Modernism Week 2020: Small is Beautiful

Photos courtesy Modernism Week

A pilgrimage to the spring fête Modernism Week, held yearly in Palm Springs, yields all sorts of delights—and perhaps even gives rise to a few questions—depending on houses toured, lectures heard, or parties attended. During this year’s adventure, tours of the restored Gillman Residence (design by Herbert Burns), the Guggenheim House (also a vacation rental), and Sunnylands (the former home of philanthropists Walter and Leonore Annenberg) displayed the most opulent side of the mid-century Southern California lifestyle.

The Gillman (pictured above), which had been partially demolished and then abandoned before the dynamic duo of Jackie Thomas and DeeAnn McCoy, founders of Thomboy Properties, undertook its restoration, displayed how a once-lavish mid-century home could become so again by incorporating products by Bang & Olufsen, Brizo, Corian Quartz, FLOR, JennAir, and Room & Board. It was sleek, open and airy, and elegantly appointed via a refined sensibility.

Meanwhile, the Guggenheim (pictured above), with its gold and navy color palette, seemed to put forth a contemporary version of Hollywood Regency, which was full-blown glam at Sunnylands. From the estate’s vast collections of tableware, glassware, and family and political memorabilia; tufted upholstered furnishings, and mix of styles, colors and patterns; pink, yellow, and green bedrooms (with color-corresponding jelly beans in jars, per former President Ronald Reagan’s request—he was a regular guest), lavish glamor and displays of wealth were on full display.

A press junket included a visit to the former home of Hungarian-born psychoanalyst Dr. Franz Alexander, designed by architect Walter S. White, which featured a curved roof of black-painted steel beams and wood strips, walls of glass, and local “lava rock” stonework. Also on the junket was dinner at the Dinah Shore Estate (pictured above), now owned by Leo DiCaprio, which in size, scale, materials, décor and artwork (stainless-steel toilet? Red, green, and blue guest rooms with matching baths?) yielded a lot of “Wow” and puzzled “Oh My” reactions.

For this Modernism Week pilgrim, one small but significant home had the greatest impact: the “Forgotten Frey” or Cree House designed by Albert Frey. Restored by the new owner to almost its original condition (this house, too, had been abandoned), the house is elevated primarily on pilotis, leaving the mountain beneath almost untouched. Stairs lead to a generous deck with yellow corrugated fiberglass rails. A massive fireplace anchors the living space, with floor-to-ceiling windows on either side. The galley kitchen, open to the living space, includes the original oven with circular window and three-drawer wall refrigerator. The master bedroom has a door that opens to a path up the mountain. Perfection.

Living in this house, or one similar, would necessitate wresting from the Atomic Age Tablescapes exhibition the Crazy Rhythm set designed by Charles Murphy for Red Wing Pottery. As someone who makes most of her meals but doesn’t cook, the Cree house’s futuristic and fully functional kitchen would do just fine. As Sarah Archer explained during her lecture “The Kitchen of Tomorrow: Space Age Design in the High Tech Modern Home,” the first refrigerators, introduced in the 1920s, were the focus of many mid-century homes and the site of cocktail parties.

Yes, that’s correct. The hostess, in her shirtwaist dress and pumps, would open the fridge door to display its insides as her guests gathered around with drinks and hors d’oeuvres. Which is what occurred on the press junket, sponsored by JennAir, at the Gillman Residence and Alexander House. “Appliances were a form of fashion and interior design,” Archer said of mid-century homes. Just as JennAir’s refrigerators are now.

As JennAir’s designers pointed out features to the gathering of interior designers and journalists—including wood-fronted and wood-handled cabinetry, and obsidian interiors—we were back to the future. Which, essentially, is what Modernism Week is all about.

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