In Palm Springs, exploring a midcentury modern design oasis

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      When I ask the hostess outside the posh Norma’s restaurant where to find the restroom, she doesn’t skip a beat. “Go straight,” she says, gesturing through the hotel lobby, “and turn right between the two armed knights.”

      Of course there are life-sized knights in shining armour guarding the restrooms. I’m at the Parker hotel in Palm Springs, California, where the décor is eccentric, to say the least. Wandering around the lush, sprawling property, I marvel at over-the-top touches, like these knights and a black-and-gold DRUGS sign over a faux fireplace, that give the colourful Jonathan Adler interiors a surreal feel. At the Parker’s front desk, the clerk’s jacket is the exact same shade of fuchsia as the bougainvillea arrangement he stands next to. On the brunch menu at Norma’s, there’s a $1,000 lobster frittata—topped with 10 ounces of Sevruga caviar—listed below the $28 lobster and asparagus omelette, just in case you’re feeling flush.

      The decor at the Park Hotel Palm Springs is eclectic to say the least.
      Carolyn Ali

      Everywhere I go in Palm Springs, it feels like I’ve entered another world. Perhaps that’s because there’s so much style in this desert oasis, where old meets new and—in the case of the Parker—morphs into something else entirely.

      It’s my first time in Palm Springs, and the city surprises me the moment I get off the plane. I’m here for the fall preview weekend of Modernism Week, an annual festival held in February that celebrates midcentury-modern design, architecture, fashion, and culture. Weekend getaways—like parties—are always more fun with a theme, and this blast from the past starts with my first blast of hot, dry desert air. The outdoor-oriented international airport, with its white, structured canopy terminal, was designed by modernist architect Donald Wexler in 1965. It hints at the 1950s and ’60s architecture that’s prevalent throughout Palm Springs.

      It’s mere minutes by car to the downtown, which, thanks to regulations that have preserved the city’s heritage and lovely views of the San Jacinto Mountains, doesn’t really feel like a downtown. Instead of high-rises, you look up and see towering clusters of palm trees swaying against a cerulean sky.

      The gardens at the Parker Palm Springs.
      Carolyn Ali

      The city and its surrounding desert communities in the Coachella Valley (home to the same-named music and arts festival) have an easygoing vibe that’s been attracting vacationers for decades. Hollywood celebrities started coming to Palm Springs in the 1920s, since it was just close enough to Los Angeles to fulfill the “two-hour rule” imposed by Hollywood studios. (Actors under contract had to be able to get to the studio within that window for last-minute shoots.)

      Over time, it became a retreat for stars like Frank Sinatra, Kirk Douglas, and Marilyn Monroe; now, actors including Leonardo DiCaprio own midcentury-modern homes in the area.

      The retro tramway gas station is now the Palm Springs Visitors Center.
      Carolyn Ali

      Plenty of regular folk also vacationed here in the 1950s and ’60s, and hotels from that era have been carefully restored, along with modest homes and other buildings. (The wonderfully angular tramway gas station, designed by Albert Frey in 1963, now houses the Palm Springs Visitors Center.) These days, Palm Springs is a delightful place to visit because it’s a mecca of desert modernist architecture—an elegant style that blends indoor and outdoor spaces and features clean lines and plenty of glass.

      As a visitor, it’s easy to immerse yourself in this beguiling aesthetic. Midcentury-modern vacation rentals abound, as do small motel-style properties built around a central pool that have been transformed into chic boutique hotels. The latest example is the Palm Springs Hotel, a sleek orange-and-grey operation that will open its doors on November 10.

      In Desert Hot Springs, a 20-minute drive away, the Hotel Lautner offers the opportunity to stay in the 1947 getaway built by renowned architect John Lautner; the four rooms have magical touches like windows over the beds through which you can see the stars.

      Revamped from its motel history, the Saguaro Palm Springs has each room painted in one of 12 riotous hues.
      Carolyn Ali

      I’m staying at the Saguaro Palm Springs, a three-storey structure built in 1965 that was a Holiday Inn in a previous life. In 2012, the Joie de Vivre group gave it a wild make-over, and now it’s a riot of colour: each room and its corresponding balcony are painted one of 12 vibrant shades, including tangerine, lime green, and hot pink.

      I laugh out loud when I open my lipstick-red door and take in my room’s royal-purple carpet, fuchsia walls, and matching red dresser, headboard, and window sheers. While I wouldn’t want to live with this décor permanently, it’s fun to experience for a few nights, and the view of the action at the courtyard pool has vacation written all over it.

      My style is a little more subdued, and I find homes to swoon over while going for a run south of the Saguaro at sunrise. Well, running is a bit of a stretch: the architecture in the Twin Palms Estates neighbourhood is so captivating that it’s more like a jog-and-stop routine as I snap photos.

      Developers George and Robert Alexander, working with architect William Krisel, constructed homes here in the mid 1950s, and the area might as well be a movie set: each house is unique and has features like high clerestory windows, concrete-block breezeways, and open carports.

      I stop short in front of one gorgeous sage-green home with a floating butterfly roof and louvred windows, where a vintage car is parked out front. A curbside plaque tells me that the 1957 heritage house was designed by Krisel and Dan Palmer, and I later learn that Krisel consulted on owner Chris Menrad’s 1999 restoration.

      While it’s easy to rubberneck these houses from the street—there are plenty of guided tours and self-guided apps—it’s more challenging to get a chance to tour inside them. That’s the beauty of Modernism Week—it’s an opportunity to see inside architectural gems like the Albert Frey House II as well as private homes, whose owners open them up as event and party venues.

      “That’s our Christmas in the world of modernistas,” says J. R. Roberts as I preview the new Palm Springs Art Museum’s Architecture and Design Center. Roberts is the centre’s managing director and a midcentury-modern enthusiast. “People are so excited to get into these houses,” he says of the 100 or so private buildings that open up for Modernism Week, noting that many of them have interiors lovingly decorated in period style.

      Of course, there are places like this design centre, where, very soon, you’ll be able to delve deeper into the midcentury aesthetic any time of year. Located in downtown Palm Springs, the newly restored 1961 bank building designed by E. Stewart Williams will open its doors on November 9. The centre will house changing exhibitions on 20th- and 21st-century architecture and design; the first will be a retrospective of the career of Williams, who was one of the most important architects of the desert-modern style.

      A bookstore is housed inside the original bank vault at the Palm Springs Art Museum's new Architecture and Design Center.
      Carolyn Ali

      Even the centre’s gift shop is remarkable: it’s built into the original bank vault and has a gorgeous bolt-studded steel door etched with a circle pattern on the inside. “This is why modernists get excited,” says Roberts, showing off the beautiful, functional locking wheel. “People cared in those days about how things looked and felt.”

      Indeed, I realize as I explore midcentury architecture over the course of the weekend, well-designed buildings just make you feel good. And if you can spend a few days soaking up the vibes of another era along with some sunshine, all the better.

      Access: Modernism Week takes place from February 12 to 22 in 2015. On December 11 this year, many of Palm Springs’ retro boutique hotels will open their doors for an annual self-guided walking tour; see the Inn Walk Palm Springs.

      Both WestJet and Air Canada rouge (starting December 19) operate direct seasonal flights from YVR to Palm Springs.

      The writer visited as a guest of the Greater Palm Springs Convention and Visitors Bureau; for tourist info, see Visit Greater Palm Springs.