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By Design: Modernism allows design form to flow from functionality

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Courtesy of Celeste Randolph
Palm Springs homeowners Les and Betsy Roy found their 1958 home benefited from airy updates including white walls, slide-to-open windows accessing the backyard and limestone flooring.

“Architecture should speak of its time and place, but yearn for timelessness.” – Frank Gehry

Every February, some of the world’s most renowned designers and architects gather at Palm Springs’ Modernism Week to admire the desert city’s mid-century homes – many of which were once owned by Old Hollywood stars.

Modernism Week celebrates the area’s mid-century architecture and design, as well as contemporary modernist design, by encouraging education, preservation and sustainable modern living.

The Modernist design movement began at the end of the 19th century and continued into the 20th century, spurred on by advances in technology that improved the built environment.

These design principles – largely influenced by the potential of machines and mass production – overlapped with similar changes in art, film, music and literature. Modernist designers like Walter Gropius from the Bauhaus and Modernist architect Le Corbusier believed that function should dictate form in a variety of creative disciplines.

The movement stripped away the highly decorative, elaborate elements of earlier movements and instead brought to the forefront space and clarity. These ideas also indicated a desire to push back against commercialism and greed with a sort of aesthetically pleasing minimalism.

Pragmatism meets beauty

Last month, a few days after Modernism Week, we visited our friends’ home in Palm Springs’ Las Palmas neighborhood. The home previously belonged to actors Tony Martin (“Ziegfeld Girl,” 1941) and Cyd Charisse (“Singin’ in the Rain,” 1952), who moved into the newly built home in 1958 and raised their two sons there. The 5-bedroom, 5 1/2-bath home sits on a 12,000 square foot lot and now belongs to my husband’s college roommate and his wife.

When they bought the home 10 years ago, they didn’t realize until their first night in the house that its appliances, closet doors and wiring had been stripped. They remember waking up the first morning in the house, wondering if they’d made a huge mistake.

Eventually, they hired Desert Avant-Gard Design Group to transform the home. The house is now open and airy with smooth white walls, limestone flooring throughout and a renovated kitchen and bathrooms. The windows along the back slide open to the backyard, making the outdoor seating area with fire pit part of the home. The rooms feature Mid-Century Modern furnishings, thick shag rugs and the coolest wall coverings.

I loved experiencing this cool way of living. We started our day relaxing by the fire pit outside, sipping coffee on the pretty white outdoor sofas. My husband took his business calls lying on the chaises flanking the beautiful pool.

In the afternoon, we walked through the neighborhood admiring the homes Marilyn Monroe, Elizabeth Taylor, President John F. Kennedy and Frank Sinatra, among others, called home or where they frequently stayed. In the evening, we stopped by the farmers’ market to pick up freshly made toffee and cookies to enjoy after dining at Cary Grant’s old home-turned-restaurant. Before calling it a night, our sons swam in the pool as we gazed up at the stars above.

I was reminded that Mid-Century Modern design is popular for a reason. It’s not just a passing trend, it’s a timeless way of letting design form flow from functionality. Modernist design embraces both pragmatism and beauty, resulting in homes that are historical and forward-thinking at the same time.

Like the Old Hollywood films dreamed up in these homes, Palm Springs design encourages creativity, story and community. Homes like our friends’ have both an unmistakable sense of place as well as a transferable design concept that can work in any home.

Celeste Randolph is an interior designer in Los Altos. For more information, visit

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