Adjusting for COVID, Palm Springs Modernism Week scales back and shifts to April

Mid-Year Modernism

Adjusting for COVID, Palm Springs Modernism Week scales back and shifts to April

An exterior rendering of a home designed by the late Ray Kappe, which will be formally unveiled during Modernism Week (Courtesy Desert Palisades)

April is the new month for Modernism Week, the annual celebration of midcentury modern architecture, art, and design in Palm Springs, California.

Organizers have set April 8 to 18 as the new dates for this year’s festival, which will be reduced in its scope and the number of events because of the COVID-19 pandemic but still feature in-person tours of modern homes, gardens, and communities.

One highlight this year is the unveiling of a recently-completed residence designed by the late Ray Kappe, one of the founders of the Southern California Institute of Architecture (SCI-Arc). According to architect and writer Alan Hess, it was Kappe’s first house in Palm Springs and one of the last homes that he designed before he died in 2019.

Interior rendering of a bedroom
An interior rendering of the Ray Kappe-designed home (Courtesy Desert Palisades)

Overlooking the Coachella Valley in the Desert Palisades community, the house was completed under the supervision of Kappe’s son, architect Finn Kappe, and furnished for its Modernism Week unveiling by a team led by Modern Hacienda, a store in Palm Desert.

Because of the pandemic, “Modernism Week has seriously scaled back the scope and number of events this year,” said spokesman Bob Bogard, in an email message. “We have concentrated on organizing events that can offer socially distant procedures (such as home tours with limited participants and timed entry), so no large-gathering events such as keynote speeches are offered this year.”

Organizers felt strongly about not canceling the event entirely, said Lisa Vossler Smith, the executive director of Modernism Week, in a statement.

“When it became clear we would not be able to offer the same kind of densely attended in-person events, we could have chosen to just pause all our programming,” she said. “Instead, we used the opportunity to reimagine how we offer programs.”

Now in its 16th year, the event usually takes place in February and draws design fans from around the world. It has grown to include two weekends, and its programs have expanded to include lectures and discussions about Modernism around the country, not just in the Coachella Valley. The last two keynote speakers have been Moshe Safdie (2019) and Daniel Libeskind (2020), neither of whom have built a major project in Palm Springs.

Last year’s festival, held from February 13 to 23 of 2020, was the largest ever with nearly 400 events, 162,000 attendees, and an estimated economic impact of $61 million for the area. It concluded less than a month before the announcements of the global COVID-19 pandemic and the resulting lockdown in the U. S.

Exterior of a modern patio for modernism week
The H3K renovation of the 1956 Lawrence Lapham-designed Sunburst Palms (Patrick Ketchum)

While many art- and architecture-related events have been canceled or gone to virtual formats over the past year, including Art Basel Miami Beach and Open House New York, the organizers of Modernism Week have instead taken steps to modify the festival’s format to make it as safe as possible for those who do participate. In doing so, they’ve provided a template of sorts for how other organizations might resume in-person events once the pandemic is under control.

One of the changes is that they separated the event into two parts, online programs and in-person programs.

In October 2020, Modernism Week held an all-virtual event in place of its usual Fall Preview, with programs that were prerecorded and offered for viewing that month.

In February 2021, organizers released more than 20 video programs online created for Modernism Week and made them available for purchase and on-demand streaming from February 1 through 28.

The initiative in February, the Modernism Week Online Experience, more or less took the place of the lectures, panel discussions, and book talks that speakers normally give in person as part of Modernism Week. There was also an online auction in February featuring unique architectural experiences and other items not usually available to the public.

For the in-person events that start next week, organizers say, the number of homes available to tour and the number of people who can go on each tour have both been greatly reduced from previous years to meet health safety protocols.

In addition, there will be no large gatherings at the Palm Springs Art Museum, although it will be open for those with reservations. The Modernism Show & Sale, the festival’s main retail component, has been suspended for a year because its regular location, the Palm Springs Convention Center, is being used as an emergency vaccination clinic.

The in-person events were shifted to April, organizers say, to give more time for the state’s and county’s public health status to improve and to make sure events adhere to appropriate safety guidelines.

Regarding the tours, for example, one precaution is that the houses open for viewing aren’t currently occupied, so people coming through would pose less of a health concern to the owners. All tours have specific entry times to ensure that a limited amount of people are gathered in one place. Handwashing stations will be installed and masks will be required.

“We are committed to the safety of our guests and we are monitoring daily health advisories,” said Modernism Week chair William Kopelk, in a statement outlining the changes, “We want to do what is best for our guests, as well as for our staff and volunteers.”

Organizers were pleased with the way the February programs were received, Vossler Smith said.

“We were gratified to see that our loyal Modernism Week attendees continued to support our efforts and participate in our new virtual programs,” she said. “When the pandemic ends and we can resume offering large-scale in-person events, we believe that we will continue to produce our online programming featuring compelling talks and tours and offer them throughout the year on our website.”

Exterior of blocky colorful homes amid mountains
The Mountain House, part of the upcoming High Desert Tour (Courtesy Modernism Week organizers)

Because of the change in scope and general hesitancy about travel, Modernism Week is expected to draw fewer out-of-town visitors this year. Still, many of the events have sold out before the event begins.

More than 20 tours and events in the Palm Springs area are part of this month’s in-person activities, including two “featured homes” that will be open for ticketed and self-guided tours, and several dinner events.

The featured homes are “Seventies Sackley,” a 1975 residence in the Indian Canyons neighborhood designed by Stan Sackley, and “Sunburst Palms,” a 1956 residence in the historic Deepwell area that was designed by Lawrence Lapham for Academy Award-winner Edward “Bud” Furer.

The Ray Kappe house is paired on the same ticket with a self-guided tour of a newly-completed house in Desert Palisades by architect Sean Lockyer. The double-feature is being billed as “Desert Modernism: Two Perspectives, Two Home Tours.”

Other scheduled events include a variety of outdoor walking tours; tours of the historic Annenberg Estate at Sunnylands Center & Gardens, Frank Sinatra’s former estate, and the Lautner Compound; narrated self-driving tours of Palm Springs architecture; self-guided modern landscape and outdoor neighborhood tours in Palm Springs, Rancho Mirage and Indian Wells; fashion events; vintage car exhibitions; an “architectural bike ride,” and a “spirited midcentury cocktail-making clinic” at Mr. Lyons Steak House. The full schedule is online at and availability changes as tickets sell out.

In addition, there will be video programs that may be viewed starting April 15. Many of these programs are new, while some are encore offerings from either last October or February. All were created specifically for Modernism Week participants and are meant to be comparable to what people would experience in person.

For those who will be in Palm Springs past Modernism Week this year, a 26-foot-tall sculpture of Marilyn Monroe is expected to go on display in Palm Springs at some point.

Forever Marilyn by Seward Johnson, depicts the actress as she appeared with her skirt flapping up in director Billy Wilder’s The Seven Year Itch. Shown in Palm Springs from 2012 to 2014, the sculpture was recently purchased by a local business group that wants to display it on city-owned land near the Palm Springs Art Museum as a tourist draw.

The group, PS Resorts, had set a date of April 25 for the unveiling on Museum Way. But that has been put on hold, pending the outcome of an April 9 court hearing triggered by an appeal from the Committee to Relocate Marilyn, a group of opponents who say the sculpture is a sexist image in the #metoo era and shouldn’t be on city property.

The Palm Springs Art Museum is also the new permanent home of the Aluminaire House, a prototype residence designed by Albert Frey in 1931 and donated to the museum last year by the Aluminaire House Foundation. The Frey house is currently under construction on the museum grounds but won’t be completed in time for Modernism Week 2021, museum officials say.

In conjunction with the reassembly of the Aluminaire House, the museum is planning a major exhibition and publication on Frey, who has been called “the father of Desert Modernism.” It also owns Frey House II, where the architect lived from 1964 until his death in 1998.

After this year’s adjustment, Bogard said, the organizers plan to move Modernism Week back to an in-person event in February for 2022, “provided we are not in another pandemic!”

The new dates are: Modernism Week Fall Preview, October 14 to 17, 2021, and Modernism Week 2022, February 17 to 27, 2022.