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Palm Springs and the High Desert

An exterior view of Acido Dorado in Palm Springs, California.

Photo: Dave Lauridsen

This is a tale of two deserts: one as glittering and artificial as a futuristic theme park, the other as spare and elemental as boulders and cactus. It’s roughly a 32-mile journey north from Palm Springs, the Midcentury Modern center of Southern California’s low desert, to the rustic, beautifully barren high-desert communities of Joshua Tree and Pioneertown. Yet the cultural and spiritual distance between the two is almost immeasurable. The high desert is a frontier for artists that looks and feels like the scrubby Wild West. Style-obsessed Palm Springs’ closest cousin might just be West Hollywood. Both are ever-evolving, big-city decompression chambers, weekend-getaway art colonies that celebrate the highbrow and the low, the rustic and the refined—each in its own unique way.

Having lived in Los Angeles for 15 years, I’m no stranger to Palm Springs or its surroundings. And yet, each visit feels like a slightly different party with a new host—or perhaps the same old showgirl with a new face-lift. The millennium has been kind to the city: a government rebate on room occupancy taxes has encouraged multimillion-dollar hotel renovations; restaurants and stores are opening; the Coachella music festival brings thousands of young rockers and ravers; the Palm Springs International Film Festival draws Hollywood A-listers; and Modernism Week attracts architecture and design addicts.

“The recession weeded out the mediocre,” Palm Springs painter Eric Nash tells me and fellow artist Russell Bennett over pizzas, salads, and a cocktail called Hello Nancy (vodka and St.-Germain with freshly squeezed grapefruit juice and muddled lemon) at Birba, a new Modernist café in the trendy Uptown Design District. Uptown, as it is known by the locals, has long lured drive-by design fans: it’s a place where interior decorators and vintage-furniture hounds like me go to score home accessories in such Palm Springs styles as postwar modern, Fab 50’s, Hollywood Regency, shiny disco-era minimalism, and Philippe Starck contemporary. Now, with two hip hotels, the Colony Palms Hotel and the Alcazar Palm Springs, and new restaurants, including Birba and its sister lunch spot, Cheeky’s, the neighborhood has become the city’s latest in-crowd hub. Art galleries are also sprouting up amid the vintage stores. Nash, who does moody charcoals of ravens and night skies, and Bennett, an abstract painter, show their work at Stephen Archdeacon Gallery, an airy space with darker-themed works. Nearby, Atomic Age–inspired illustrator-painter Josh Agle (better known as Shag) showcases his work at the recently opened Shag: The Store. At first glance, a tiki mask hanging on an orange-and-yellow faux-rock wall makes the place seem like any other retro furniture store, but it’s filled with Shag’s paintings and prints that depict, cartoonishly, the Palm Springs lifestyle: neo–Rat Packers sipping cocktails by grand-piano-shaped swimming pools.

The four-block-long Uptown strip caters to the Shag fantasy with all the Eames and Saarinen you’d need to furnish a modern home. Wandering into Christopher Anthony boutique and the new mansion-style Boulevard, however, I find high-ticket 20th-century decorative arts by midcentury architect-designers such as Paul Frankl and prints by Shepard Fairey. I can’t help noticing that their next-door neighbor, Design Within Reach, purveyor of reissued classics, has closed. And really, who needs it when you can find original designs at Boulevard or easily stroll to the nearby Stewart Galleries, a treasure trove of paintings and furniture that’s like stumbling into your very rich, very tasteful bachelor uncle’s attic.

In Palm Springs, everything old is always, eventually, new again. That’s certainly true for hotels. After nearly 90 years as a vacation spot, the city endures as a place where visions of the future that were formed in the past now define the present. As a result, Midcentury Modernism is the default design style, but Hollywood Regency, the ornate 1930’s MGM-movie-set trend initiated by Kelly Wearstler at the Viceroy in Palm Springs in 2003, has also taken off, reaching giddy heights. At the 1950’s Riviera Palm Springs, a $70 million redo, complete with a crystal-studded billiard table and miles of patterned wallpaper, has taken the 400-plus rooms from Hollywood glam to Vegas glitz, proving that even in Palm Springs, “more is more” is almost always over-the-top.

In the Uptown Design District, however, the Colony Palms and the Alcazar have both been reimagined: their original Spanish-colonial aesthetic is one of the last native design styles to get a high-drama makeover. A few years ago, Bravo TV’s Million Dollar Decorators’ Martyn Lawrence Bullard redid the 1930’s Colony Palms (once owned by purported Purple Gang crime boss and the owners of the racehorse Seabiscuit) into a glam-Moroccan oasis featuring a new two-story luxury suite named the Palme d’Or Residence. He also created the generally mobbed Purple Palm, the intimate hotel’s olive-green-and-violet bistro, which harks back to Hollywood supper clubs. The restaurant overlooks the pool, where, at lunch, I watch Norwegian model types float, trying not to get their cell phones and cigarettes wet, and happily munch on a tart watermelon-and-mint salad and medjool dates stuffed with blue cheese and wrapped in bacon by chef Brian Kiepler. Recently renovated by Birba owners Tara Lazar and Marco Rossetti, Alcazar is also a Spanish-courtyard-style hotel—the smaller, less scene-y alternative to the Colony Palms. Room 22, mine for the night, is a white sugar cube with IKEA furniture and quirky original paintings. It’s a refreshing change from all the Jetson-era design that saturates the city.

So too, is the Horizon Hotel. Designed by Palm Springs Modernist William F. Cody in 1952, the surprisingly minimalist (no restaurant, no spa) Horizon is a haven in the burgeoning East Palm Canyon Drive corridor—once a strip of cheap motels, now the center of cool-hunter hangouts such as the Jonathan Adler–designed Parker Palm Springs and the Ace Hotel, as well as a secret stash of vintage design shops on nearby Perez Road, which has been dubbed Resale Row. The Horizon has stood the test of time, defining the architectural ideals of its era and the magnificence of Palm Springs’ zoning code, which restricts structures more than two stories high and streetlights in residential areas. Its window-walled rooms frame what might be the best views of the nearly 11,000-foot-high San Jacinto Mountains that the city has to offer, and the 24-room hotel’s A-series rooms have private outdoor showers; Marilyn Monroe, it is said, caused a commotion by actually using one. (Hollywood lore is the water-cooler currency of Palm Springs, where you can visit Elvis’s Honeymoon Hideaway, a 1962 Modernist masterpiece, and take architectural historian Michael Stern’s Modern Tour to see Frank Sinatra’s Twin Palms villa—yours to rent for $2,600 a night.)

If Palm Springs is for the movie-star-struck, eames-chair-loving, martini-hoisting social set, the high desert is its antithesis, a bohemia for solitary stoner-like contemplation, where the imaginations of artists, designers, and architects can run as untamed as the no-fences, no-lawns landscape. Like Palm Springs, the high desert has one main road—Highway 62, which rises up thousands of feet from the low desert floor—but instead of butterfly-roof buildings, it is dotted with scrappy folk-art installations, Western saloons, and shacks. Palm Springs entices the senses; the high desert exalts the natural world and stirs the soul. And yet it too is in the throes of reinvention. In Desert Hot Springs, which lies between Palm Springs and the high desert, an early example of Modernist architect John Lautner has been restored to its former glory. Originally built in 1947, the compound was conceived as a prototype for a planned community, with four apartments featuring private step-up garden patios, where I once spent a week trying to work on a book, only to be distracted by the cool indoor-outdoor design. Lautner, who created the Chemosphere house in Palm Springs that Bob Hope dubbed a landing pad for martians, was an early practitioner of the soaring Space Age coffee-shop style known as Googie architecture. The landmark work has been transformed into Hotel Lautner, complete with all the modern luxuries, including a newly added spa pool and outdoor showers—it is one of the few Lautner buildings that is open to the public.

Travel farther north, and the high desert offers new architecture that rivals the post–World War II buildings of Palm Springs and Lautner’s desert dream homes. Scrubby land once deeded to homesteaders still sells for nearly dirt-cheap prices here. And today, a small group of designers and dreamers are pioneering structures from straw bales, rusted steel, shipping containers, and agricultural building materials that could sit beside midcentury Palm Springs homes as contemporary examples of futurist design. None impressed me more than two properties by architect Robert Stone, the all-black and bunker-ish Rosa Muerta and the Acido Dorado (pictured), a golden Xanadu that seems to burst out of the desert landscape in Joshua Tree. Stone rents these—his line in the sand as a 21st-century architect—to interested parties. That is to say, people who are interested in architecture, not partying. “To most people Acido Dorado is just some weird house, but to this small number of people who get it, it’s like the only place in the world they want to visit,” Stone says. “Very few places actually engage the current discourse in architecture and add to it in some way.”

As well as a home for bold new buildings, the high desert is also a crafty art colony filled with studios and galleries. The charms of the high desert are less obvious than in look-at-me Palm Springs and can take many visits to appreciate. Detours off Highway 62, essential to experiencing the area (though dusty and tough on car suspensions), lead to even more unusual discoveries. At the Noah Purifoy Outdoor Desert Art Museum of Assemblage Sculpture, I am amazed by the ingenuity and keen social satire in what first appears to be a junkyard. Purifoy, a cofounder of the Watts Towers Arts Center inspired by Dadaist Marcel Duchamp, created assemblages and entire environments rendered from the detritus of modern life: a train composed of aged upright vacuum cleaners; a shack with bicycles launching off its roof; sculptural towers of toilets and bowling balls that seem to defy gravity. To walk through it is to experience recycling as art.

“The desert is a place to be self-sufficient, to use what you have or find instead of buying things,” says artist Dennis Blevins, an admirer of Purifoy who sells rusted-metal peace signs and spheres at Route 62 Vintage Market Place, which is run by his wife, Dawn. I meet them at the home of film producer Paul Goff and stunt performer and coordinator Tony Angelotti, who have also carved out a niche as guides to the area. Based just north of Pioneertown—a western burg founded as a film and TV location in 1946 by cowboy movie stars—Goff and Angelotti operate Destination Pipes Canyon, which leads visitors to the high desert’s Modernist vacation rentals, artists’ studios, and mountain petroglyphs.

Goff and Angelotti have invited me to a cookout at their home. Bluesman Eric Burdon, best known as the lead singer of the Animals, the 1960’s British Invasion group, is there—way cooler than Elvis in my book. Palm Springs may have swank, low-lit supper clubs, but in the high desert, casual dinner parties are part of the community spirit—social without the snobbery. Wine flows, and the talk turns to Save Our Desert, a grassroots organization trying to keep turbines—the just-off-the-highway windmills outside Palm Springs—off the buttes of Pipes Canyon. “This can’t happen,” Goff says. “Not in my backyard.” To the high-desert dwellers, Palm Springs is the big city: close enough to visit, but they wouldn’t want to live there.

Dinner is simple yet delicious here, considerably tastier than it is in fussier Palm Springs restaurants, if characteristically odd: the only Indian food in Joshua Tree is at Sam’s Pizza; beefy chili and barbecue that rivals the best in Texas can be found at Pappy & Harriet’s Pioneertown Palace, in Pioneertown; and I quickly become addicted to the fresh, chewy granola bars and Rock Climbers Revenge banana-date-cashew smoothies at the Natural Sisters Café. Go ahead, snicker at that name—I did—but it’s emblematic of the unrepentantly unpretentious high-desert ethos.

I was also amused by the New Age–sounding Sacred Sands, the two-suite inn that Steve Pratt and Scott Cutler built from straw bales and rusted corrugated metal. Rough on the outside, the two rooms are cool and sexy, with dark, sparkly walls, beds with ironed linens, and light fixtures made from scrap metal, Moroccan lanterns, and a burled wood lamp. There are no televisions, not even in the owners’ quarters. “This is a place to disconnect from the static and connect to nature and to ourselves,” Pratt says. Which is exactly what I do after arriving from a day of Palm Springs celebrity-house sightseeing on the Modern Tour. Walking through glass French doors in my room, I find a hot tub, an outdoor bed, and a refrigerator stocked with fresh lemonade. After trying them all, I drift off into a sunset siesta as the solid steel fence around the guest suites clangs in the wind. This is the essence of the high desert, the “aah” moment that leads to the “aha” epiphany. Here, there is a frequency—a low internal hum—that is not as easily received as the more high-pitched buzz of Palm Springs. That high-desert vibration fills my head on a trip to Pioneertown as I walk along Mane Street (the pun is intentional). At the end of the road, a slyly witty stop sign perfectly captures the welcoming spirit and cosmic directive of both deserts, high and low. It reads simply: it’s your decision. I decide to stay another night, to watch the stars and enjoy the big, empty silence. If I want excitement, after all, there’s always Palm Springs.

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