Esther E. Shipman, Curator Architecture + Design | April 13, 2015
I was born near the tail-end of the Baby Boom and grew up in a home furnished in Danish Modern, and with dinnerware and linens designed by Russel Wright. My parents represented a wave of optimism about the future and a desire to be part of something new after World War II. They were attracted to the simple geometric forms, the warmth of teak, the colours and textures of the textiles and were the beneficiaries of the new manufacturing technologies of the day that made these modern designs available at affordable prices.
This past winter, I spent a week in Palm Springs, California attending Modernism Week (February 12-22, 2015) with three generations of my family. Back in Ontario, I had organized film screenings about the ‘Desert Modern Movement’, was very familiar with photographer Julius Shulman’s iconic images of famous Palm Springs landmarks silhouetted by the mountains and the clean, clear light of the desert, and had read up on where to eat and where to shop. But, nothing had really prepared me for the impact of the massive, chiseled rawness of the mountains against the stark, white, flat and vast desert floor—almost reminiscent of a moonscape.
Against this backdrop was a huge treasure trove of residential and commercial mid-century modern architecture created primarily by a core group of dedicated modernist architects who made Palm Springs their home. The first modern Banking Pavilion in United States (Coachella Valley Savings and Loan, 1955, by E. Stewart Williams), the first large scale modernist tract housing developments (Palmer & Krisel Architects) and hundreds of hotels, motels, restaurants and custom designed homes for the Hollywood film and music industry elite (including projects by Richard Neutra, Albert Frye, Donald Wexler, John Lautner and Lloyd Wright amongst others). Then, after three decades, the blistering pace of post war development virtually stopped in the mid-1970’s. Palm Springs was like a time capsule. A community that flourished as a leisure playground for thirty years after the war, and then had fallen out of favour and into neglect until it was rediscovered in the mid-1990’s. Now, a new community of design minded émigrés from across the United States and Canada are restoring the buildings and the city’s lustre. Mid-century design has been embraced as one of the primary economic engine driving Palm Springs.
Modernism Week is an annual festival and a charitable organization that marked its 10th anniversary this year. Each February, the city plays host 100+ events including lectures, symposiums, films, home tours, double decker bus tours, parties, a Modernism Dealers Show (furniture and vintage fashion) and live music events. This year also included a vintage travel trailer exhibition, and a pre-fab showcase. Our family loved the Todd Oldham keynote lecture on designer Alexandre Girard, the Albert Frye House II, the Signature Homes Tour, the Double Decker Architectural Bus Tour and the Sunnylands Estate Tour. The new Palm Springs Art Museum Architecture Pavilion which opened this year was also very impressive.
A visit to Modernism Week is almost sensory overload for design lovers like us, but well worth a visit.
Find out about next year’s activities at www.modernismweek.com
Background and FAQs
Modernism Week is the joint brainchild of the Palm Springs Art Museum, the Palm Springs Preservation Foundation, the Palm Springs Modern Committee, the Palm Springs Historical Society and a host of neighbourhood and other non-profit organizations. Its mission is to “celebrate and foster appreciation of midcentury architecture and design, as well as contemporary thinking in these fields, by encouraging education, preservation and sustainable modern living as represented in Palm Springs”.
In 2014 it is estimated that attendance was 45,000 people and that the economic impact on Palm Springs was $17 million. The money directly raised by the festival is spent in the community, providing scholarships to local students to study architecture and design, as well as supporting local and state preservation organizations in their efforts to preserve modernist architecture throughout the state of California.