Modernism 101: Why Is Palm Springs an Epicenter for Modernism—and Why Should Anybody Care? Modernism Week Chairman Chris Mobley Explains.Written by Jimmy Boegle
From Thursday, Feb. 12, through Sunday, Feb. 22, an estimated 45,000 people will descend on the Coachella Valley for Modernism Week, the annual celebration of the architecture and style of the 1950s and 1960s.
If you’re a fan of modernism, architecture in general, or the styles made popular when baby boomers were coming of age … great! You probably already have your tickets in hand for various Modernism Week events and tours.
But what about those of us—your humble scribe included—who don’t know much about modernism? What should we make of Modernism Week? Why should we care?
These are the very questions I asked Chris Mobley (right), the chairman of the Modernism Week board, during a recent interview. Beyond his Modernism Week duties, Mobley is the owner of Just Modern, the amazingly cool furniture store located at 901 N. Palm Canyon Drive, No. 101.
For more information on Modernism Week, or to buy tickets for Modernism Week events, visit www.modernismweek.com.
Here is an edited version of our chat.
Let’s start with a very broad question: Why is modernism important and worthwhile?
Modernism culture is trending right now, because baby boomers are coming of age, where they can afford a second home, and they’re looking to retire in places like Palm Springs. Palm Springs is really defined by its architecture and its culture, its fashion and design, and all of that is tied into … modern architecture. Today, you’re finding more baby boomers feeling nostalgic about coming back to Palm Springs and seeing all the stuff they may remember as a child. Maybe their parents had it, or their grandparents had it. So Modernism Week kind of represents everything that’s happening here in Palm Springs.
Why is Palm Springs such a hub for modernism? How did Palm Springs become such a haven for this style?
Palm Springs probably has the largest number of midcentury homes and commercial buildings, built in the 1950s and 1960s, per capita. A lot of those have been untouched; we avoided what happened to a lot of homes (in other places) in the 1980s—slapping stucco on and trying to make (the homes) look like Spanish modern or something. A lot of the homes are still as they were in the 1950s and 1960s. The same goes with a lot of the commercial buildings here in Palm Springs.
Let’s talk specifically about Modernism Week, and use me as an example: I love art, but I’m a little bit younger than the baby boomer demographic. I’m intrigued by architecture, but when it comes to “modernism,” I really don’t know much about it. What would you recommend for a beginner like me in terms of enjoying Modernism Week?
One thing I would recommend for anybody coming to Modernism Week is the Architectural Bus Tour. It’s a double-decker bus, where you can sit on top of the bus with a docent, and you drive around through all the neighborhoods and through the commercial district, and you learn the history of Palm Springs—where Frank Sinatra lived, where Elvis Presley had his honeymoon—and the development of certain neighborhoods by particular architects. That will give anyone an overview of Palm Springs and the modernism culture here.
I also think that going on one of our neighborhood tours … is a good way to get inside of some of the homes, to see what they look like. People have really put a lot into making sure the homes look like they would have back in the 1950s or 1960s, with the décor and art and furniture.
One thing we’re doing differently this year is we’re having a festival called CAMP—the Community and Meeting Place. This is a 10-day event where you can come into a 25,000-square-foot indoor-outdoor space with hospitality suites, purchase tickets that are still available, enjoy a lounge where you can sit with like-minded people—and even charge your phone. We have a theater where, with a CAMP pass, you can go in and see lectures and movies throughout the week. There are happy hours every day in our courtyard from 3 to 6 p.m. We’ll have a café and a Modern Marketplace where you can see the latest in modern design. This is a good place to get a feel for the people who are coming in for Modernism Week, and hang out and have discussions between events.
Let’s talk about a different type of person—someone who doesn’t think he or she really cares at all about modernism. Try to convince that person that modernism and Modernism Week are important.
As an organization and an event, we celebrate far more than midcentury modern architecture. We also celebrate our new architects—those who are testing limits, crossing boundaries and doing buildings and homes that are relevant to Palm Springs. … I would say to people who aren’t into architecture: Come for the parties. We have parties and happy hours almost every night, where there are themes—say, you can dress up as a 1960s TV character. That’s our opening-night event, called “Throwback Thursday.” It’s just a lot of fun.
What, in your mind, makes modernism special?
That’s an interesting question. Modernism is a style that is relevant today. There are a lot of young furniture designers and artists and architects who were influenced by the 1950s and 1960s. A lot of the items I carry in my store, Just Modern, are designed by artists who weren’t alive in the 1950s or 1960s, but are taking inspiration from the midcentury modern period or the Palm Springs lifestyle. So modernism is relevant to, say, a young couple who is living in L.A., maybe in an urban development or a condo.
What about a young person who may not have the money to buy a lot of the furniture and other items inspired by modernism? Why should that person care? Or should they care?
Well, they should. Let me back up a little bit: Modernism Week is full of paid events, but we also have a large number of events that are free to the public. It’s great to come to experience the Palm Springs lifestyle … and learn about our history. … Around 45,000 people (will come in for Modernism Week) … but you don’t have to break the bank to be a part of it. For example, the Hot Purple Energy bike tour is free, where you get on a bike and ride around and get to see a lot of the buildings that you would see on the paid tours. … Palm Springs is a hot destination right now for young people, so there is a lot of exposure (to Palm Springs) for the younger generation. They’re here celebrating at the Coachella (Valley) Music and Arts Festival, or Splash House, or any of these other things—and they’re being exposed to what Palm Springs is all about as far as architecture, fashion and culture.
Let’s talk about midcentury modern architecture specifically. What one or two buildings would you recommend that really show off what the style is all about?
The Kaufmann house in Palm Springs is one of the most celebrated buildings here. It was featured in a famous 1970s photograph by Slim Aarons called “Poolside Gossip,” which is one of the most famous photos taken in Palm Springs. You don’t really need to get inside these homes to see their architecture. Another would be the “House of Tomorrow,” which is where Elvis and Priscilla Presley had their honeymoon. … (As for what’s included on Modernism Week tours), I would recommend the Steel House tour, featuring steel homes which were designed by Donald Wexler in the 1950s. The other (recommended tour) would be the Frank Sinatra “Twin Palms” Estate.
Getting beyond buildings: Tell me about some furniture, some items and some trends that show off what’s really cool about modernism.
What’s trending now are clean lines in furniture design. You can see that at almost all of the stores here in Palm Springs. Walnut was a wood that was used in the midcentury modern period, and today, there’s a huge draw for that handcrafted, really solid, clean piece of furniture made from walnut. (Something else) that you might see in Palm Springs that you wouldn’t see so much in other areas: really bright colors—ceramics or art or accessories that are primarily orange, aqua or chartreuse.
One last question for you: Give me the pitch to someone who is on the fence about Modernism Week, on why they should care, and why they should participate.
First, come out for the excitement and the energy that’s created during Modernism Week by all the people coming into town from all over the world. Second, considering the weather in February, it’s the best time to be (out and about) in Palm Springs, when it’s cold and snowy almost throughout the rest of the country. For a local person participating in Modernism Week, you can go into your neighbor’s house and see how it’s decorated! We have (more than 20) neighborhood organizations all opening up homes. What’s great about the neighborhood tours is the majority of money that’s being made through Modernism Week goes back out to the neighborhoods, the neighborhood organizations and our partner organizations. As a nonprofit, Modernism Week is the event that pulls all of these organizations together to improve the neighborhoods and help with preservation efforts. We also have a scholarship program. The money that people are paying for tickets—it all is going to a good cause.