Getting High (On Design) At Palm Springs Modernism Week

Coachella meets Art Basel at this up-and-coming, ‘Mad Men’-friendly festival

Edmund Vallance
Published in
5 min readApr 16, 2015


I’m scoffing canapés at a David Bowie-themed cocktail event when I spot Rufus Wainwright nursing a large gin and tonic.

“I’m a fan of modernism, sure,” he tells me, when I approach him at the bar. “But I couldn’t spout any vernacular. My husband would be the one to ask — he’s German.”

I can relate. I love the modernist architecture in Palm Springs, but what I know about mid-century design could be written on the back of a beer mat.

Hopefully that’s all about to change. This year marks the 10th anniversary of Palm Springs Modernism Week, a festival aimed at art buffs and design rookies alike. The city has the greatest concentration of “mid-mod” architecture in the world, and there are over 180 scheduled events: Along with about 60,000 other guests, I must choose from a prodigious list of lectures, walking tours, open houses, design sales, and… parties. I have three days in which to fully educate/inebriate myself.

At the sold-out opening night shindig, the large, horseshoe-shaped bar is rammed with deeply tanned, sharply dressed attendees. I feel a little out of place with my pasty New York complexion and travel-creased denim shirt, but the buzzy mood is infectious, and DJ Jason Bentley, Music Director of KCRW, does a good job working up the crowd. “It feels like an early version of Art Basel,” he tells me after the show.

The scent of marijuana is thick in the air. And although, in the spirit of President Clinton, I have not inhaled, I must be getting high off the residual fumes because I suddenly feel the urge to sit down. I land on a swanky leather sofa, directly opposite Modernism Week’s Chairman, Chris Mobley.

“We’ve had a 10 percent rise in attendance every year since we started,” he says. “I love it when I hear that people are enjoying themselves.” If anything, I’m in danger of enjoying myself too much. As my fellow revelers lay waste to the free bar, I head back to the hotel to avoid succumbing to white-wine psychosis.

The following morning, I’m late for a walking tour of Frank Sinatra’s neighborhood, The Movie Colony. The traffic is abysmal and my taxi is crawling. “Blame it on The President,” says the driver. “Air Force One arrived this morning, and they’ve closed off all the roads.”

Obama notwithstanding, I arrive just in time. The tour starts at Frank’s three-bedroom, seven-bathroom residence, Twin Palms, the exterior of which is… underwhelming: not much to see except a wall and a steel plaque. We’re in luck, though. A film shoot is in progress, and the director has taken pity on us. “Want to take a look inside?” he asks, his head popping out from behind the gate. We all surge forward before he can change his mind.

Tumbling into the garden, the group wows in unison: There’s a piano-shaped pool, and two humungous palms casting shadows across an immaculate lawn. Twin Palms may seem like a Hollywood hallucination, but it’s real, alright — you can even stay here for the modest sum of $2,600 a night.

After touring another residence, this one belonging to Sinatra’s spiritual heir (that’s Leo DiCaprio to you) I walk over to the newly opened Palm Springs Architecture And Design Center — a glossy, glass and steel construction that would happily slot into an episode of Mad Men.

Originally built as a bank in 1961, it’s the work of modernist mastermind E. Stewart Williams (also responsible for Twin Palms). A slick retrospective of Williams’ career is on display, including drawings, models, photos and film clips; the family tradition continues in the gift shop, where the architect’s daughter-in-law, Sidney Williams, has curated a MoMA-worthy selection of books, jewelry and accessories.

Later that evening, I find myself at the Preview Gala of the Palm Springs Modernism Show and Sale, deep in conversation with Sally and Bill, a local couple in their mid-sixties.

“Our home appeared in Architectural Digest this year,” Sally announces. “And we have exciting news,” says Bill. “We won ‘Best Living Room’ in Modern Luxury Interiors.” An image of my own living room flashes through my mind: a Lego volcano has recently erupted on the sofa, a sticky sea of candy wrappers is lapping around my ankles, and my five-year-old son is standing on his head, delightedly surveying the scene of devastation.

I excuse myself, and walk around the Convention Center, where 85 dealers are displaying their wares: vintage and mid-century furniture, paintings, lighting, and sculpture. Though there’s no mosh pit, it’s more the kind of crowd you’d see rocking out at a music festival than antiquing. No surprise, then, to learn that Goldenvoice, the company best known for Coachella, is now officially involved in the proceedings, or that the perennially cool Ace Hotel Palm Springs has launched its first spin-off events this year. It’s official: Modernism Week is getting bigger, better, and younger.

On my last morning, I escape the heat and hubbub of Palm Springs for the relative cool and calm of the Aerial Tramway. Another elegant E. Stewart Williams building, The Mountain Station affords sublime views of the Coachella Valley. Sunlight glitters on the windows of multimillion-dollar homes, and for a moment the city seems to wobble in the heat haze like a mirage: the figment of a fertile — and distinctly modern — imagination.

The Renaissance Hotels are part of the Marriott International portfolio.