Inside Palm Springs’ Mid-20th Century Modernist Palaces

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Arthur Elrod HouseCourtesy of Rizzoli

Between the desert and the mountains sits an oasis-like city comprising some of the early 20th century’s most iconic buildings

“The air is fresher, the sunshine more intense, the stars at night are brighter, and the cocktails just taste better,” says fashion designer Tina Turk in the foreword penned for photographer and author Tim Street-Porter’s new book Palm Springs: A Modernist Paradise. As the oasis-like city shows signs of experiencing a cultural renaissance among fashion and art’s most constantly connected generation yet, Street-Porter’s sun-drenched collection of shots serves as an endearing reminder of the beauty of disconnection, the desert’s relationship with 20th-century Hollywood and its role in forming one of architecture’s most iconically frivolous eras. 

Enveloped by the dry landscape of the Coachella Valley, Palm Springs’ arid climate is shielded from the pollution of the Los Angeles Basin by conveniently positioned mountains. Visitors were initially drawn to the area by the tubercular ailment-healing qualities of the desert air, but by the 1920s the city was a socially indulgent magnet for wealthy escapees of the harsh East Coast. Unsurprisingly, these visitors soon became the developers who saw a dream they could easily sell to the rich and playful, who resided a mere 100 miles away. Suddenly film-making’s elite could combine pleasure, production and privacy — there wasn’t a photographer in sight — and desert-shot films became key to the thriving economy of the area.

As film executives, crews and the stars themselves found increasing work locally, they began to see the advantages of investing in property, rather than racking up obscene hotel bills. Subsequently, the architecture captured by Street-Porter is defined by its consistently frivolous take on the Modernism that was so pivotal to LA’s cultural identity. Celebrated houses by Richard Neutra, Rudolph Schindler, and Irving Gill were built there in the early 1920s, but it wasn’t until 1937 that Neutra designed a tiny, pavilion-like house for Grace Lewis Miller, a physiotherapist in Palm Springs. It was included in the prestigious 1938 Museum of Modern Art travelling exhibition of contemporary residential design, and was recently restored by its current owner, Catherine Meyler. A string of renowned architects followed suit, and Street-Porter’s book, published by Rizzoli, takes us insides properties designed by architects such as Albert Frey, A. Lawrence Kocher, William F. Cody, Donald Wexler, E. Stewart Williams and his brother Paul Williams. These pivotal figures continued to infiltrate this socially fertile ground throughout the 1940s and 50s, shaping the Palm Springs Modernism we continue to admire today.

Palm Springs: A Modernist Paradise by Tim Street-Porter is available to buy now, published by Rizzoli.