Driving into Palm Springs, California, one of the world's most sublime time capsules of midcentury design, the first piece of architecture you see is God's work. Or Mother Nature's, if you prefer: the San Jacinto Mountains. It's these peaks—their grand scale, their nubbly, almost Brutalist texture, and the fact that they wall the city off from the rest of the world—that make all the magnificently sleek architecture in Palm Springs possible.
The mountains, and their ability to block out storms, pessimism, and static, also make possible the miracle of your shoulders dropping, your breath deepening, and your mind opening. Thus relaxed, your eyes are free to feast on the splendor of the world-famous midcentury-modern landmarks by William Cody, Richard Neutra, John Lautner, Donald Wexler, and Albert Frey. The Frey-designed visitors center—formerly a gas station, and maybe the best thing to come from our petroleum-based economy—welcomes you to town. The roofline soars and swallows the sky while the building itself hugs the earth. It seems to pop up out of nowhere, as if to say, Unexpected things happen, and some of them are good.
This delightful coupling of excited optimism and relaxed ambition is the one-two punch with which Palm Springs wins you over. And this powerful combo is articulated in the city's fabled architecture. Standouts are everywhere—from the Wexler-designed airport to bank façades and, most of all, the houses spread across town and into the hills.
From the beginning, Palm Springs has been a city steeped in fantasy second-home architecture: Spanish colonial, Hollywood Regency, midcentury modern, postmodern, all the way up to today's revisionist midcentury modern. Of course architecture is a stage set for life. And the visionary homes in Palm Springs helped create a glamorous setting where the Hollywood elite could escape. Or maybe it was the Tinseltown celebrities who engineered the design credo that defines Palm Springs. The two went hand in hand, like five o'clock and the cocktail parties the town is so famous for.
Palm Springs was, most notably, a second home to Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley, and Bob Hope, maybe because the mountains were like a cosmic bodyguard or because the stars in the breathtakingly clear night sky reminded them of themselves. Or maybe just because Palm Springs is as far from Los Angeles as actors under studio contract could drive and still be on call. But even in today's post-studio-system landscape, boldface names like Tom Ford, Barbra Streisand, and Diane Keaton still flock to the snowbird-filled oasis, which offers instant privacy, laid-back glamour, and access to a creative force field that isn't readily available in other glitzy destinations.
Jonathan Adler's tongue-in-chic renovation of the Parker Palm Springs hotel epitomizes the ever-evolving post-midcentury-modern eclecticism. "Palm Springs has it all," Adler says. "Gorgeous landscape, inspiring design, and, most important, a parade of flamboyant humanity, from walnut-faced bikers to glamorous Hollywood icons to desert hippies. It's a heady mix and I love it!"
That parade serves as a steady stream of entertainment for locals and visitors alike, with every chance that nothing will rain on it (the city boasts more than 350 days of sunshine a year). Palm Springs seems to have been built for people watching, with all but a few hot spots right on the main drag of Palm Canyon Drive, a.k.a. the 111. You can camp out in a restaurant booth—try Rick's, where the locals go, or Norma's, which is a 21st-century reimagining of your mom's breakfast nook. Or take it outside, to one of the sun-soaked terraces (Azul, El Mirasol, Birba, even Starbucks) or a picture-perfect hotel pool where you can bask in the sun while you watch a minimally clothed spectacle splash by.
Blue skies, the people that live under them, and the houses they live in: That's what Palm Springs is all about. "For residential modernism, Palm Springs is unlike anywhere else," says Peter Moruzzi, architectural historian, Palm Springs Modern Committee founder, and part of the architecturazzi that sprang up at the turn of the millennium. "Miami has the hotels and motels; we've got the houses."
And one evening, while you're watching the sun set, as the palm trees become black silhouettes against a pastel sky and the bright heat of the day finally mellows, you might find yourself asking, What if I weren't on vacation? What if I actually owned a house here? It's easy enough to tour the real estate. Just go to Koffi, where locals caffeinate, pick up a neighborhood map, and take a swing around town to check out the many tract homes built in the 1950s and '60s by Alexander and Meiselman; then head into the mountains for higher-end, one-of-a-kind masterpieces.
You won't see a single white picket fence here. What you will find are white-painted stone and steel walls framing private outdoor rooms. You'll also notice a lack of eye-level front windows—the roofline-hugging clerestory windows let light in, keep the heat (and prying eyes) out, and offer peerless views of blue sky and palm-tree tops.
You can actually get behind those privacy walls with Michael Stern, coauthor of Julius Shulman: Palm Springs, who leads tours of some of the city's most fabulous houses. "Europeans are always shocked that people will let us walk through their homes," Stern says. "Especially because the homeowners are often there. At dinner parties in New York, you see the living room, the powder room, and maybe the kitchen. In California, houses are more open"—both to the elements and socially.
Indeed, there's something welcoming about these houses, especially the ones featuring orange doors. The vibrant color may be an homage to the fruit that grows in yards all around town, or maybe orange doors are popular because the red door recommended by feng shui masters is just too hot a color for a city where summer temperatures can flirt with 120 degrees. Orange is complementary to blue, so it makes the sky pop. It's also the color connected to the sex chakra. And Palm Springs is, on top of being a design haven, a sexy city.
It's not just Warm Sands, a fun-loving enclave of gay resorts. This is a city of exquisitely sheeted luxury hotel rooms; pink, skin-flattering sunset light; and sweet tropical smells that waft through the town reminding you to let it go—whatever it is that you came here to let go of. Here, everything is designed for the pleasure of letting you be available to the vital intensity of the desert's enormous natural forces without necessarily having to brave its elements. At the Horizon Hotel, for instance, one room features an outdoor shower in which Marilyn Monroe rinsed off the desert dust. You may not attract the crowds she did as you lather your sun-kissed shoulder, but you will feel the same thrill of the velvety air on your wet skin.
Besides the many outdoor venues in which to while away the day, design shops also serve as popular social hubs. In the Uptown Design District, an upscale, walkable four-block strip at the north end of town, Courtney Newman holds court at the granddaddy of the town's vintage stores, ModernWay. He's created a sort of Algonquin round table environment—minus literature Saarinen tables and Nelson lamps—that is now a stomping ground for international travelers interested in talking design. "We ship all over the world," Newman says. "Even with shipping, the price is better. We're even shipping Danish Modern back to Denmark."
Of course, what the shops offer isn't just impeccably crafted furniture. It's Palm Springs optimism. That optimism is part of what makes fashion designer Trina Turk's happy wares so emblematically Palm Springs. Her colorways lean away from Hamptons-esque navy-blue and toward swimming-pool-turquoise and its Palm Springs pals, lime-green and citrus-yellow.
After all that shopping, it's time to indulge your hedonistic side. Head downtown to the mineral hot springs for which the town is named. The Spa at Spa Resort Casino is run by the Cahuilla Indian tribe and has waters that help eliminate toxins, increase circulation, and reduce muscle tension.
Then, as renewed as one of the houses you've been ogling, you can head to the nearby Palm Springs Art Museum. It's perfectly sized for vacation viewing—not so big that you'll feel guilty when you want to get back to shopping, sunning, or sipping—but serious enough to feature world-class pieces by Robert Rauschenberg and Robert Graham, and an extensive glass collection, including much by Dale Chihuly, all of which speak to the city's themes of home, future, and freedom.
"Palm Springs is all about freedom," says Los Angeles architect Barbara Bestor, who is designing an expansion to a pair of Trina Turk shops. For Bestor, this city of relaxed chic is a place to escape to, not from, and where inspiration is at every corner. "There's design everywhere you look," she says.
James Spindler, chief creative officer of New York–based Radical Media, who's on his second second home in Palm Springs, agrees. "The extent and fanaticism with which design is pursued in Palm Springs makes even driving to the supermarket quite dramatic."
Eventually you'll have to leave—unless you did actually buy a home and not just objects to bring home. As you drive out of town, hold on to your steering wheel, because the wind can be so strong that until a few years ago there was a billboard that read, "That's not just wind, that's us blowing you a kiss good-bye." It's so strong there's a field of windmills (optimistically promising a future of renewable energy), the ones you've seen in so many movies (think Robert Altman's The Player). And you might notice that now you feel just like those graceful turbines: simultaneously grounded and spinning joyfully.
Essential Palm Springs
The area code is 760.
Hunt for houses. Before venturing out, buy the Palm Springs Modern Committee's map of midcentury landmarks at the Albert Frey–designed visitors center. If you visit during Modernism Week (February 11–21, 2016; ), you can take the popular double-decker-bus tour. On February 14, Siweb editor in chief, Michael Boodro, sits down for with mid-century design great Vladimir Kagan.
Head for the hills. Palm Springs' aerial tram () is a 10-minute ride in the world's largest rotating tram, which takes you 6,000 feet up Chino Canyon's sheer cliffs. On top are two restaurants and 54 miles of hiking trails. Feeling earthbound? Hike the rocky foothill trail behind the Palm Springs Art Museum ().
Shop for old and new. The Uptown Design District () is a mecca for the style-minded, with dozens of vintage and modern furnishings boutiques, as well as clothing shops and more.
Drink up. Everyone tells you to hydrate in the desert, and that's no joke. Go to the Spring () in nearby Desert Hot Springs for a massage, and fill up your own water bottles with mineral-rich water. Or indulge in one of the region's great natural resources, dates, with a date shake. At happy hour imbibe a perfect martini at Melvyn's, where Frank Sinatra drank his (), or enjoy a cocktail outdoors as you watch the city parade by on the terrace at Azul ().
WHAT TO SEE
Moorten Botanical Garden, 1701 S. Palm Canyon Dr., 327-6555; : In 1938 the Moorten family turned their residential estate into a lush desert oasis. This tranquil old Palm Springs outpost features more than 3,000 plants, many of them rare, spread out along an easy trail.
Palm Springs Art Museum, 101 Museum Dr., 322-4800; : Works by Picasso, Warhol, and Chagall, as well as contemporary artists who speak to the themes of the desert: innovation, survival, and freedom.
WHERE TO STAY
Ace Hotel & Swim Club, 701 E. Palm Canyon Dr., 325-9900; : Part dormitory, part experimental-design lab, part casbah, all party. Rooms include turntables and mod red lighting.
Colony Palms Hotel, 572 N. Indian Canyon Dr., 969-1801; : A gracious staff and groovy vibe add sensual delight to the luxe, Moroccan-inspired comfort of this 1936 Spanish colonial property, decorated by Martyn Lawrence-Bullard.
Korakia Pensione, 257 S. Patencio Rd., 864-6411; : A pair of exotic villas built by an artist who wanted to conjure Tangier. Once a refuge for celebrities like Rudolph Valentino and Errol Flynn, it's now a haven for travelers with a bohemian bent.
Parker Palm Springs, 4200 E. Palm Canyon Dr., 770-5000; : Tongue-in-cheek chic yet serious about luxury, the Parker is a second home to Tinseltown folk. Jonathan Adler redesigned this former Givenchy resort, replete with a spa, tennis courts, and swank restaurants.
Riviera Palm Springs, 1600 N. Indian Canyon Dr., 327-8311; : The signage features a twinkling star that captures the retro sparkle of this 24-acre, 406-room compound, which recently underwent an expansive $70 million renovation.
Viceroy Palm Springs, 415 S. Belardo Rd., 320-4117; : Kelly Wearstler's eye-catching design for this quintessential Palm Springs property serves up Hollywood Regency with a twist; sybaritic touches include three pools, a spa, and guest villas.
WHERE TO EAT
Birba, 622 N. Palm Canyon Dr., 327-5678; : "Eat, play, drink, sleep" is the motto at this chic café that's strong on pizza, salads, and signature cocktails.
Cheeky's, 622 N. Palm Canyon Dr., 327-7595; : Breakfast and lunch are served on a terrace by a restaurateur not afraid to feature both acai berry juice and bacon.
Circa 59, 1600 N. Indian Canyon Dr., 778-6659; : Creative twists on red meat and red leather in this glam and dramatic space at the Riviera resort.
Native Foods Café, 1775 E. Palm Canyon Dr., 416-0070; : Everything on the menu is made from scratch in this quiet vegan restaurant that even omnivores love. It's the flagship of a small chain helmed by acclaimed vegan chef Tanya Petrovna.
Norma's, 4200 E. Palm Canyon Dr., 321-4630; : Indulge your inner child at the Parker's Jonathan Adler–designed diner, where you can enjoy haute versions of comfort food all day long.
Purple Palm, 572 N. Indian Canyon Dr., 969-1818; : Dark wood-framed mirrors double your pleasure in this Lawrence- Bullard designed, Moorish-tiled spot. On the menu: attentive service and nouvelle Mediterranean dishes.
WHERE TO SHOP
Hedge, 68-929 Perez Rd., Ste. F, Cathedral City, 770-0090; : The anchor of a strip of stores mixing art and furniture. Cathedral City is, as owners Charles Pearson and Thomas Sharkey point out, "the design hood." They'll make you an espresso to fuel your treasure hunt.
Just Fabulous, 515 N. Palm Canyon Dr., 864-1300; : You can't bring a midcentury-modern house home as a souvenir, but at Just Fabulous you can pick up a book about modern design and one of local designer Christopher Kennedy's cleansmelling candles named for your favorite Palm Springs neighborhood.
Modern Home, 2500 N. Palm Canyon Dr., Ste. B5B, 320-8422; : A playground devoted to materials—hardware, tile, paneling, flooring, wall coverings, mailboxes, doorbells—perfect for your midcentury renovation or restoration.
ModernWay, 745 N. Palm Canyon Dr., 320-5455; : Palm Springs is the epicenter of modernism and ModernWay is the epicenter of that epicenter, operated by the knowledgeable Courtney Newman, whose furnishings are first rate.
notNeutral, 800 N. Palm Canyon Dr., 464-2982; : A popup store that never popped back down, featuring intriguing contemporary accessories and tableware.
Palm Canyon Galleria, 457 N. Palm Canyon Dr., 323-4576; : Eight little shops artfully packed with collectibles from the 1920s through the '70s.
Trina Turk, 891 N. Palm Canyon Dr., 416-2856; : The ultimate in the cool side of poolside Palm Springs style. Signature patterns fill two stores, one for the home, one for clothing, all housed in a superstylish Albert Frey building.