Tips & Ideas

Tips & Ideas

Palm Springs: Retro Desert Chic

submitted by: Sheila Sobell & Richard N. Every

If you hanker after anexaggerated Hollywood sofa, a 1950’s boomerang table, or wacky 70’s chairs

, get yourself to Palm Springs mid-February for the annual Modernism Week. Palm Springs has one of the world’s largest collection of retro residences and commercial buildings in the world.

Since 2005, some 10,000 retro pilgrims a year have been descending on the city, buying out tour buses, searching out retro threads in consignment stores, and buying up retro reproductions (and sometimes the very pricey real thing).

Welcome to Modernism Week, when the homes, art, and furnishings created by a cadre of architects in the 1940s to 1970s are hero worshipped.  Don’t be surprised if you rub elbows with high flying celebrities like Tim Ross (aka Tim Rosso), one of Australia’s top comics, and his fashion publicist wife Michelle. Retro designed homes are a big celeb trend. According to Michelle, their house is so stuffed with retro finds that they’re considering building on a room!

Even if you can’t hit the city for the big event, not to worry.  Horse drawn, private and self-guided tours are available year round.

Retro Residences

Dressed in a classic 1960s patchwork sports coat and denim flares, Robert Imber is welcoming guests onboard the Double Decker Architecture Bus. Almost since Modernism Week’s debut,   Imber, desert modernism architectural historian, hasHMS_Surprise,_San_Diego_Maritime_Museum,_photo_by_Richard_N._Every

been translating esoteric terms like “googie” and “butterfly roof” into everyday vernacular.

As the bus snakes through residential neighborhoods, Imber describes how in the 1950s a visionary construction company and a brilliant young architect took the concept of post WWII mass-market housing and transformed it into housing tracts that looked like custom homes. For example, not only does each house in the Twin Palms Estates has a pair of palm trees on the front lawn, but the interior has a revolutionary “open-plan” design that creates the illusion of rooms flowing into each other.  “Curtain walls” of glass bring the outside inside by reflecting light from backyard swimming pools.  Seemingly weightless “cantilevered” roofs appear to hover above the house.

By rotating how the three bedroom houses sit on the lot and changing their rooflines, each of the 2500 homes has an individual look. What they have in common, says Imber, are four key design elements – parking (originally a carport), a breezeway (a roofed, open-sided passageway connecting the parking to the house), windows and walls, creating a distinctive architectural rhythm.

Dig Sinatra’s Digs

Time your visit right, and you could get to tour Frank Sinatra’spalm-springs1

iconic retro residence. Designed by E. Stewart Williams in 1947, the centerpiece of the 4500 sq. ft ranch-style property is  its signature piano-shaped swimming pool.  During Modernism Week, the Palm Springs Preservation Foundation ( features a tour of the estate. It’s fun to get “insider” gossip from the very knowledgeable guides, and gawk at the bathroom sink that allegedly took a hit (instead of Ava Gardner?) from a flying bottle of Jack Daniels.

Retro Perspective

One of America’s most engaging museums, the Palm Springs Art Museum


caps off Modernism Week’s offerings with all sorts of funky and educational events from a vintage fashion show to a slide show of retro Americana kitsch to a retrospective of Albert Frey, one of the most important modernist architects, and of course a silent auction!

Retro After Dark

At the very Hollywood glam Riviera Resort & Spa’s Circa 59 restaurant, Bradley Manchester prepares food worthy of a British super chef. Dinner is served just steps from the pool outdoors in the glow of a fire pit and trees strung with moonlights. It’s hard to believe that a three-course prix fixe dinner with wine pairings created by a chef trained at the Georges V in Paris, one of the world’s great restaurants, costs just $59.  This is one venue where both the culinary wizardry and the ambiance are perfectly coupled.

Another amazing gastronomical buy is Johannes restaurant (


listed practically from its opening in 1999, the very unpretentious wait staff doesn’t make you feel that you need to be James Beard to appreciate the food. The menu is Pan-Asian –Austrian, but the rave is the Wiener schnitzel breaded veal cutlet served with a choice of toppings like Gruyere and Fontina cheese ($10 at lunch!)

When Chef Mark Van Laanen, proprietor of three Wisconsin eateries, visited Palm Springs for a three-week holiday, he stayed six months. Convinced that the restaurants were “too pricey for locals,” he launched Trio ( in 2009. Updated comfort food (think Trio Mac and 5 cheese), the vibe is casual, the desserts worth gaining weight for, and the bill reasonable.

Clap it all off at The Fabulous Palm Springs Follies (, the iconic musical theatre where thepalm-springs2

body-suited strutting babe with the knock-out Folies-Bergère figure might actually be 86!  This is where professionals who danced on Broadway, dazzled in films and toured with greats like Louis Armstrong keep their hands in performing seven shows a week.

Shop Retropalm-springs3

Need a little Resale Therapy (


)? Here’s everything from Cher’s evening gown ($1523) to Prada shoes and vintage sundresses, even men’s duds. The longer the threads hang around, the cheaper they get.

Sleep Retro

With more than 70 mid-century boutique hotels, self-serviced villas, historic inns and grand resorts, Palm Springs does retro for every budget. Thanks to Internet specials, you can stay at some up market properties at affordable prices.palm-springs4

Put on the Ritz at what was once the Rat Pack’s favorite retreat – the Riviera Resort & Spa


The textiles are so superb they’re sure to inspire you to go retro! Striking pool design, an award-winning spa, bars, more.

If you don’t mind having the staff split at 5 pm, the eight room and suites San Giuliano (

is a real find. Even with a king bed, kitchenette and sofa bed, the Glass Hacienda  (which sleeps four)  cost just $99 when we were there in February 2010. Suites have Jacuzzis and private courtyards.

Hit the vintage shops for a macramé shawl; dig out your Nehru jacket, and get your bell bottoms on! Just think of all the funky add-ons you can find mid-February during Modernism Week.

If You Go

Up-to-date information on Modernism Week and Architecture Bus tickets for Feb. 18-27 2011 at

Retro horse drawn carriage tour at

Everything else you need to know about grooving in the desert


; 800-347-7746

Sheila Sobell and Richard N. Every are professional worldwide travel photojournalists. Visit them at



Photos courtesy of Richard N. Every and the Palm Springs Bureau of Tourism.