Along the boutique-dotted boulevards of Palm Springs, Calif., the most pressing issues of the day are delightfully trivial.
Which lamp would go better in the living room: the orange one, or the turquoise? Where shall we go for brunch today? And what time should we hit the pool?
Everyone in Palm Springs seems to be on vacation — and almost everyone actually is. First popularized by Hollywood stars like Bob Hope and Bing Crosby, Palm Springs is now the undisputed mecca of midcentury modern design and a favored destination of moneyed retirees. When my husband Oggi and I stayed there on the first leg of a cross-country road trip, we joked that our presence brought down the average age by about a decade.
Even the town’s younger denizens glided about with studied languor, a stark contrast with the frenetic, bubbling energy of traffic-choked Los Angeles. So it was a bit jarring, as we sipped Mexican cocktails under the starry desert sky one evening, to hear a crowd of Angelenos at the next table hotly debating Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s address to Congress, ISIS and European anti-Semitism.
Reality rarely intrudes in this cosseted corner of the West — and that is precisely how the locals like it. Let the rest of Southern California have its multi-story malls, faux-Italian villas and rock gardens. Palm Springs is happy to keep things exactly as they were in the low-scale, green-lawned heyday of Technicolor, with every 1950s building (even the ugly ones) lovingly preserved, along with that era’s spirit of blithe abundance.
In the cool morning shadow of the San Jacinto Mountains, the desert heat was already apparent by the time Oggi and I ventured out of the Desert Lodge for coffee. Amid the joggers on Palm Canyon Drive, we passed a myriad of furniture and housewares boutiques — all sporting the same aesthetic of glass, metal and Pop Art hues.
It was just after Modernism Week, a 10-day festival of exhibitions, parties and events celebrating the midcentury design ethos. But the party never really ends in Palm Springs; just across the boulevard, artists were setting up tents for an outdoor arts and crafts festival under the vivid angles of a sculpture fountain.
Many of these artists are associated with the Desert Art Center, an institution on Palm Canyon Drive that shows the work of its 140 members in public galleries and sponsors art programs throughout the Coachella Valley. As you might expect in a place where looks matter most, sunny Palm Springs has long attracted its share of painters, sculptors and designers, many of them Jewish.
Just past a sprinkling of outdoor cafés on Palm Canyon Drive, the Palm Springs Art Museum has a predictable focus on titans of Modernism — Helen Frankenthaler, Henry Moore, Robert Motherwell — as well as West Coast names like Sam Francis. The museum’s Galen and Faye Sarkowsky Sculpture Garden, which is free every day, offers a pleasant oasis from heat and traffic. Its Annenberg Theater is the local performing arts venue, with a cabaret-heavy lineup featuring the likes of Betty Buckley and Christine Ebersole.
The city’s identity as a design mecca was formally cemented with the recent opening of the museum’s new Architecture and Design Center on Palm Canyon Drive. Airy, light-filled galleries with floor-to-ceiling windows display architectural drawings, photographs and objects in the renovated Santa Fe Savings and Loan building — a glittering edifice of 1960s glass and steel.
Inside, the well-arranged exhibitions provide context for a morning of driving around Palm Springs itself — which is basically an open-air museum of architecture, with streets named for midcentury icons like Gerald Ford and Frank Sinatra. The latter is credited with helping establish the city’s most prominent synagogue, Temple Isaiah, a Conservative institution popular for its bagel brunches and lecture series. Later in March, with the spring break crowd at its zenith, Temple Isaiah will host the city’s second annual Jewish Film Festival.
I paused in front of the Trina Turk boutique, wondering if I should invest in a new outfit to go with the scenery. Turk is a Los Angeles designer whose eye-popping floral prints epitomize the Modernist aesthetic, and her name appears on one of the new galleries at the Palm Springs Art Museum.
But it was still early in the day, so instead of dresses, we invested in a steaming cup of coffee at Koffi, an earnestly hip shop where a back door led us to a hidden garden. Amid the crepe myrtle, sculptures and towering palms, dozens of vacationers were reading the newspaper at picnic tables, chatting in the shade and occasionally pausing to refill their drinks. We had hundreds of miles to cover that day, but as the sun rose high over the palm trees we pulled up a seat and basked in the good life, California style.