Vintage Palm Springs Blog

Desert Modern: For those that still call it "Boho Chic"


Desert Modern: For those that still call it

by Diana Castellanos


Coachella Music Fest, the coveted $450 a weekend music festival that people love to suffer in the heat for.

But why do we really love it? The line-up for Weekend 1 or 2? The amounts of alcohol available? Appropriating Native American headdresses?

Guess again, as it may be the cool architectural set up of the festival, using clean lines and building even the tents with consideration to the desert nature or what deem as 'boho'. Why else would we pay that amount of money?

This, in a nutshell, is what is considered Desert Modernism. Desert Modernism, according to the Town Real Estate website, refers to the style as one that capitalizes the sunny skies and American Southwestern lifestyle. In other words, the desert vibe we all love to indulge in is the center of the home design, as well as the accessorial feel of Palm Springs and the Coachella Valley. So, just because you bought that cute little geometric pillow at Urban Outfitters in the shape of a steer skull or the kimono with the zarape or 'tribal' print, doesn't make you Desert Modern, honey.

Desert Modern style, also known as "Mid-Century Modern," was not really considered in a place such as Palm Springs as a formal architectural style until the late 1940s, a little after what was known as the European Bauhaus movement. The Bauhaus movement was rooted in the start of modern design after World War I, where there was a want and need to produce goods faster and cheaper. Though one may think that quality would suffer (which it totally did at first) with this sort of concept, this eventually became the inspiration for the architectural design schools that began the Bauhaus movement in Germany. The notion of the school that was known as the Das Staatliche Bauhaus called for the architectural portion of the school to have consideration for clean lines, use of glass and (no surprise) manufactured goods embedded in the design. Because of the open and vulnerable design of the concept that the school incorporated, it later was an inspiration for the Desert Modern style found in Palm Springs thanks to the sun and pure air of the location. Who would have thought that German influences would make it to the United States!

The design is seemingly fitting, and one cannot think about Palm Springs without having some sort of Desert Modern architecture in mind. Some of the more notorious designs include A-lines (does this also inspire the A-line bob haircut? Who knows...), as well as the use of primary shapes such as octagons and triangles (and the combination of the two in certain buildings). A lot of the structures drew inspirations from the German and Scandinavian landscapes, especially Swiss Ski Lodges (what is known as a Swiss Miss), which is a particularly incorporated design in Palm Springs amongst many of the residences.  Why was it so fitting though? If one takes a close look as to the use of materials with the style, it is common to see manufactured materials such as glass and steel, all in longer lengths, promoting clean lines and ability to form shapes. It feels like this should have been done long ago, as most humans knew how to draw straight lines, right?

Image by TODD EBERLE via Vanity Fair

It was not until the early 20's that the German-inspired architectural school of thought came to the U.S. and more specifically, Palm Springs. Palm Springs became central to the Desert Modern architectural style and essentially its capital. The Desert Modern lifestyle was in development from the 1920s, but it wasn't until celebrities like Frank Sinatra with the building of the Twin Palms, amongst his other weekend getaways, that really catalyzed the coveting of the linear architectural style that seemed to be a perfect match made in heaven with the surrounding nature it built itself around.

In 1928, the very first edifice considered Desert Modern house was that of a cabin built by the architect R.M. Schindler (not related to Oskar Schindler that helped his fellow Jewish community during the Second World War) for the first known marriage counselor, David Popenoe and his wife, Betty (who were also eugenicists, so let's move on).

Also in 1928, one of the primary edifices and most notorious of its kind, El Mirador Hotel was built, which combined the love of simple elegance and informal design (rather than that old school stuff that we affiliate with the oligarchy that is known as Victorian) and the desire of Hollywood to make its way down the Highway 111 to relax in the pure desert air. This hotel housed many celebrities and even drew well-known TV comedienne, Lucille Ball; who posed for a picture at the hotel and ultimately leading her to fall in love with the city.

In 1947, Ol' Blue Eyes, Frank Sinatra commissioned E. Stewart Williams, one of the most well-known Desert Modern architects at the time which was later known as the Twin Palms, and where the Rat Pack frequented and Sinatra spent most of his time with later to be ex-wife, Ava Gardner

But what important factors should one keep in mind when considering a Desert Modern design, or for it to even be considered that?

The Imagists, a brand strategist and business development firm in Los Angeles who has worked with clients such as Virgin and Festival de Cannes, gives us an insight on how to spruce up our spaces into the Desert Modern style we affiliate with the Palm Springs lifestyle. One of the major points that the Imagists point out is that of wooden furniture. Although we may not consider rustic as a modern concept, the fact of the matter is that the wooden furniture is a staple in making the American Southwestern flavor of the style be prominent. Another point that they make in regard to get our humble abodes into a Desert Modern oasis is that of worldly textiles. Worldly textiles add a touch of color and overall brightness to the room or home, all while keeping the simplistic Western feel. Zarapes, bohemian pieces, or anything remotely considered a desert vibe staple piece would all bring a desert modern home together. These smaller pieces aforementioned are not in and of themselves remotely considered "Desert Modern," but the  overall combination of the pieces with proper used and thematic of the home makes it more relative to the desert. So again, sorry honey.

One must remember that Desert Modernism is not limited to solely the design and the style of the home, but as well as the lifestyle and the promotion of the American Southwest bleeding into the California Deserts. Desert Modern is keeping the notion of the Cahuilla Indians alive by keeping the inclusivity of their pieces and textiles (so no headdresses, ladies and gentlemen...and anyway it's not cool and not "desert modern" or cute), as well as the modern concept of manufactured goods, merged into one. You will find many of their goods in equal style businesses and thematic around the city. There is also a festival of sorts in regard to the influence that Palm Springs was to the modern architecture movement and life known as Modernism Week, filled with various programs and tours.  More importantly, however, it became and still is a haven for vintage lovers all around, stamping it with a Vintage Palm Springs of sorts.



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