods. 1580 S. Palm Canyon Drive, (760) 320-8422, www

Modern Way: Hollywood Regency to 1970s designs including furniture by Pierre Cardin and one of Palm Springs’ preeminent interior decorators, Arthur Elrod. 2755 N. Palm Canyon Drive, (760) 320-5455, .

Rewire: Vintage modernist lighting, specializing in French and Italian designs from the ‘40s to ‘70s. 442 N. La Brea Ave., Los Angeles; (323) 937-5254.

Room Service: Specializes in contemporary furniture based on midcentury classics. 625 N. Palm Canyon Drive, Palm Springs; (760) 318-9331. Also at 8115 W. 3rd St., Los Angeles; (323) 653-4242.

Show: Contemporary housewares, design books and vintage furniture for architecture fans. 1722 N. Vermont Ave., Los Angeles; (323) 644-1960, .

Vitra: Reissued Modern designs by Eames, Nelson and Panton. 1327 5th St., Santa Monica; (310) 393-9542, .

West Elm: Popular low-cost shelving units and home décor sold through a catalog. (866) 937-8356, .

— David A. Keeps