It’s hard to believe there was ever a time when midcentury design was taken for granted. Ignored. Thankfully, since 2001, the Modernism Show & Sale has ignited the modern aesthetic resurgence by bringing to the Palm Springs Convention Center a jaw-dropping collection of objects, furniture, and art from all over the world and by renowned designers including Baughman, McCobb, Wegner, and Wormley. The show always impresses and often overwhelms: There is so much to see, especially from local vendors.
Take Route 66 West. Lucite and copper vie for space with midcentury art and sculpture, but it’s the Bakelite that inspires a fandom bordering on obsession.
Invented by Leo Baekeland in New York in 1907, Bakelite was a mistake (Baekeland was trying to create a new kind of shellac for wood), but an immediate hit. Moldable, durable, and easily mass-produced, this thermosetting phenol formaldehyde resin became commonplace in kitchenware, radios, telephones, toys, and, especially, jewelry.
Affordable elegance, created in a laboratory and produced from the early 1920s until well after World War II was exactly the thing for those who could not afford diamonds, gold, or rubies. Bakelite was young, fun, and unselfconsciously stylish. It made regular appearances in the works of artists as varied as clothing designer Elsa Schiaparelli and furniture designer Paul Frankl, and it’s hard to imagine the clothes of Coco Chanel without her signature Bakelite bracelets.
The zenith of Bakelite was indisputably the 1930s, but it was quickly usurped by even less expensive and more durable plastics and moldable man-made materials. But in becoming rare and increasingly hard to find, Bakelite entered an era of appreciation that it previously had been denied. Even Coco Chanel had dismissed her Bakelite as “costume jewelry” — but with time and with hindsight, Bakelite was recognized as unique, special, and more than simply decorative.
“That’s because it’s design,” says Matt Burkholz, owner of Route 66 West in Palm Springs and author of The Bakelite Collection. “Not decoration. Moreover, wearing Bakelite is knowledge of design. When you say Bakelite looks ‘smart’ you are acknowledging this.” One of a generation of design enthusiasts who turned his passion into scholarship, Burkholz shouted out for Bakelite and other mass-produced plastic jewelry for years until people sat up and paid attention.
We remain smitten. Bakelite shows up in new places, vintage-made-new, and rediscovered by a new generation of designers and collectors.
Bakelite is but one example of something commonplace and midcentury becoming something collectible and worthy of celebration.
“The trick, which really isn’t a trick at all, is discernment,” says James Claude of a La MOD, and he should know; after more than 20 years in Palm Springs, he and his husband, Miguel Linares, an architect, know the difference between the good from the so-so, and their store is magical.
“We owe most of that to our clients, brilliant people who keep us on our toes.” Claude and Linares take delight in knowing not just the provenance of their wares, but the stories behind them and why they’re important. “A good designer knows not only what their client wants, but also what they need to know,” Claude says.
Similarly, John Gilmer at Porter & Plunk brings his experience and expertise to the business of design, and he is unlike anyone else. After founding his namesake architectural firm, Gilmer capitalized on his interest in furniture and antiques by creating Porter & Plunk in 2004, an online store with a smart collection of works by notable designers such as Tommi Partzinger, Karl Springer, Milo Baughman, and Paul Laszlo.
“Designers evolve over their careers,” Gilmer says, “and those of us who love and appreciate their work evolve and grow, too. Every year Modernism Week gets bigger, we all see that — but every year it gets smarter, the audience is smarter.”
Intellectualism never gets the better of passion at Christopher Anthony Ltd. Owners Tim Prendergast and Chris Mizeski proudly display objects, furnishings, and art they love.
“We could never sell things that didn’t grab our attention and hold it,” says Prendergast.
Blood and guts, heart and soul — whatever it is, when you walk into Christopher Anthony Ltd. you feel it. Stepping down into the shop on North Palm Canyon Drive in Palm Springs, you notice nothing is cluttered or thoughtlessly displayed; your eye lingers, moves on, moves back, and appreciates.
A Rauschenberg chair sits proudly next to a fine English Regency bureau; sculptures and paintings by contemporary artists render each lamp, figurine, and table distinctive.
Longtime Modernism Show & Sale vendors Betty and Ed Koren have taken the art of display to exciting heights with their enormous new space on North Indian Canyon in Palm Springs. Formerly the Party Lab space, Palm Springs Art + Design Gallery (also known as the Koren Gallery and Bridges Over Time) is a worthy retail expansion of the ideas fostered at the Palm Springs Museum Architecture and Design Center.
From front to back, no-longer-produced midcentury and other designer furniture and objects are presented with contemplative space. But the atmosphere is not stuffy — the Korens take entirely too much joy in their endeavor for that.
“Nothing in here is normal,” laughs Betty. “We like individual, unique items. And people.”
“We always loved showing at the Modernism Show,” Ed says. “And after 12 years of doing so, we felt more and more like Palm Springs was home … ”
Today Palm Springs thrives with a concentration of design professionals who have created an entire midcentury movement with only their knowledge and good taste.
And we get to share it.
Route 66 West
465 N. Palm Canyon Drive, Palm Springs
a La MOD
844 N. Palm Canyon Drive, Palm Springs
Porter & Plunk
Christopher Anthony Ltd.
800 N. Palm Canyon Drive, Palm Springs
Palm Springs Art + Design Gallery
383 N. Indian Canyon Road, Palm Springs