When discussing the many places that automotive designers mine for inspiration, none seems to come up so frequently as Palm Springs. The small desert city has a giant reputation in the design world—mainly known for its many striking mid-century modern homes and civic buildings. From Richard Neutra‘s Kaufmann House, Albert Frey‘s Frey House II, to John Lautner’s Arthur Elrod House, these homes defined an era. Many architects were drawn to what was then a small resort town by cheap land, lots of sunshine and room to experiment with how a home interacts with its surroundings.
A common trait of the most interesting Palm Springs homes is how they invite the landscape inside and create a sense of wonder by doing so. Of the many design aspects of these homes that can be applied to automotive design, that is the most apparent. Room for experimentation in automotive exterior design has shrunk continuously with safety regulations and we’ve reached a point where all vehicles in their respective segments look more or less the same. Interior design certainly still has its limits due to the rise of “The Screens,” but if you look around the marketplace, there’s more variety on the inside and some truly great work is being done across the board.
It was with that in mind that we spent an afternoon cruising around Palm Springs in a couple of Buick‘s latest offerings. Of the many automakers who seek to leverage their heritage and claim they have legitimate ties to the mid-century modern movement, Buick is among the few who can do so honestly. Large American cars roamed these streets from the time they were laid out and during the jet-set era the chrome of Buicks, Cadillacs, Oldsmobiles and Chryslers shone bright in the desert sun. These days the use of chrome has thankfully been minimized in the Buick line-up and the vehicles do manage to stand out in the crowded entry-level luxury segment.
How they’ve managed to achieve this can largely be attributed to the same mentality that the architects who flocked to Palm Springs in the mid 20th century had: to bring the outside in. Each of the three vehicles that we drove—the Enclave, Envision and Regal—all have low swept dashboards and oversize moon-roofs that serve to immerse occupants in the surrounding landscape. It’s worth noting that as much as the visuals are brought in, noise is tuned out, making these interiors among the quietest on the market.
With ambient noise at an absolute minimum, it was easy to listen to our tour guide through the vehicle speakers as he shared details on the neighborhoods we passed through like Vista Las Palmas, the first modernist home mecca.
We had the opportunity to go inside The Franz Alexander House which is a great example of the experimental rooflines that architect Walter White enjoyed so much.
From there, we explored the famous Twin Palms tract, so named because every house came with two palm trees. This tract is home to the first of the “Alexander Homes” which all have the same interior floorplan, but various exteriors with accompanying landscape architecture that made them seem more like custom builds. Designed by mid-century modern heroes William Krisel and Dan Palmer, the homes constructed by George Alexander would total 2,500 in number by the end of their building spree. The example we were fortunate enough to look around was well cared for and decorated with a tasteful combination of period correct pieces and memorabilia.
To wrap up our afternoon we went from the coziness of an Alexander Home to the stark yet beautiful William Holden House in the Deepwell Estates neighborhood. Set on an acre of lawn, this home is an exercise in modernist minimalism and the recent monochromatic interior renovation makes the design all the more dramatic. Spread out on 4,449 square feet are walls of glass, 47 pivoting doors and windows and a whole lot of Carrera marble.
Stunning views of Mt San Jacinto can be had from virtually anywhere on the property including the two casitas and 55- by 21-meter swimming pool that is the centerpiece of the immaculately manicured backyard. Of all the homes we visited, this one felt the most like a museum. However the appeal of spending days at home bathed in sunlight is undeniable, just like cruising around in a vehicle that ushers in the world around us.
Images by Andrew Maness