Fifteen years ago, when the design cognoscenti descended on Palm Springs, cleared away the tumbleweeds and started to renovate the 1950s houses beneath them, they created a mini modernist revival.

The culmination of their efforts is Palm Springs Modernism Week, (17-27 Feb), a small but growing festival of exhibitions, tours, lectures, films and parties. For ten days, a discerning, in-the-know crowd flocks to the desert town to sneak a peek at iconic and rarely-seen homes, courtesy of benevolent owners, sip cocktails at exclusive soirees and snap up mid-century finds in quirky shops and galleries - all to a backdrop of Rat Pack tunes, sunshine and retro vibes.

The Woodstock of Modernism fairs

It may jokingly be dubbed ‘the Woodstock of modernism fairs’, but the Palm Springs festival has a savvy commercial edge. Heavyweight dealers and collectors from all over the US also pitch up. At the convention centre, more than 75 galleries LA’s Reform gallery, Zeitgeist from Denver, New York dealer Mark McDonald and Chicago’s Converso gallery among them, trade rare and big ticket mid century pieces. New faces such as Object USA, a San Diego gallery eager to promote the little known arts and crafts scene from that city, also make a debut. Collectors Jill Wiltse and Kirk Brown III come from Denver every year for the festival. ‘Sure, we buy things here,’ says Brown, as he places a reserve on silkscreen panel by the late Barney Reid. ‘You can find interesting and unusual things.’ In the uptown design district, stores such as Galleria, 20 First and Studio 111, and Hedge in Cathedral City, seal Palm Springs’ position as a year-round Mecca for all things mid-century, and during the festival, the area is humming with exhibitions, private views and openings.

The Riviera Hotel

The Riviera, a 1959 resort hotel renovated three years ago with a splash of kitsch, is the festival’s hub. Throughout the week, open top buses depart on tours around areas such as Movie Colony and Las Palmas, where knowledgeable volunteers point out classics such Richard Neutra’s Kaufmann House, the Edris House by E. Stewart Williams, Albert Frey’s bijou pad perched on a hilltop, as well as cool retro hotels such as the Orbit Inn and the Horizon. For smaller or bespoke tours, it’s worth contacting Robert Imber (psmoderntours@aol.com) who starts his architectural odyssey from the breath-takingly futuristic Visitors Centre (designed by Frey in 1963) or Michael Stern , a writer and artist who can access almost any house in town.

Living legends

Most exciting of all, though, some of the living legends who created Palm Springs and its aesthetic, put in guest appearances. This year, architects Donald Wexler and William Krisel were headline acts. Both have been the subject of films by art house filmmakers Design Onscreen, who held screenings, lectures and symposiums throughout the week. Both were prolific, major players in the 1950s and 1960s; both knew or worked with other (now deceased) grandees such as John Lautner, William Cody, E. Stewart Williams and A.Quincy Jones. Now in their 80s, they are clearly enjoying their renaissance. At a sell-out lecture in the nearby village of Rancho Mirage, Krisel says:‘ I’m being asked all the time to take on new projects, or to remodel my old tract houses. And I retired 20 years ago!’

Palm Springs Art Museum

In an exhibition entitled ‘Steel and Shade, the Architecture of Donald Wexler’, the small but perfectly formed Palm Springs Art Museum pays tribute to the architect, who, in his 60–year career, trained with Neutra, worked for Cody, and designed the Palm Springs Airport, as well as many schools, civic buildings and houses in the Coachella Valley. The exhibition runs until May 29, and it’s worth checking out the permanent collection and the glorious, shaded sculpture gardens.

The Menrad house

One of the most exquisitely renovated Krisel-designed homes is the Menrad house on the Twin Palms Estates in Palm Springs. Owner Chris Menrad, a former trader from Manhattan, bought the run-down property in 1999 and undertook a painstaking and thorough restoration, sourcing original paint colours and materials on eBay, and seeking Krisel’s advice and approval throughout. The estate was built in 1957 and all 12 houses were designed to the same floor plan, but positioned differently, and come with Krisel’s signature feature- the butterfly roof. ‘When I bought this house, it has undergone many modifications, but once I had taken it back to its original form, it is amazing how contemporary it looks,’ says Menrad.

Menrad’s purist approach is not uncommon in Palm Springs and he is a board member of the Palm Springs Modern Committee (www.psmodcom.org) which actively seeks to preserve and promote many of the architectural gems that exist in the town and surrounding Coachella Valley. It pulled together the first mini modernism show back in 2000. Current festival director Jacques- Pierre Caussin, who organised Miami Modernism in the early 1990s and says; ‘Palm Springs was ready for it, and what started as a weekend symposium at the Art Museum has grown into an event with, we predict, around 25,000 visitors this year. We still want to improve on what we have.’

Palm Springs bounces back

Despite the ‘For Sale’ signs outside many properties, (and prices have plummeted since the crash), Palm Springs is bouncing back. The 200-acre Annenberg Estate, built by A.Quincy Jones in 1966 for publisher and diplomat Walter Annenberg, is this year opening as a museum and intellectual think tank. Next year, the art museum is opening a second gallery in the nearby town of Palm Desert, (the new A-list enclave) and it’s in the throes of securing a new space in which to open a design and architecture gallery on Palm Canyon Drive. Both the museum and the additional site were designed by E. Stewart Williams, a Palm Springs native, who built Frank Sinatra a house way out in the desert as one of his first commissions in 1947. William Holden, Bob Hope, Lucille Ball and a clutch of other presidents, royals and movie stars followed - and the rest is history.

TAGS: PALM SPRINGS