Luxury Outlook 2023
An ambitious exploration into high-end residential markets across the globe.
Palm Springs Modernism Week is like “spring break” for lovers of mid-century architecture and design, says Lisa Vossler Smith, executive director of the annual event. For 11 days each February, a discerning flock descends on the Southern Californian desert town to relive the scenes captured by photographers Julius Shulman and Slim Aarons—whose images of houses by John Lautner and Richard Neutra captured a fusion of Modernism and post-war optimism against the desert backdrop.
In the mid-20th century, Palm Springs became a center for creative architecture that adapted the functionalism of Bauhaus to the extreme desert climate. The resulting desert modern style often features deep overhangs for shade, breeze blocks for ventilation, and an eclectic use of color and geometry. Celebrities such as Elvis Presley, Marilyn Monroe, Frank Sinatra, and Walt Disney contributed to the city’s emergence as a mecca for style.
Today, visitors tour the eclectic heritage homes, peer over hedges during architectural bus tours, and attend magical poolside cocktail parties at iconic and celebrity homes. Now coming up to its 19th edition (February 15–25, 2024), Palm Springs Modernism Week’s visitor numbers rise each year, surpassing 100,000 in 2023. It’s the same story for the smaller sister event—launched 10 years ago and held in the fall (October 19–22, 2023)—where visitors can enjoy a hard-hat tour of a 1930s theater and a look at sustainable, off-grid properties in nearby Joshua Tree.
The spring edition reaches like-minded regional enclaves such as La Quinta and Palm Desert, with a program of more than 350 events overall. A retrospective of Swiss architect Albert Frey’s work will be held next year at the Palm Springs Architecture and Design Center (January 13–June 3, 2024). Known for his constructivist and minimalist style, Frey brought the ideas of Le Corbusier to the US in the early 1930s, and worked on more than 250 projects in Palm Springs.
One exhibition highlight is a series of newly commissioned models of lost Frey projects, such as the 1940 Frey House I. While in theory the house still stands, curator Brad Dunning says the model represents how successive renovations can destroy the heritage value of a property. For a chance to experience an authentic original, he points to the 1964 Frey House II, where the architect lived until his death in 1998. His most ambitious work, it is integrated into the steep rocky landscape of the San Jacinto mountain.
To educate renovators on historic preservation, Vossler Smith presents a new event series in February covering topics from tax to materials and construction, delivered by experts in exemplary homes. They include E Stewart Williams’s Edris House, designed in 1954 with local stone walls and a flat, dynamic Douglas fir roof, and the 1956 Dr Franz Alexander House, by Walter S White, with a curved roof, V-shaped steel supports, and wrap-around balcony.
Sales of desert modernist properties in Palm Springs today are “strong,” and have been for the past 20 years, says Smith. The “million dollar fixer-upper” has become the norm. Her tip? There’s a lot to be discovered in lesser-known mid-century enclaves of Phoenix, Tucson, Claremont, Montclair, and Irvine.
Though homes on the Modernism Week program cannot be advertised for sale or rent, it’s not a coincidence that these properties remain in demand alongside its growth. “We have helped to contribute to their desirability,” says Smith. “Not only by sharing information about their designers and the period, but also encouraging a group of new designers to explore modern interpretations of them.”