MCM: I've Got You Under My Skin
The desert resort town of Palm Springs is place to be if you love mid-century design, like I do, and consciously seek creative inspiration. It is a bizarrely beautiful town, juxtaposed between the steep mountain face of Mt. San Jacinto and a dramatic desert landscape. My affinity for MCM design was born there three years ago after buying my first piece of Blenko art glass, along with an unquenchable thirst to learn all that I could about the innovators of that time. Understanding a style's history helps build a visual vocabulary and recognize how design elements are used and organized - you learn to see rather than smply look. It also helps cultivate curiosity and what follows is acquiring good taste.
So, here's a little MCM 101 history that will hopefully whet your appetite to want to know more about this popular and enduring style.
The term "Mid-Century Modern" often refers to the period from 1945-1965, but architectural historians often move that time period back to the 1920's and 30's to include Frank Lloyd Wright and Charles Rennie Macintosh. Both had an intense dislike for an excessive love of detail in a home and believed in simplicity, common in American Modern styles. One might conclude that the 20th century was one long reaction to the historic styles of the 19th century, and to their lavishly decorated interiors.
Palm Springs attracted an impressive list of talented architects by the 1920s. Lloyd Wright, son of the master, designed the downtown's 1923 Oasis Hotel, an early nod to California Modernism. R.M. Schindler and Richard Neutra had one-of-a-kind desert commissions, and Albert Frey, a young Swiss architect, was beginning a distinctive career that changed the desert design aesthetic forever.
Other influential modernists such as William F. Cody, Donald Wexler, and E. Stewart Williams were busy creating a treasure trove of architectural gems, but for all that, the city remained a sleepy seasonal resort village for affluent snowbirds through the 1940's.
After WWII ended, Palm Springs became the epicenter for the eruption of mid-century modern homes, due to the growing year-round population and an increasing need for vacation homes. It is of no wonder, and, with great relief, that a group of visionary builders and architects in the 1950's and 60's sought to design a wonderland of sleek homes that embraced the unique environment and contributed to the "Desert Modernism" movement. The homes - notable for their use of clean lines, expansive glass, and indoor-outdoor spaces - were quite avant-garde for that time, and still are.
Two names to know among the Palm Springs’ architectural elite are George Alexander (and his son Robert) and Jack Meiselman (and his brother, Bernie). Both were prolific builders and developers of mid-century style in 1950s and 60s that worked with talented architects, such as William Krisel. Original “Alexanders” and “Meiselmans” are throughout the city - 2,200 Alexanders and only about 200 Meiselmans - and they’re highly sought after. Tragically, the Alexander family, George and his wife, Mildred, and Bob, and his wife, Helene all died in plane crash in 1965, shocking the entire town and putting an end to their home building dynasty.
Palm Springs was discovered by Hollywood entertainers and actors during the 1930's; actors were under contract in the studio system, which required them to remain within two hours away in case their services were required. Palm Springs made for the perfect getaway where they could frolic under the sun discreetly amid lush tennis and golf resorts. Old stories still circulate about how Frank Sinatra, Bob Hope, and Dinah Shore could walk the streets without being approached because the residents wanted to respect their privacy. Fun Fact: Frank Sinatra had a flag pole installed at his Twin Palms estate where he flew a Jack Daniels flag in the evening to signal guests to join him for cocktails. You can rent his home today for 2,500 per night. It's styled right from 1960's and features a piano shaped pool.
Palm Springs remains a luxurious hot spot for the wealthy elite, but it's also a place for those who love art, great music and food, and beautiful scenery. Walk the neighborhoods of Vista Las Palmas, Indian Canyons, Twin Palms, The Movie Colony, and Deepwell Estates if you really want to take in what these innovators of MCM were all about. The people who live in these neighborhoods always seem to be in a good mood, too. And why not? They're just waiting for the sun to set, so they can enjoy their martinis poolside with a good bossa nova beat playing in the background. Good times!