Modernism is about optimism and progress. It’s about ignoring what something ‘should’ look like in favour of what it does for people. We take a Range Rover into the epicentre of modernism, Palm Springs, to meet the creators still inspired by the 20th century’s most important design philosophy.

“There’s something magical here,” says Palm Springs-based designer Christopher Kennedy.

“It’s a graced way of being – whether you believe in energy lines or whatever. The Indians knew it. There’s a joyousness here – when you drive in from LA and come round that mountain, all your cares fade away.”

Palm Springs is an oasis in the Californian desert, two hours drive east of Los Angeles, towered over by the 3,302m San Jacinto Mountains. The Cahuilla Indians called it Sec-he, then the Spanish called it Agua Caliente, after the hot water that bubbles up from the San Andreas Fault. Since the late 19th century, Palm Springs has been a resort town, offering an escape from the frenetic sprawl of LA to the clear desert air of the interior. It’s still prolonging affluent lives today. The town and its surrounding area remain a fixture as one of the top retirement destinations in the US and a favourite getaway for those with the luxury of leisure time.

In addition to one of the largest collections of sprightly old-timers in the world, Palm Springs also has the largest collection of mid-century modern architecture in the world. In certain areas, in certain lights, the city’s buildings seem to resemble a modernist utopia, a design for living geared for the elusive leisure-filled lives that the automated modern age promised our grandparents. The Art Museum holds key works by Picasso and Henry Moore donated by the likes of Barbara Sinatra and philanthropist Helene Galen. This is not your average sleepy American desert town.

In the middle of the last century, the area attracted freethinking architects from all over the world who came here attracted by the landscape and the sense of post-war optimism. This was an opportunity to build softer, more liveable versions of the more disciplined European movement from Bauhaus or Le Corbusier. In Palm Springs they could tear up the traditional view of what a house should look like, to construct homes that were simply beautiful in their simplicity.

Leo Marmol of Marmol Radziner, who restored the famous Kaufmann House in 1993
The climate allowed them to blur the distinction between inside and outside living, and the landscape cried out for maximum use of glass to frame sky and desert like an ever-changing work of art.

Which is why – every year for the last 10 years – Palm Springs has hosted Modernism Week, in which all aspects of modernism are celebrated in a flurry of lectures, seminars, exhibitions, house tours and parties. Land Rover sponsors the event, and architecture fans and sightseers can also admire the latest range of vehicles at the showcase stand. It’s to be found at the epicentre of the exhibition, Palm Canyon Drive, the main artery of the town, shaded by lines of tall palms.

Modernist architecture and design also happen to be a passion of Land Rover’s Design Director and Chief Creative Officer Gerry McGovern. He gave the keynote address here last year, and he is here this year for a more informal poolside question and answer session at The Siva House, designed by noted architect Hugh Kaptur. We meet him at his hotel, the elegant Parker Palm Springs – itself an institution dating back to 1959.

“Modernism is a school of thought; a philosophy about adopting a lifestyle that’s more appropriate to the environment in which you live,” says Gerry over breakfast in the hotel’s Norma’s restaurant. “I first came to Palm Springs 20 years ago and I was blown away by the attention to design everywhere – it’s become part of the very fabric of this city. Over the last seven to eight years, design has taken a far more central role in the development of Land Rover vehicles – this is one of the reasons why we’re here in Palm Springs.

“What’s interesting,” says Gerry, “is Palm Springs’ adoption of modernism – they adopted it completely and, in doing so, created a vision that was both forward-looking and completely compelling. Mid-century modern had a sense of optimism – that ability to lift one’s soul. A sense of not wanting to adhere to the traditional values of what a house or a piece of furniture should be like.
Land Rover's Gerry McGovern at The Siva House, designed by Palm Springs architect Hugh Kaptur

I’m convinced design has made Land Rover a far more universally appealing brand. It’s about creating an emotional connection.


In the Forties and Fifties, Palm Springs became Hollywood off-duty – a place where the cameras weren’t on all the time. When Frank Sinatra made his first million dollars in 1947, he commissioned the architect E Stewart Williams to design a Palm Springs mansion fit for a king of swing. Sinatra had in mind a grand Georgian-style mansion with columns and stone balustrades. ‘Stew’ (as his friends knew him) gritted his teeth and grudgingly drew up the anachronism, but also produced plans that he described as “something low-lying in wood and stone that might fit the landscape a little better”. And full marks to Frank – he took Williams’s design. Twin Palms, a classic example of mid-century modern architecture, was built.

A short drive from The Parker, and I’ve come to another Palm Springs institution – Spencer’s Restaurant, next to the tennis club – to meet Leo Marmol, of architects Marmol Radziner. “I knew Stew well – he was a very elegant man. Sort of like a character from Mad Men without the craziness.”

Leo and his business partner Ron Radziner have built nine houses for fashion designer Tom Ford, plus residences for Flea and Anthony Kiedis from the Red Hot Chili Peppers. They are noted not just for their contemporary modernist-influenced buildings, but also for their sensitive renovation of classic mid-century modern constructions such as Williams’s 1961 Santa Fe Federal Savings and Loan Bank (which they have now transformed into Palm Springs Art Museum Architecture and Design Center). “Our first job as a partnership was restoring Richard Neutra’s iconic modernist design, the Kaufmann House. It was 1993 and we were just kids,” he recalls. So how were these ‘kids’ put in charge of a five-year project restoring a 1946 classic? “Not too many other people wanted to do it. Back then no one really respected these modernist buildings. Palm Springs was just a sleepy little town. When our clients Beth and Brent Harris bought the Kaufmann House, the realtor was selling it for its land value. He said: ‘You can just knock that old thing down and build something nice.’ Thankfully they had the vision to keep it.”
Marmol Radziner’s prefab Desert House in Desert Hot Springs, California at sunset
I ask if his business restoring these new classics has been helped by the fact they weren’t very well built to begin with? “In the US, we have a different perspective on time than you do in Europe. Our cities are newer; ‘lasting’ has a different meaning. We’re willing to try new materials, new techniques that might not perform very well over time.”

Leo explains why Palm Springs was the perfect setting for mid-century modern architecture. “LA had two industries – Hollywood and aerospace. Hollywood provided the cultural freedom – money that wanted to be seen, to show off, and aerospace provided the technologies to create new forms. Structural steel freed us from gravity and history, allowing us to make bigger rooms, bigger windows. Then there’s the climate – it allowed architects to ‘erase the wall’ between inside and outside living.”

He stresses that with modernist architecture you shouldn’t get hung up on architectural details but focus on the bigger picture. “People talk about flat roofs, floor-to-ceiling glass – but they’re just visual cues. Modernism is about the experience of moving through and living in a building. It’s the experience of living which connects you with the environment.” Or, as Richard Neutra said: “Good architecture reconciles humanity with nature in an exultant dance of interconnectedness.”

Good architecture reconciles humanity with nature in an exultant dance of interconnectedness.


Later we drive north in the Range Rover to Desert Hot Springs, 20 minutes away, to see one of Marmol Radziner’s contemporary buildings, The Desert House. It’s made from four prefabricated house modules and six deck modules and seems to hover a metre above the desert, cantilevered on a recessed platform. Again, beautifully simple.

One of modernist architecture’s key traits is reduction. “With modernist architecture you choose to limit yourself,” says Leo Marmol. “You have to be more respectful and caring with the materials you use. You love the material more if you use less of it.” He comes up with a powerful metaphor: “If I said to you that you could have a library of a million books, you’d have great fun writing lists, getting your friends to recommend books. But if I said you could only choose 10 books, you’d have to think much more and the choice would be much more difficult. “Modernism is essentially green thinking. To use less doesn’t mean we have to live less. It’s about respect for social responsibility.”


Modernism was designed for the people – low-cost housing that would enrich people’s lives. As Gerry McGovern says: “The modernists believed that good design was for the masses.” In town, I meet contemporary design polymath Todd Oldham after his keynote lecture on modernist icon Alexander Girard. He agrees that mid-century modern was “all about a desire to help people. It was an unselfish way to design. The modernists considered humanity first in their design.”
The elegant Parker Palm Springs hotel, built in 1959

Modernism’s enduring legacy still remains – it has inspired designers to consider human needs. To think about how people are going to use this building, or object, and design around that. Not to be hamstrung by what’s gone before. Gerry McGovern says: “It’s about recognising and respecting heritage without being harnessed by it. If you look at modernist furniture classics by Eames, Saarinen and Bertoia, a lot of their designs have continued to be manufactured. In fact, technology has improved the quality of many of these pieces’ appearances. They are still relevant today for a new generation to discover and enjoy – they truly represent design longevity.”

As such, a great question to keep asking is, “what would a modernist have done today?” Christopher Kennedy, a Palm Springs-based designer, has taken a 1964 modernist house and completely re-worked it, applying new technology to it. Automated electronics from Crestron teamed with Sub-Zero & Wolf appliances allow you to preheat your oven via your smartphone. He’s fitted modern accordion doors in place of the draughty originals. You could say he’s destroyed a classic, but the mid-century modernists would have approved. They lived for now, never intending their buildings to become hallowed museum pieces. Leo Marmol observes: “It’s ironic how a movement based upon rejecting the past has ended up becoming a relic of the past.”

“Over 4,000 people will tour my home this week,” says Christopher. “Perhaps they can’t all afford to hire me to redesign their houses, but they’re welcome to draw inspiration from mine. I really believe that design can have a positive effect on people. If my design puts a smile on someone’s face, then good feelings turn into thoughts, thoughts turn into actions and actions shape our destiny.”
The Range Rover from above at a Cahuilla Hills Drive home in Palm Springs, California


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