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Modernizing the Midcentury Moderns of Palm Springs

Modernizing the Midcentury Moderns of Palm Springs

Palm Springs is hotter than ever—and not just because of global warming. If anyone needed further proof, the fact that Leonardo DiCaprio bought a place there last year should seal it. But it’s not just the return of Hollywood celebrities that’s driving the Palm Springs revival. With the housing market back on track after the Great Recession, people with a genuine appreciation for midcentury design are snapping up the modest moderns built for the middle class.

They’re not interested in flipping these houses. These are their second homes. They’re retired, and they can and do spend a good five or six months out of the year here. They like the diversity and fun that Palm Springs has to offer. And there’s a freedom about midcentury architecture here in desert country—you can really feel the connection between indoors and outdoors and the way these sleek, low-slung, glass-and-steel dwellings frame the mountains. Plus, they’re perfect for throwing the doors open and inviting people over for a cocktail.

Of course, after 50 or 60 years, these places are in need of some tender loving care. Mechanical systems and even structural systems need replacement and repair. The new midcentury enthusiasts are also tearing out the incompatible aesthetic choices of some of the prior owners and replacing them with something more sympathetic—but not necessarily going for replication.

Renovating these midcentury gems is a pleasure. Even in the homes for the middle class, the modernism is not diluted. Many of them employ full-bore modernism, with glass running from wall to wall and floor to ceiling, making the floor and ceiling planes highly legible. To increase the density, architects employed courtyards and atriums, some of them quite small. There are two kinds of lanai that I see a lot here. One is an inner courtyard for eating or having cocktails, and the other is what I call a golf lanai—it’s for watching golfers go by during the day.

The famous modernist grid sometimes poses a challenge. In the home I recently renovated for myself, the original architect, A. Quincy Jones, used the eight-inch square block, which he used at the Annenberg Estate and in a lot of his work. A previous owner had covered up all of the block. I uncovered it again to restore the visual connection from the living room and master bedroom into the atrium and the exterior. But I’m OCD about things aligning. So I put in a monolithic floor, rather than terrazzo, because I didn’t want to have to align the lines of the floor with those of the block. That would’ve driven me crazy.

At Seven Lakes Country Club, the many houses designed by Richard Harrison used 8 x 16 inch blocks, and when I’m renovating a house there that has exposed blocks, I feel less inclined to keep them visible. For me and some of my clients, the 16-inch blocks have a bit of a prison yard feel. So I tend to cover them with smooth coat plaster—it makes a nicer transition. You go from the smooth drywall on the inside to a smooth plaster on the outside, and so you’re still blurring the line between indoor and outdoors.

A lot of modernist homes aren’t as flexible as they were cracked up to be. They would have a great living space that you could configure however you wanted, but the kitchens were enclosed to keep the cooking out of view. In renovating them today, opening up the kitchen and/or den to the living room makes it more of a multiuse room, one that’s truly flexible.

The homes didn’t have luxurious materials to begin with. Some people, when they renovate one of these homes, take a slavish approach to recreating the original material palette. They’ll take out the granite or stone countertops that a previous owner might have put in in the 1980s, and they’ll go back to Formica or plastic laminate.

But while I believe in being very respectful to the time period, I also think that architecture is about advancing technology. Now there are better materials for countertops than laminate. I never use granite in a house, because it’s the wrong scale. In most of the houses I’ve done out here, we use quartz stone, a very current, durable material for kitchen counters. It’s not ostentatious. It fits into the modernist settings.

So I guess I’m advocating taking what’s great about the principles that generated these houses and extending them into the present. Honor the past by honoring the principles, rather than taking a literal approach. Midcentury modernism has a distinctive essence all its own, rooted in its time—but it doesn’t have to be stuck in the past.