Palm Springs Design: A Mid-Century Modern Dream

Twinkle, twinkle, in our eyes. Palm Springs, you have a hold on us.

Table of Contents

  1. Palm Springs Design
  2. Palm Springs and the Mid-Century Modernism Movement
  3. The Apple Bauhaus-Modernist Epiphany
  4. California Mid-Century Modernism
  5. Palm Springs Decor and Style
  6. Celebrities in Palm Springs
    1. Presidents and Heads of State in Palm Springs
    2. Show Business Production Elite in Palm Springs
    3. Architects in Palm Springs
    4. Business Figures in Palm Springs
    5. Sport Athletes in Palm Springs
    6. The Underworld in Palm Springs
  7. The Palm Springs Influence on Architecture

Palm Springs Design

Palm Springs has a hold on everyone. Our team grew up in a first-generation family that embraced the glamor and history of America’s great mid-century celebrities, musicians, songs, television shows, families, and lifestyles.  This was the American Dream everyone grew up with and for many newcomers and first-borns became the de facto gold standard of hope and pursuing dreams.  Through these influences, most of us indirectly became fans of mid-century modernist design style and architecture without even realizing it.  

Thanks to the power of Hollywood and popular television programming, celebrities also opened doors to their private lives, sharing photos of their homes and their famous parties.  We’re also talking about drive-in fast food, “ad men” or “madmen”, atomic and Googie style signage, fashion-savvy men and women, hot classic cars, rollerblades, jazz and the big sound of the 50s and 60s rock, burgers, shakes, and celebrities roasts, late-night talk shows, and the lists are practically endless!  We grew up on reruns of the Little Rascals, Bewitched, I Dream of Jeannie, the Andy Griffith Show and so much more.

Palm Springs and the Mid-Century Modernism Movement

With early aspirations on building design and architecture, I was mesmerized by Palm Springs mid-century modern design because it had some common similarities to the many projects undertaken by American architect John Lautner, There is one that resonates strongly with Sean Connery (James Bond actor) as it did with me after seeing it in one of Broccoli’s epic films.  The film is Diamonds are Forever where 007 gets into a heated exchange with Thumper and Bambi!  Here’s the film clip.

Thumper and Bambi are about to surprise James Bond 007

Sean Connery’s (007) grand entrance into the Elrod house is absolutely mesmerizing and convinced all of us that mid-century modern was the chic look of the future.

Here, 007 makes a grand entrance into the villain’s lair.

James Bond 007 enters Willard Whyte’s Lair (character emulates Howard Hughes)

Here, Sean Connery talks about John Lautner’s Elrod House.

Palm Springs is a place of being and existence.  I can’t find a single person that isn’t taken by the place and its architecture.  While there are many views on this, the Mid-Century Modern design movement is hard to define but it’s a representation of architecture, furniture, and yes, graphic design (the beautiful signs of hotels and motels and diners, anyone) from the middle of the 20th century. 

The debate is open for the mid-century modern time but it could be anywhere from 1933-1965, 1947-1957, or 1938-1970.  I can assure you that it didn’t die suddenly and still appeared in films through the 1970s.  One shining example for Columbo fans (yes, I’m a fan) was the 1972 pilot “Prescription for Murder” which highlighted the modern design movement quite nicely with furniture and architecture in several scenes. 

Southern California has a strong stake in what mid-century modern architecture is and theories suggest many architects took Bauhaus concepts in Germany and relaxed them for California standards.  Is it any wonder Australia also adopted these relaxed standards?  

Bauhaus architects were clinical and focused on making statements while architects in the Coachella Valley region and elsewhere took Bauhaus ideas like open living large walls of glass and made them integrate neatly with the indoor-outdoor experience.  

Mid-Century Modern Design and Living room with contrasting coloured leather furniture with palm trees in California

The Bauhaus manifesto (1919) considered several design principles and Art.Art does a fantastic job of outlining the main principles in this article:

  1. No border between artist and craftsman
  2. The artist is an exalted craftsman
  3. Form follows function
  4. Gesamtkunstwerk or the ‘complete work of art’
  5. True materials
  6. Minimalism
  7. Emphasis on technology
  8. Smart use of resources
  9. Simplicity and Effectiveness
  10. Constant development

Side note: We recommend renting Bauhaus Spirit on AppleTV, YouTube Movies, or any other streaming service.  Here’s the trailer.

The Apple Bauhaus-Modernist Epiphany

"Picasso had a saying. He said, 'Good artists copy, great artists steal.’ And we have always been shameless about stealing great ideas and I think part of what made the Macintosh great was that the people working on it were musicians and poets and artists and zoologists and historians who also happened to be the best computer scientists in the world."

-- Steve Jobs, PBS's "Triump of the Nerds: The Rise of Accidental Empires" (1996)

The linkages are shockingly deliberate and coincidental.  It is now known that Steve Jobs’ interest in design first began with his childhood home. It was also the home, and the garage, where Apple was born.  Jobs’ family home like other family homes were a simple, clean, and affordable suburban extension of a postwar generation that became the new working-class.  Builders essentially built these inexpensive modern homes in the 1950s and American Architect, Frank Lloyd Wright, is identified as the inspiration.  His waking call was to deliver affordable housing to the masses.

This appears to have ultimately influenced real estate developers like Joseph Leopold Eichler to bring mid-century modern style to California homes.  In fact, he was considered one of the key advocates that brought modern architecture to a broader audience from the typical custom residential or corporate projects.

Eichler and others would implement floor-to-ceiling glass walls, open floor plans, exposed post-and-beam construction (refer to my Bone Structure Technology article), concrete slab floors, and plenty of sliding glass doors (John Lautner, Elrod House).  California architects essentially adopted much of the Bauhaus design philosophy but relaxed it to California aspirations and hopes.  Steve Jobs speaks about this in his autobiography and thanks Eichler and others for a simple, clean, minimalist design that was available to a larger audience.  Steve Jobs admitted that these architects and developers influenced him to do the same at Apple with many products including the first Mac and iPod.

A Bauhaus 25 DDR stamp showing a building with windows and the word Dessau

In an amazing segment with Jony Ive, former Apple Senior VP, Industrial Design, he describes some elements of Bauhaus principles in his own words without mentioning Bauhaus.  Ive talked like an artist and a craftsman, the smart use of resources and technology, minimalist approaches to industrial design which are simple and effective, and use of true materials through constant development to make a complete work of art.  Here’s an amazing clip with Jony Ive in Objectified.

It comes as a complete shock to us (though not surprising) that after researching both Bauhaus and mid-century modern design that Apple, two of its most influential figures were central players in the adoption of clean, simple design influenced by California architects and Bauhaus master designers. 

The Objectified Documentary Trailer

Looking more deeply into Steve Jobs, he was a college drop-out, visited India seeking enlightenment (came back unfulfilled), and soon became influenced by Japanese Zen Buddhism. He even tried to be a monk before Soto Zen monk Kobun Otogawa suggested another path.  It is reported that Steve was in love with Japan through her gardens, people, culture, and foods.  The hallmarks of this influence could be found in Jobs’ defining of Apple and even his non-indulgent lifestyle.  After all, he was the $1 per year CEO for a while.

At one point, he even went to Reed College and took up Calligraphy.  Reed College was known for its bold ideas and thinking. It’s not surprising that Steve Jobs appeared to fit in so well.  His calligraphy course was taught by Trappist monk Professor Robert Palladino, according to a Reed College obituary.  This course, as  Steve Jobs describes, would help him learn the importance of typography which became an important part of the first Macintosh computer.

California Mid-Century Modernism

A California state map with palm tree, long beach and sailboat.

California’s relaxed approach was about fusing indoor and outdoor effects because the desert climate allowed for it.  Elsewhere in the USA, a modern house has fixed panes of glass due to climate conditions; whereas, in Southern California, mid-century modern homes have sliding doors to provide access to indoor and outdoor areas.  For the affluent, Palm Springs was a winter getaway, an escape, or a retirement home that provided an “outdoor living room” for entertainment.  Frank Sinatra cocktail hour, anyone?

Donald Wexler, who recently passed in 2015, is synonymous with Palm Springs and Mid-Century modernism and what I did not know was that he famously pioneered the use of steel in residential homes including framing, walls, roof, exteriors while interiors were finished with drywall.  Why do you think that is? No surprise that Palm Springs has a windmill farm. It must be windy around there (grin). The homes were designed to withstand the extreme desert climate.

Wexler is recognized for the design of Dinah Shore residence in Palm Springs which was purchased by actor Leonardo DiCaprio for $5.2 million in 2014.  In an earlier article, I profile Bone Structure, a Canadian company, which has adopted many of these earlier pioneering principles into a steel building system that is net-zero energy ready.

Palm Springs Decor and Style

Palm Springs’s mid-century modernist design and architecture is really a response to how Post-War America felt.  It was the boom era reflecting the hope and aspirations of common Americans to a better life filled with opportunities and a suburban lifestyle away from large cities.

We’re talking about new communities with clean but minimal street design, paved roads, and parking space for the American family car – the symbol of American freedom after World War 2.  To others wealthier citizens from celebrities, to industrialists, to business people, Palm Springs modernism was about escapism and adventurism in the hot desert sun. 

It became America’s playground for the wealthy and well-off.

It’s unbeatable and when you sprinkle in all the celebrities and wealthy business people who bought these homes or hired design and architecture firms to create their “desert escape” from more northerly climes, you’ll understand the appeal.  Let’s not forget the colors from white to bright ones like red, orange, yellow, and even bright green to make properties have distinct sex appeal. 

Places like Australia have inherited the Palm Springs style of coastal living and some glamor. Palm Springs attracted enormous interest from influential figures in modern life which included political figures, celebrities, architects and designers, athletes, and yes, the Underworld.

Celebrities in Palm Springs

Palm Spring pulls the strings on our five basic senses. You’ll know by sight, hearing, smell, taste, and touch.  Palm Springs is about martinis, palm trees, pools, mountains, warm desert air, celebrities and music from the likes of Frank Sinatra, cocktail hour, parties, barbecues, and the smooth appeal of clean, minimal design from furniture, walls, and other surfaces.  

The credit really goes to Frank Sinatra for raising the profile of Palm Springs to celebrities and the influential.  Upon his first million in the late 1940s, he approached Emerson Stewart Williams, a recognized Palm Springs architect, to develop Sinatra’s new desert home and to be called “The Twin Palms”.  Mr. Williams’ modernist buildings, in Mid-century modern style, would ultimately shape the architectural designs in Coachella Valley. 

Mr. Williams died in 2005 and was a Palm Springs resident.

Frank Sinatra’s home with its famous parties was only accessible to Hollywood’s elite and the rest of the world could catch a bit of the home in the 1950 film, “The Damned Don’t Cry”, as a result of a favor.  Thanks to phenomenal photos from Julius Shulman, an architectural photographer, the Twin Palms’ popularity and exposure skyrocketed and brought further interest and fame to William’s clean and simple modern design.

The list of celebrities and musicians that live and have lived in Palm Springs is massive.  The following is a small selection:

  • Frank Sinatra
  • Dean Martin
  • Elvis Presley
  • Walt Disney
  • Liberace
  • Eva and Zsa Zsa Gabor
  • Dinah Shore and George Montgomery
  • Elizabeth Taylor
  • Bing Crosby
  • Nat “King” Cole
  • Jack Benny
  • Eddie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds
  • Alan Ladd
  • Lucille Ball
  • Peter Lawford
  • Tony Curtis
  • Jackie Cooper
  • William Holden
  • Cary Grant
  • Clark Gable
  • Errol Flynn
  • Judy Garland
  • Leonardo DeCaprio
  • Steve McQueen
  • B-Tight
  • Barry Manilow
  • Eddie Fisher
  • Bobby Darin
  • Frankie Valli
  • Lawrence Welk
  • Kirk Douglas
  • Peggy Lee
  • Cher

Presidents and Heads of State in Palm Springs

Many U.S. government leaders chose Palm Springs for their retirement.  U.S. President Gerald Ford and his wife Betty Ford along with U.S. Vice President Spiro Agnew and his wife Judy Agnew chose Rancho Mirage for their retirement plans.  U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower and his wife Mamie Eisenhower had a retirement home in Palm Desert.  Eisenhower “Ike” was famous for his calls to guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex.   

Interestingly, Peter Pocklington, a famous Canadian entrepreneur, and vocal free-market capitalist moved in 1998 to Palm Desert, just 14 miles east of Palm Springs.   He is best known as the former owner of the Edmonton Oilers National Hockey League team from 1976-1998, securing the franchise and Wayne Gretzky.  The team would win its first Stanley Cup in its fifth year of existence and under Pocklington would win an additional four Stanley Cups.  Through his philanthropy with organizations in Alberta and across Canada, he would become close friends with former U.S. Presidents George H.W. Bush and Gerald Ford and would serve on the Board of Directors for the Betty Ford Center from 1995 through 2010.

Show Business Production Elite in Palm Springs

Many influential show business members of the Hollywood elite also had their time in Palm Springs.  They include:

  • Walt Disney
  • Walter Lang
  • Glen A. Larson
  • Sam Zimbalist
  • Allan Carr
  • Irvin Allen
  • Sydney Banks
  • Milton Krasner
  • Robert Surtees
  • Samuel Goldwyn
  • Kirk Kekorian
  • Joseph Barbara
  • Warner Brothers Harry Warner, Jack L. Warner, Sam Warner

Architects in Palm Springs

Other architects besides Emerson Stewart Williams that called Palm Springs home included William Francis Cody and William Gray Purcell who, not surprisingly, were modernists too. Robert Stone, another American architect, called Palm Springs home but claims his early influences came from artists in Los Angeles but some of his works incorporated Japanese and minimalist influences.

Business Figures in Palm Springs

Palm Springs became the place for royalty, pomp, and flair which attracted successful business executives and other elite.  Some of them carried with them the mystique of their personalities and business empire.  A shortlist of examples include:

  • Howard Hughes
  • Noah Dietrich
  • King C. Gillette
  • Conrad Hilton
  • Herbert F. Johnson
  • Will Keith Kellogg
  • Oscar G. Meyer Jr.
  • Maurice McDonald
  • Joan Kroc
  • Donald Wills Douglas, Sr.
  • Reuben H. Fleet
  • William Scholl
  • Thomas A. O’Donnell

Sport Athletes in Palm Springs

No surprise that Coachella Valley had its fair share of sporting figures from boxing great, Jack Demsey, and Timothy Bradley.  Football’s greatest such as Jack Elway, Frank Gehrke, John McNally, and Harley McCollum would settle in Palm Springs. A large number of golfers, baseball players, Olympic athletes, tennis players, and even Formula One drivers and UFC fighters would find solace in the desert.

The Underworld in Palm Springs

Although Palm Springs has attracted celebrity, wealth, and royalty, it also pulled in the mafia underworld.  Unfortunately, the desert community cannot erase the history of mobsters that chose the desert as their home such as Anthony “Big Tuna” Accardo, Frank “The Horse” Buccieri, Vincent Dominic “Jimmy” Caci, Joey “The Dove” Aiuppa, Jackie Cerone, James “The Turk” Torello and Michael Rizzitello.  Now if you’re in the mood for some epic mob entertainment, look up The Mob Reporter on Youtube, Donnie Brasco (Netflix, Amazon, AppleTV, etc), and Fear City: New York vs. The Mafia (Netflix Original).

The Palm Springs Influence on Architecture

I didn’t know this but Palm Springs was founded largely as a tuberculosis sanitarium. Its relationship with Hollywood grew to attract celebrities, royalty, and the Hollywood studio system.  During the summer, Palm Springs was practically a ghost town with hotels and restaurants closing down until the next winter wave of affluent ‘snowbirds’ would flock back.  During the summer off-season, only architects and contractors remained to work on next season projects.

The Hollywood studio system turned Palm Springs into a chic, glamorous playground from the 1920s to the 1960s. Through the 70s and 80s, everyone wanted to go live there, play golf, and have fun.  This demand would accelerate developments eastward into Rancho Mirage and Indian Wells.  As noted earlier, Gerald Ford and Spiro Agnew could call Rancho Mirage their new retirement home.

It has been largely documented that modern architecture really took hold of broader audiences by the mid-1990s and put Palm Springs on the map.  Let’s be clear, Palm Springs became famous for its architecture in the same way art eco “made” Miami Beach. Leonardo DiCaprio’s recent purchase in Palm Springs has undoubtedly created another wave of interest with the help of Palm Springs-born Instagram influencers.

We have to thank Frank Sinatra and the architects for influencing the masses. I fell in love with the design, the beautiful natural landscape, the mountains, and even the color of buildings.  My early love for John Lautner, an American architectural great, was my first influence between architecture and nature but Palm Springs further solidified my love for it.

Today, Palm Springs attracts a more youthful demographic; post-boomers and yes, even the millennials.  The Uptown design district is home to a cluster of retail stores focused on Mid-Century Modern furniture and some really cool restaurants.  The district has created another renaissance as new people flock to find vintage and new modern furniture.  

This has also created an upcycling movement where creative people have reused material that has been refashioned into something that could be considered just as good or even better quality than the original product.

If you’re fascinated by Palm Springs and modernism like I am, you simply cannot pass up the once-a-year event called Modernism Week where many of the homes are open to the public (Yes! Can you believe it?) and there are fabulous lectures and other tours.  This is about pure love for a particular form of architecture and its history.  Pure and simple.