Palm Springs, California was one of the many places that boomed in the decade or so immediately following World War II. Unlike the nascent suburbs on the East Coast — say, the proliferation of Levittowns in the Northeast — Palm Springs’ economic growth was fueled in part by its proximity to booming southern California, as the desert resort became the postwar playground of Hollywood. The little desert town nestled against the San Jacinto mountains became the go-to place for luminaries of the silver screen to cavort, gossip, and pretend to be heterosexual.
Hand in hand with that ambiance, Palm Springs became the epicenter of a style of architecture and design that later became known as Mid-Century Modernism. The late 1940’s through early 1960’s was the era of right-angled walls and acres of glass, i.e. houses that looked like this…
… of sweeping incredibly uncomfortable furniture that looked like this…and primary-colored clothing and cats-eye glasses, i.e. people who looked like this:
Palm Springs has embraced this part of its history — and this aesthetic — with a glee bordering on mania. This is not unusual for cities, of course: you can’t swing a cat in my birth town of Philadelphia without hitting something named after Benjamin Franklin. And our current home of Annapolis was the nation’s capital for about 45 minutes in 1784 and has been making bank on it ever since. As it happens, with populations of 45,000, Annapolis and Palm Springs are about the same size. But Annapolis does not have 150 abandoned personal bomb shelters in peoples’ back yards, remnants of the duck-and-cover era of the Cold War. Nor does Annapolis have large numbers of — or possibly any — Mid-Century Modernism-style houses. And Annapolis most certainly does not have an annual “Modernism With a Twist” design and performance festival, which we attended last night with our hosts Steve and Thumper. More on that in a moment.
Steve and Thumper are our “Exotic Travel Friends”, with whom we have now traveled to various places in Africa three times. Steve is tall and lanky, a highly creative engineer with a penchant for tech toys and an outre sense of humor that closely matches my own. Thumper is spiky-haired, mordantly impish, and — when passing judgment on just about anything — has only two settings: “This is the worst thing in the world and it makes me want to vomit,” or “This is the best thing in the world and how can anyone not love it?” Since she will be reading these words I will find out tomorrow morning which side of the coin comes up, and whether or not we have to leave prematurely. Anyway, here they are in poses from earlier today that give you an idea of what you’re dealing with.
As you can see, in photos Thumper likes the enigmatic look, though in actual day to day life she is about as subtle as a lightning strike, and equally energetic. And if you ever meet her and ask her about her Disney-esque nickname, take my word and do not believe her story about having been a pole dancer in Laramie, Wyoming.
Anyway, Steve and Thumper are very delightful friends and generous hosts whom we have been visiting in their absolutely gorgeous home. Here’s a pan shot of their atrium-like living room, complete with a looping hi-def video of jellyfish swimming in a 7 1/2-foot long (2.3m) virtual aquarium underneath the painting on the right.
Steve and Thumper enjoy but are not consumed by the pervasive Mid-Century Modernism design gestalt that permeates the town. And in truth, it is not ubiquitous: the streets are wide and the buildings low and adobe-colored, so on average the sense is more Modern Desert than 1950’s Surreal. And nobody has to pretend to be heterosexual anymore: Thumper informs me that the entire city council is LBGT. They are no doubt advancing their nefarious communist homosexual agenda, which as nearly as we can tell involves clean streets and a thriving downtown area.
But back to the “Modernism with a Twist” festival. This is a week-long multimedia grab bag of home design displays — want a $100 birdhouse that copies a Frank Lloyd Wright house? — art exhibits, and performances. We attended one of the latter, a presentation of five fifteen-minute lecture/slideshow/standup comedy routines, all of them entertaining and insightful and often informative. One was a riotous first-person account of (and by) a tube-dress, cats-eye-glasses-wearing fictional 1950’s housewife who finds fulfillment in her harvest-gold-colored appliances. One was a history of those 150 bomb shelters I mentioned above. One was a very “meta” discussion or confession of one woman’s obsession with Mid-Century Modernist memorabilia. And so on. It was a hoot, though I am not yet ready to comb my hair into a ducktail, partly because I do not have enough hair to do so.
Today we made an expedition to the Salton Sea, about 50 miles to the southeast of here. That was quite the experience in itself, which I’ll save for my next post in a few days.