These past eras still loom large in this desert town located "99 miles from the Hollywood sign," as the locals like to say. Taxi drivers tell tales of Clark Gable zooming down North Palm Canyon Drive in his Auburn convertible with a 16-year-old starlet by his side. At Melvyn’s restaurant bartender David Downey loves to recount his days as Bob Hope’s head valet, and dining room manager Brian Ellis greets guests with a been there, done that–toned "If these walls could talk," pointing to framed photos of Frank, Dean, and Sammy. The vintage stores along North Palm Canyon Drive are doing brisk business in midcentury Lucite tables and Bakelite bangles. Old copies of Palm Springs Life magazine still sell out at 111 Antique Mall. "Those photo shoots of glamorous ladies from the fifties sitting by the pool with big cocktails and even bigger cocktail rings made me want to come out here," says Los Angeles–based fashion designer Trina Turk, who bought a weekend home in the city nine years ago and opened shop soon after. The truth is, the whole place could be just a nostalgia trip, except its history—both Hollywood Regency and midcentury modern—has never been more au courant.
The Curated Experience
This is basically a one-horse town," warns one longtime resident. There is some truth there, but that horse would have quite a grand time trotting back and forth along the northern stretch of North Palm Canyon Drive. The avenue is a vintage-design shopper’s paradise, with its focus on furniture and accessories from the forties through the sixties that perfectly fits the city’s history as a hotbed of modernist architecture and outrageous decor. Skip the desert jewelry and T-shirt stores and begin at Retrospect, where Laine Scott keeps an eclectic mix of old and new. There are Hans Wegner Danish wood chairs from 1956 ($4,500 each) and a custom rosewood sofa (from $10,000) built by Sam Spade, a 37-year-old Washington State–based designer whom Scott recently discovered. "Listen," says Scott, "Karl Springer benches are all over the place out here. I try very hard to fill the shop with things that are important but that you won’t see again at the next three stores down the street." Case in point: pieces by Ed Rizzardi, a protégé of 91-year-old master woodworker Sam Maloof. Scott heard about him through a client, tracked him down at his studio in southern California, and now carries a selection of the artisan’s one-of-a-kind highly stylized wood benches and rocking chairs (from $5,000).
Across the street at Modern Way, two oversize white Egg chairs with canary-yellow cushions ($4,500 for the pair) hold court in the window. Inside there’s a focus on Arthur Elrod, the American decorator famous for creating the übermod decor for the house featured in the James Bond film Diamonds Are Forever: a custom-designed white snakeskin cabinet with orange lacquer drawers ($1,800), a set of chrome chairs lined in fluffy white flokati ($18,000), a lime-green lacquer buffet ($2,400). The boutique is owned and presided over by Courtney Newman, an Elrod specialist and a founding member of the Palm Springs Modernism Committee. He is also a member of the Architecture and Design Counsel and the Palm Springs Preservation Foundation. "There are plenty of vintage stores here that carry the midcentury names everyone seems to know about these days," says Newman. "I like to show some of the odder pieces, things that are very Palm Springs."
"Very Palm Springs" is a phrase tossed around a lot: "Bright," "over the top," and even "psychedelic" are terms used to qualify it. All are on proud display at Dazzles, Mike Saul’s boutique specializing in vintage Bakelite bracelets, fluorescent flower pins, cocktail shakers, and resin grapes. The shop is tucked away behind a dentist’s office, but as Saul says, "Follow the pink flamingo out in front"— it leads to a courtyard set up with perfectly restored patio furniture from the twenties and sixties (from $75 for a white plastic beach chair to $1,695 for a vintage cross lounge). The space itself is packed with a costume jewelry collection Saul has worked on for more than 25 years, including the largest, most vividly colored display of authentic Bakelite we’ve seen. "I can spot ’fake-ilite’ from a mile away," says Saul. "There is nothing in here that is a reproduction. I deal in wearable art." The enameled flower pins are also from the late fifties and sixties as are the turquoise and orange resin grape clusters that Saul says he can’t keep in stock. "I have about fifty clients who are serious collectors of those pieces," he says. "I think it reminds them of their mother’s coffee table." Saul has a cabinet stocked floor to ceiling with vintage barware, too. Some of it is pure kitsch. But in between the say when cartoon shot glasses are chrome Ferris wheel–style martini sets and collectible Georges Briard ashtrays.
The sometimes blindingly bright local style continues at the Trina Turk boutique, which showcases the designer’s wildly printed men’s and women’s clothing. Turk has become something of an unofficial spokesperson for Palm Springs delights, even producing a free map of her favorite stores and sights.
Not listed but also "very Palm Springs" is 20 First Modern & Vintage, where Glenn Clarke and Nilda Rodriguez have packed a room with vintage yellow-and-white ceramic glowing lamps ($450), turquoise and lime-green leather sofas ($1,600), a Hollywood Regency white lacquer dresser ($2,300), and a C. Jere brass sea urchin–shaped wall sculpture ($1,200).
For what it’s worth, David Limburger, who owns Studio 111 with Robert Fisher, thinks the whole idea that a piece of furniture can be very Palm Springs is, as he puts it, "bull. It’s a cliché and it has nothing to do with what is available in my store. These objects are as sophisticated as anything in a well-appointed Manhattan apartment." He does have a point. The selection at the elegantly edited gallerylike space at the foot of the Palm Springs Tramway station is a bit sleeker and more subdued, with a European influence. They include a wood-and-rope Danish Harp chair, circa 1968, by Jorgen Hovelskov ($4,200); a sharp-edged teal-and-white-leather Torso chair by Paolo Deganello ($7,500); the Dalíesque red lip–shaped Marilyn sofa, circa 1972, from the Milan-based Studio 65. Still, we think the white lacquer and faux-leopard Safari sofa ($28,000) looks particularly good exactly where it is.
The eye does eventually crave a break from all the lacquer and Lucite. Dwight Polen is a chicly spare gallery of Chinese antiques dating from the mid-19th through the early 20th centuries. An 1890 wood armoire ($6,800) traditionally used by textile traders holds a collection of glazed wine pots from Gansu Province (from $165). Painted calligraphy brushes (from $285) are displayed with a group of prayer god statuettes bearing names like balance, creativity, and harmony (from $125). Two carved white stone planters from Beijing, circa 1920 ($1,200 for the pair), sit in front of a pair of turn-of-the-century Chinese scrolls ($1,250).
There is nothing spare about House 849, a recently opened store that sells contemporary and vintage pieces. Even with more than 8,000 square feet, the place feels crowded: Gilded mirrors lean on ponyskin-covered stools, French Revival dining chairs stand on top of marble coffee tables. But after we had a few minutes to focus, a number of items stood out, including two enormous wooden Foo dogs ($5,800), a zebra-print- upholstered wingback chair (11,900), a rare majolica pineapple plate ($1,375), and a set of vivid turquoise glazed bird figurines ($980 for the pair).
The Treasure Hunt
For every Palm Springs vintage design store curated by an owner who is passionate and knowledgeable about midcentury modern, there is a local thrift shop where a friend of a friend of a friend scored a Karl Springer table for $200 and a Chanel jacket for $50. The best of these are 111 Antique Mall, Palm Springs Consignment, and the Estate Sale Company. Located in a strip mall right off North Palm Canyon, 111 Antique Mall has a garage sale atmosphere, but the day we went we uncovered circa-1950 black metal and patent-leather chairs acquired from the storage room of the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel ($295); a 1970 Danish modern white fiber- glass sofa and chair with orange cushion ($1,695 for the set); a selection of turquoise British ceramic horses ($325); a framed Vanity Fair cover of Cindy Crawford shaving K. D. Lang, signed by the singer ($125); and two space-age-looking chairs that turned out to be from the set of one of the Star Trek movies ($500 for the pair!). Palm Springs Consignment offers a more carefully chosen selection: a Lucite-and-chrome coffee table by Charles Hollis Jones ($1,800) and a Saarinen dining table with chairs ($3,300). The Estate Sale Company, located off North Palm Canyon and directly across the street from the Parker hotel, is, swears Trina Turk, the place for vintage jewelry, especially cocktail rings. "It’s hard to find great furniture because the dealers show up so early," the designer says, "but I love the giant gold nugget and starburst rings I got there. They are like miniature light fixtures."
Rumors swirl about pending Palm Springs hotel deals. The Mondrian, the Hard Rock, the St. Regis, and hotelier Jeff Klein have all scouted for or recently bought properties. Right now, however, The Parker is the only resort in town (though the Ritz-Carlton, Rancho Mirage, on the grounds of the old Lodge hotel, is set to offer up major competition when it opens in summer 2008).
Sprawled over a 13-acre estate, The Parker is decorated by Jonathan Adler in a style he has described as "your great-aunt’s estate. She traveled the world and had innate panache." Guests would do well to visit Adler’s Web site before going (jonathanadler.com), if only to familiarize themselves with his aesthetic and sometimes too-cute-for-words terminology. It will certainly help when they wonder why two knights in armor stand front and center in the lobby, and why a seaweed wrap at the excellent hotel spa is referred to in the menu as Creature from the Beautiful Lagoon. The idea of the hotel as the province of an eccentric Mrs. Parker is sometimes taken too far: The boutique Veri Peri showcases objects picked up by her "daughter" while traveling the world; the wildly decorated, dimly lit Mr. Parker restaurant belongs to her wayward "husband." But there is a sense of both glamour and comfort in the resort. Both the lanai suites, in a well-manicured courtyard with a small pool, and the Gene Autry two-bedroom house, once the home of the original singing cowboy, are done in a mixture of Adler’s furniture line and vintage pieces. Personal touches such as copies of Scruples, Valley of the Dolls, Good-bye Columbus, and old Christie’s auction catalogues act as knowing accessories. General manager Thomas Meding, who came to The Parker after two and a half years at the Ritz-Carlton in Washington, D.C., reminds guests that "they are not at a hotel but at a home." He may, however, want them to forget a recent reality TV show set at the hotel. It did the property a great disservice. In my experience I found the hotel professionally run, and breakfast at Norma’s is reason enough to stay here.
Most people, though, do not visit Palm Springs for the latest advances in cuisine. At Melvyn’s, Ristorante Mamma Gina, and Le Vallauris, nostalgia is the main ingredient on the menu. Ristorante Mamma Gina, says hotelier Jeff Klein, owner of the City Club in Manhattan and the Sunset Tower in Los Angeles, "is frozen in time. I order the fried zucchini, veal scallopine, keep the wine coming, and pretend Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, or Lauren Bacall might walk through the door at any time." At Melvyn’s a signature dish is warm spinach salad prepared à table. And at Le Vallauris, a restaurant Trina Turk describes as "old-school Palm Springs," there are Flemish tapestries and Louis XV furniture—in the desert. One nod to the present is Cactusberry, the Palm Springs answer to Los Angeles’s Pinkberry frozen yogurt craze. Here, all spoons and serving cups are biodegradable.
Private Palm Springs
A drive through Palm Springs neighborhoods like Vista Las Palmas, Old Las Palmas, Little Tuscany, and the Movie Colony in realtor Lisa Casey’s Toyota Prius reinforces the city’s modernist legacy. On one corner is Richard Neutra’s famous Kaufmann house; on another there’s a Donald Wexler, on yet another a William Cody. Many of these sites are off-limits to visitors except during Modernism Week (see "Mod Squad"), but it is possible to stay in a midcentury modern Palm Springs home. Casey has an impressive roster of places for rent and sale, among them a three-bedroom Alexander home with a pool and a mountain view ($995) and the former estate of Christina Onassis, which sleeps up to 17 ($1,550).
A final note: Nothing has yet been said of the weather which, along with midcentury architecture and vintage shopping, is why people visit Palm Springs. High season is from mid-January through May, when the temperature ranges from about 80 degrees during the day to 65 at night. Summers are unbearable. Do not believe anyone when they talk about the virtues of dry heat.
The Parker 4200 E. Palm Canyon Dr.; 760-770-5000
Cactusberry 116 La Plaza St.; 760-325-3228
Melvyn’s 200 West Ramon Rd.; 760-325-2323
La Vallauris 385 W. Tahquitz Canyon Way; 760-325-5059
Ristorante Mamma Gina 73-705 El Paseo, Palm Desert; 760-568-9898
Dazzles 1035 N. Palm Canyon Dr.; 760-327-1446
Dwight Polen 756 N. Palm Canyon Dr.; 760-318-7227
The Estate Sale company 4185 E. Palm Canyon Dr.; 760-321-7628
House 849 849 N. Palm Canyon Dr.; 760-325-7854
Modern Way 745 N. Palm Canyon Dr.; 760-320-5455
111 Antique Mall 2500 N. Palm Canyon Dr.; 760-864-9390
Palm Springs Consignment 2100 N. Palm Canyon Dr.; 760-416-0704
Retrospect 666 N. Palm Canyon Dr., 760-416-1766
Studio 111 2675 N. Palm Canyon Dr.; 760-323-5104
Trina Turk 891 N. Palm Canyon Dr.; 760-416-2856
20 First Modern & Vintage 1117 N. Palm Canyon Dr.; 760-327-5400
Lisa Casey, Realtor 760-641-8722
High season may be from January through May, but Palm Springs is busiest during Modernism Week (February 15–24; modernismweek.com), an annual three-year-old celebration of art, architecture, and design. The events, ranging from a modernism show and sale to tours of private architecturally significant homes, are a collaboration between several local museums and preservation groups, some formed in protest over the recent destruction of modernist landmarks by Richard Neutra and Albert Frey. This year’s highlights include a rare guided visit to Frey’s residence and the opening of the Julius Shulman retrospective at the Palm Springs Art Museum. The exhibition (February 15–May 4; psmuseum.com) will spotlight Shulman’s photographs of Palm Springs architecture over a 70-year span; among them is his famous shot of Neutra’s Kaufmann House, above. The exhibit follows the recent publication of Julius Shulman Modernism Rediscovered, a 1,008-page, three-volume set featuring never-before-seen images ($300).