Brad Korzen is finally allowing himself a minute to relax, sitting with his eight-month-old son, Oliver, on his lap in a black-and-white tented pavilion on the lush grounds of the Estrella inn. This is the latest pearl in his string of boutique hotels, which include the Avalon and Maison 140 in Beverly Hills and the Viceroy in Santa Monica. A cell phone and pager have been going all day as final touches are put in place for the new reception area, spa, and dining room that will service the 77 rooms, studios, suites, and private villas dispersed over 3.5 acres spread at the base of the San Jacinto Mountains. The hotel, which has been open for the past few months, is already generating a buzz, as it is unlike anything else in this enclave so famous for its iconic midcentury-modern aesthetic. Korzen, a 39-year-old Chicago native and CEO of the Kor Hotel Group, cuts new cloth for the image of the young real estate tycoon. Elegant, intense, and soft-spoken, he is making his mark turning diamonds in the rough into polished gems. "It's always about the location," he says, gazing out over the landscaped gardens toward the mountain rockface burning gold in the setting sun. "When I first saw this property I thought it had great potential; it just needed to be refreshed."
And ever since a chance meeting with interior designer Kelly Wearstler seven years ago, which led to Korzen hiring her to decorate his own residence (and ultimately their recent marriage), she has been transforming Kor's boutique hotels into red-hot properties that have the hospitality industry knocking at her door. Wearstler's company, Kwid, founded in 1994, handles all of this as well as a roster of residential clients. She also designed the Trina Turk boutique in Palm Springs. Her first book, Unexpected Style, will be published by HarperCollins' Regan Books this fall.
This diminutive beauty, who looks like a cover girl, sports a mix and match of her favorite designers (McCartney, McQueen, and Dolce & Gabbana) as she pursues her high-octane schedule. "On a two-week trip Brad and I would typically stay in twelve hotels," Kelly says. And while hotel-hopping around the world may seem exhausting to some, Kelly shrugs if off, saying, "It's not a big deal for me to just pack up and go. But now, with Oliver, it's another story."
A native of South Carolina, the 35-year-old decorator studied at the Massachusetts College of Arts in Boston and did postgraduate work at New York's School of Visual Arts before taking on a job in an architectural firm and an apprenticeship in the office of graphic designer Milton Glaser. She describes her bold theatrical style as "old-world Hollywood with a modern vibe." Her daring evokes the days when Hollywood and Palm Springs basked in the freedom of their own self-invented glamour. Kelly has concocted a modernist sensibility laced with a hybrid of classical design elements.
At the Viceroy hotel she whipped up a froth of high-gloss English Regency with emerald green as the reigning hue. Maison 140, with its lipstick-red accents, is an ode to Gigi's Paris. But at the Avalon she has played it cool with a restrained palette. Korzen's design directive to Kelly is always the same: "Here's the canvas." And the results are always a surprise. Each project is completely different.
Estrella, which means star in Spanish, was originally a series of Spanish-style stucco bungalows built in 1933. The property was expanded in the 1950s to include more bungalows and condo-style buildings housing single rooms. The hotel boasts a glamorous past, as it quickly became a favorite haunt of the film industry.
Here, Tyrone Power, Errol Flynn, Joan Crawford, and Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz joined stars like Bing Crosby, who always rented Bungalow 101. Orson Welles left his own legacy, staging spectacular fights with the fiery Mexican actress Lupe Velez, who would leave irate messages written in lipstick on the mirrors. FDR was known to check in (though never officially), and Elvis slipped in under the radar as well.
Kelly's biggest challenge during the two-year renovation was not just refurbishing the stucco bungalows but also addressing the overgrown grounds, already their own Eden, planted with an abundance of orange, grapefruit, and lemon trees. At night the spectacular finger-thin Mexican fan palms that dot the property are lit at their crowns only, making them appear as shimmering apparitions in the sky. Japanese privet, white iceberg roses, bougainvillea, aloe, and agaves have been added to the formal landscape design.
The interiors have been redone in a modern Hollywood Regency style. It is a very particular decor that was popularized in the 1970s, when designers would take modest boxy bungalows in West Hollywood and give them a more important pedigree by adding decorative French-style facades that were whimsical and inventive. Kelly has conjured up her own embellishments to the exteriors of the villas, outfitting the patios with curtains and cushioned banquets for alfresco coffee or cocktails.
The refreshing palette throughout is a bracing blend of iced-milk whites laced with accents of licorice, citrus, and tart persimmon. All of the furniture has been custom-designed by Kelly, along with the black-and-white curtains that envelop the villa bedrooms at night. The mix of black-and-white leaf wallpaper, black-and-white-check upholstery, and white-lacquer cabinets with mirrored drawer pulls evokes the spirit of Kelly's design idols, Tony Duquette and David Hicks. Painted cast-iron whippets stand guard at the entrance of every Estrella villa. You can't help but smile at this escape-to-indulge ethic. After all, it's been at the heart of the Palm Springs experience from the start.
"In my book, I say that laughter is always a room's best accessory," says Kelly. And with that pronouncement, she takes a swig of Mountain Dew and turns with open arms to greet Oliver, who has just awakened from his afternoon nap.
Rates: $159-$599. 415 South Belardo Road, Palm Springs, California; 760-320-4117; www.estrellapalmsprings.com.
Kelly Wearstler's Palm Springs Picks
For the Home—Vintage and Otherwise
191-A South Indian Canyon Drive; 760-325-0878
798 and 844 North Palm Canyon Drive; 760-323-4443
Estate Sale Company
4185 East Palm Canyon Drive; 760-321-7628
La Gallaria Consignments
71-713 Highway 111, Rancho Mirage; 760-776-9880
2755 North Palm Canyon Drive; 760-320-5455
Dressing the Part
891 North Palm Canyon Drive; 760-416-2856
Patsy's Clothes Closet (Vintage)
4121 East Palm Canyon Drive; 760-324-8825
Out to Lunch—and Dinner
Wally's Desert Turtle
71-775 Highway 111, Rancho Mirage; 760-568-9321
385 West Tahquitz Canyon Way; 760-325-5059
Citron at the Estrella
415 South Belardo Road; 760-320-4117
Spencer's at the Palm Springs Tennis Club
701 West Baristo Road; 760-327-3446
196 South Indian Canyon Drive; 760-778-0017