Unearthing Famed Palm Springs Designer Arthur Elrod and the Significance of Interior Design in Mid-century Modern Architecture

A rather serious looking Arthur Elrod. He may have been a bit camera-shy. He was, by all accounts, much more fun than this picture might imply.

During Palm Springs Modernism Week 2017 last week, I attended a fantastic presentation by Adele Cygelman (author of, among others, the book Palm Springs Modern) titled “Elrod = Diamonds are Forever,” in which she gave a brief overview of the life and career of famed “mid-century modern” interior designer Arthur Elrod as well as the history of his firm Elrod & Associates. Elrod, along with his partners including Hal Broderick and William Reiser, was responsible for the interior designs of many of the most celebrated Palm Springs midcentury modern homes.

Traditionally, Modernism Week has been focused on architecture and the mid-20th-century architects who were responsible for the desert modern homes and buildings that are so well-loved (one might even say fetishized) in Palm Springs. In her presentation, Cygelman attempted to give some of the period’s interior designers their turn in the spotlight by presenting archival photos, anecdotes and ephemera (such as advertisements, press clippings and even a satirical cartoon) related to the work of Arthur Elrod & Associates.

The original interior of our own Palm Springs home/vacation rental (which we call “Elrod Villa”) was the work of Elrod & Associates (attributed primarily to Hal Broderick in a 1975 Architectural Digest story on the home). Many of the original features of that design still survive — including built-in cabinets, some of the unique wall finishes, flooring, doors and even electrical and audio systems — and I was keen to learn more about these designers.

Cygelman’s presentation was informed by a great deal of archival research and provided much information that was new to me, pointed out many of the recurring themes in Elrod’s work, and put it all into a broader context. Highly recommended should you ever have the chance to see her give this presentation again or if it should become the subject of a future book!

In this brief excerpt from her more than hour-long presentation (captured on my iPhone — apologies for occasional shaky cam), she gives an overview of an early Palm Springs project by Elrod and Broderick — the home of Lucy and Desi Arnaz. As she notes, the interior of that home is just one example of the evolution of “modern” interior design — showing elements of a clear departure from the “French Provincial” designs that prevailed at the time:

There was a great deal of fun and interesting information presented about the culture of Palm Springs living at the time and how that found expression in Elrod’s designs. Here for example, Cygelman describes the interior of a home in the Thunderbird Heights development in Palm Springs, along with a little “cultural anthropology” about dining rooms of the period:

I’d been curious about the floating “rounded rectangle” built-in cabinets in our home and was fascinated to see that theme repeated in this overview of a Hal Broderick interior for a home by architect William Cody:

The floating banquette on the left side of the first image is quite similar to the ones found in our home — such as the one in our dining room is shown in the lower right of this photo:

In doing the “cultural anthropology” for this presentation, Cygelman uncovered many fascinating anecdotes — including some not-widely-known information about Slim Aarons’s iconic Palm Springs photo, “Poolside Gossip.”

“Poolside Gossip” by Slim Aarons

Turns out, there are previously-unseen outtakes from the Poolside Gossip photoshoot, several of which include Arthur Elrod himself. Cygelman presented these shots and the story behind them. (I happened to be sitting directly next to Nelda Linsk, the “woman in yellow” in the famous photo, and that’s her voice in the audience, responding to Cygelman’s question):

Of course, Cygelman’s presentation also discussed the interior of Elrod House, Elrod’s iconic Palm Springs home designed for him by architect John Lautner.

Lautner’s Elrod House

After recounting Arthur Elrod and William Reiser’s untimely deaths in a car crash in Palm Springs — which drew many gasps from the audience — Cygelman closed with a welcome bit of levity by playing the classic “Bambi and Thumper” scene from “Diamonds are Forever,” wherein Elrod’s living room serves as the set for James Bond’s surprise encounter with a pair of comely assailants:

I met Adele Cygelman briefly after her wonderful presentation and she later kindly came to tour Elrod Villa, chat about the work of Elrod, Broderick and Reiser and to hear some of what he had learned about their involvement in our own home (originally designed for Sigmund E. Edelstone).

Among the most exciting things that I learned from her: I hadn’t realized that the new Palm Springs Art Museum Architecture and Design Center actually houses an archive of the work of Arthur Elrod/Harold Broderick and I can’t wait to explore that soon in the hopes of learning more about the history and unique design of Elrod Villa.

At some point in the future, the “Elrod = Diamonds are Forever” presentation may evolve into a book about Arthur Elrod. I sincerely hope that this project comes to fruition as it would definitely be a “must read” for midcentury modern enthusiasts!