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Mid-Century Marvels | Palm Springs’ Modernism Week Celebrates Design, History and Martinis

Architect William Cody's Abernathy home

Architect William Cody's Abernathy home

This 11-day festival is The ultimate celebration of Mid-Century architecture, design and culture.

Before getting to work, the late modernist architect Albert Frey used to start his day with a headstand, a glass of grapefruit juice and taking in the sun at his striking glass and steel house built around an enormous boulder on the hillside above the Palm Springs Art Museum

If you’re in town in February, you, too, might be able to see where the noted architect pursued both healthful living and design. The circa-1964 Frey house is one of dozens of Mid-Century homes open for tours during Modernism Week, Palm Springs’ eleven-day lovefest of post-World War II design that runs February 17-27. It features more than 300 ticketed events that include not only home tours—including celeb dwellings—but a smorgasbord of activities, such as presentations and discussions, films, a golf tournament and plenty of parties.

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Modernism Week was launched in 2006 as part of two established programs—the Palm Springs Art Museum Architecture and Design Council Symposium and the Palm Springs Modernism Show and Sale. Now with more than 160,000 participants, the late-winter event promotes architecture, design and historic preservation in the surrounding Coachella Valley, and provides scholarships to students pursuing architecture and design education.

This year’s schedule is designed to appeal to everyone, from design professionals and scholars to the casual enthusiast. The keynote speaker is Chicago architect Jeanne Gang, whose 101-story St. Regis Tower in Chicago is the world’s tallest building designed by a woman. Talks include a presentation on Mojave and Sonoran desert architecture by architect/historian Alan Hess, and fashion designer Trina Turk’s exploration of the life and art of Vera Neumann (remember those signature scarves?), the doyenne of cross-licensing.

Albert Frey's noted hillside home. Photograph courtesy of Modernism Week

Albert Frey's noted hillside home. Photograph courtesy of Modernism Week

The heart and soul of Modernism Week are the home tours, spread across some 25 neighborhoods, which you can do on your own, join a walking tour or jump on a double-decker bus between houses. Homes by modernist architectural stars like John Lautner, William Cody, Donald Wexler, A. Quincy Jones, William Krisel and Frey are on the list, as are the homes of Hollywood stars, such as Dina Shore, Kirk Douglas, William Holden and others. 

Parties? Yes, and attendees are encouraged to dress in vintage style. Mingle Rat Pack-style and sip cocktails at Twin Palms Estate, Frank Sinatra’s former home. A retro martini party takes place at an expansive estate in the old Las Palmas neighborhood, while a jet set-themed gala is set at the estate architect William Cody designed in 1962 for millionaire socialite James Logan Abernathy. 

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The Frank Sinatra house will again be the site of a cocktail party. Photograph by David A. Lee

The Frank Sinatra house will again be the site of a cocktail party. Photograph by David A. Lee

Want to shop early? The preview party for the Modernism Show and Sale happens at the Palm Springs Convention Center, where you can have a cocktail and peruse the wares from 90 decorative and fine arts dealers, plus some 45 exhibitors showcasing modern home designs.

Can’t work Modernism Week into your schedule in February? Plan ahead for next year or put October 13 to 16 on your agenda for the annual Fall Preview, a kind of “mini-Modernism Week,” with more than 50 events, including home tours and parties.

In any case, you’ll soon understand why Albert Frey and other architects did their best work in this Southern California desert.

Dinah Shore's house, designed by Donald Wexler, is a popular tour stop. Photograph by David A. Lee

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