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Excerpt: Arthur Elrod: Desert Modern Design

Author Adele Cygelman shares highlights from her book slated to launch during Modernism Week in Palm Springs.

Adele Cygelman Current PSL, Modernism

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A lounge at the Martin Anthony Sinatra Medical Education Center at Desert Hospital, 1971.
PHOTOGRAPHS COURTESY HAROLD C. BRODERICK/ARTHUR ELROD ASSOCIATES, INC. COLLECTION, PALM SPRINGS ART MUSEUM, 15-2007

Editor’s Note: The following excerpt is from “Arthur Elrod: Desert Modern Design” (Gibbs Smith, 2019), the new book about Palm Springs’ most influential interior designer). The book by Adele Cygelman (author of “Palm Springs Modern” launches in February during Modernism Week with various talks, tours and book signings. 

Arthur Dea Elrod, Jr., was born on August 8, 1924, the only child of Arthur Dea Elrod (1886–1941) and Jessie Herron Elrod (1888–1963), on a small farm on Flat Rock Road, Anderson, South Carolina. Elrod had no interest in being a farmer and was determined to put as much distance between himself and Flat Rock Road as possible. He started by going to the then all-male military school Clemson Agricultural College (now Clemson University), about 20 miles away in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, where the only options were to study animal husbandry and agriculture or textiles. Elrod chose textiles.

After one year at Clemson, he went to Atlanta to work at the city’s leading upscale department store, Davisons, which was then owned by R. H. Macy & Co. His interest in textiles may have steered him to a job in the home furnishings department, a pattern he would repeat over the next 10 years. Atlanta was his first big-city experience. It’s where he realized that in order to advance his career he would need to study interior design. And it’s where he preferred to start his biography.

See related story: Arthur Elrod’s Escape house in Palm Springs is exactly as he left it in 1964.

Around 1945 or ’46, Elrod headed to Los Angeles to take an interior decoration course at the Chouinard Art Institute, an independent arts school at 743 Grand View near MacArthur Park. “I don’t think he headed west because he knew anyone or had any family connections there,” says his nephew Michael Calloway. “I think he wanted to get as far away as he could to a progressive place. He wasn’t the least bit interested in the Elrod family, except for his mother. I’m amazed he kept the Elrod name.”

By 1947 Elrod had departed Los Angeles for Palm Springs where found a job as a junior staff decorator in the home furnishings department at the newly opened Bullock’s Palm Springs. And by this point he had taken elocution lessons to lose his southern accent. “He was always working on himself, always wanting to improve himself,” says furniture designer Charles Hollis Jones.

In 1952, Elrod left Bullock’s Palm Springs and moved to San Francisco to join the renowned furnishings, interior design, and carpet emporium W. & J. Sloane. It was at W. & J. Sloane that Arthur Elrod met Harold C. Broderick.

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PHOTOGRAPH COURTESY GEORGE R. SZANIK/GEORGE SZANIK PAPERS (COLLECTION 1799), LIBRARY SPECIAL COLLECTIONS, CHARLES E. YOUNG RESEARCH LIBRARY, UCLA

The living room of Elrod’s first house at 419 Valmonte Sur, furnished with a mix of antiques and contemporary art, furnishings and rug, 1961.

Arthur Elrod and Hal Broderick became business partners, an arrangement that would last until Elrod’s death, and they were life partners until the mid-1960s.

He returned to Palm Springs in 1954 to open Arthur Elrod Ltd., an interior design and decorating business. Elrod always took the lead in design, and Broderick assisted with interiors and took care of the business side. They were joined by Barbara Wills, an assistant manager in Sloane’s modern furniture department. Elrod already knew the village’s pioneering families—McManus, Hicks, Nichols, Bennett—so when he returned, it was a triumphant return, with many personal and social contacts already established. He was 30 years old.

Arthur Elrod Ltd. was in immediate demand. Having a storefront presence on Palm Canyon Drive, which was part design studio and part furniture and fabric showroom, gave them instant visibility and credibility. It’s not surprising that the firm not only hit the ground running immediately upon opening, but that its first commissions were for Hollywood royalty. “We were the official reps for Widdicomb Furniture and Baker,” Hal Broderick related. “Widdicomb called one day and said they had donated a house full of furniture designed by Robsjohn-Gibbings to a couple at Thunderbird Country Club and would we please go out and arrange it. Thus started our longtime relationship with Lucy and Desi Arnaz.”

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PHOTOGRAPH COURTESY NELDA LINSK

Nelda Linsk, longtime friend and client of Elrod’s, in the entry hall of her house at 425 Camino Norte. Elrod wrapped the entry in bands of brown lacquered fabric, mirrored glass and wood slats, 1972.

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PHOTOGRAPHS COURTESY FRITZ TAGGART. GEORGE R. SZANIK/GEORGE SZANIK PAPERS (COLLECTION 1799), LIBRARY SPECIAL COLLECTIONS, CHARLES E. YOUNG RESEARCH LIBRARY, UCLA

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Left: The master bedroom of Sigmund Edelstone’s condo at the Racquet Club, with a master console that controlled the lights and music and a built-in wall unit that held LPs, files and a fax machine. 1973. Right: The club room of Roy and Alta Woods’ home in Oklahoma City, with a sculpted bronze wall and custom carpet that goes from off-white at the center to yellow, 1964.

Like many interior designers, Elrod and Broderick treated their homes as their laboratories and their calling cards. They each bought a series of houses, primarily in the Movie Colony, Racquet Club Road Estates, and Old Las Palmas neighborhoods, renovated them, decorated them, lived in some, sold them fully furnished, and moved on to the next project.

The colors of the desert led to a new palette for interiors—the soft color of the sand, the desert rose of the mountains, the sage greens of the foliage. Elrod ignored those pastels, as well as the prevailing desert monotones of brown, beige, and tan in favor of his preferred foundation of white, which he then accented with a full spectrum of blues, greens, and yellows tied together with textured wallpapers and fabrics. Walnut became the preferred wood. Walls and doors were bleached, pickled, sandblasted, or stained. Every square inch of every room received attention. Every press write-up emphasized how fresh and energizing both he and his interiors were.

People would hire him first for their desert vacation homes and then
 ask him to work on their main houses around the country. “Arthur worked in reverse,” said Paige Rense Noland, editor emeritus and former editor in chief of Architectural Digest. “He was the one who persuaded clients to look at their second or third house on a par with their primary residence. He made clients want to spend money on their weekend houses.”

Elrod stood apart in other ways, mainly in his embrace 
of the new, his willingness to experiment, and his curiosity about innovative technology, fabrication techniques, and materials. These qualities endeared him to the Modernist architects he worked with over the course of his career, a stellar group that included E. Stewart Williams, William F. Cody, Buff & Hensman, A. Quincy Jones, Wexler & Harrison, Palmer & Krisel, Howard Lapham, Hugh Kaptur, Richard Dorman, Edward Fickett, and John Lautner.

By June 1956, just less than two years after it opened, the showroom had doubled in size and been redecorated in gold and white. Elrod continued to expand the furniture lines, many of which, like Paul McCobb’s Linear Group, were being introduced to the desert for the first time.

Finally, the parched desert received a flood of good design. By 1957 the firm was in full swing with about 30 residential and development projects. They had commissions for redoing the lobby and dining room of the Desert Inn for then-owner Marion Davies, doing the design for Walt and Lillian Disney’s second home at Smoke Tree Ranch, and designing a new home for Claudette Colbert on Camino Mirasol. Prolifc film producer Eddie Small, who owned a house at 467 Via Lola, hired the firm to add a room; “something that he did every year so that we would have a project and an opportunity to work with him,” Hal Broderick quipped. Working on a house for one client and then returning to redecorate it for the next owners would become a common refrain.

Elrod had firm ideas about how people should be living and how decorating could improve their lives. To get his message across, he wrote a design column for the Palm Springs Villager. He was listed on the masthead as the associate editor of the Desert Home section, and then as the editor of the Desert Living column in Palm Springs Life after the two publications merged in 1959. He oversaw the magazine’s design coverage, which included articles on other designers and developments that highlighted resort living at its best.

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HAROLD C. BRODERICK/ARTHUR ELROD ASSOCIATES, INC. COLLECTION, PALM SPRINGS ART MUSEUM, 15-2007

Elrod’s color-saturated palette was in full bloom at the round house of Joseph and Wiki Dennis in Thunderbird Heights, with its circular kitchen in lavender and chartreuse, 1970.

Arthur Elrod plunged wholeheartedly into the village’s social life. Palm Springs was such a small, tightly knit community that whatever event he attended he was surrounded by people who either were, or would become, clients. 
He hosted dinner parties at the Racquet Club, sponsored opening nights at the Palm Springs Playhouse, bought a box for the Easter night performance of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, donated decorative accessories and art to charity galas, designed the staging for a musical benefit at the Riviera, volunteered to help hang the curtains at the Desert Hospital, was a judge for Christmas decorations at Jack Meiselman’s Palm Lane Estates, donated money toward building a new city animal shelter, and placed ads in every social and charity event program. No deed was too small; no sponsorship request was turned down. In 1956 he was elected one of the directors of the Retail Merchants Division of the Palm Springs Chamber of Commerce and chairman of a fund-raising committee.

By the early 1960s Elrod’s look started to become more polished, more layered, and much smoother. The Los Angeles Times Home magazine described it as “cool sophistication and warm hospitality.” No one else captured the relaxed-yet-sophisticated elegance that epitomized Palm Springs living.

The 1960s ushered in many transformative changes. The first happened in 1964 when William C. Raiser joined the firm and a shift, subtle but profound, occurred in its design direction. “Arthur’s style was elegant, very luxurious, smooth,” says Mari Anne Pasqualetti. [who worked there from 1968 to 1970]. “I saw his transition from a more traditional look to a more modern one. He had a wealth of experience from his days at W. & J. Sloane, but with the new studio he seemed to be enjoying a
new phase. He loved color. I always thought his design aesthetic at this period was influenced by the arrival of Bill Raiser, who was so enthusiastic about modern design.

Another shift occurred in January 1968, when the firm moved next door into a brand-new studio and offices at 850 N. Palm Canyon Drive. “The interior finishes
of the showroom and offices of Arthur, Bill, and Hal were all constructed with rough-sawn wood on the walls and everything was painted white,” says Mari Anne Pasqualetti. “The interior of their offices contained beautiful custom-made carpets designed by Bill and made by Edward Fields in New York. The design of the carpets mirrored the design of their desks, which were finished in a high-gloss glaze, very colorful, extremely sophisticated.”

Budgets were expanding exponentially. Clients all wanted the Elrod look, and finances were rarely an issue. They were building bigger custom homes on bigger lots designed by a new wave of architects and developers. And they were assembling major art and sculpture collections, mostly early twentieth-century and contemporary works by the likes of Picasso, Rothko, Giacometti, Motherwell, and Noland that required more space to display and more custom furnishings to enhance them.

As the 1960s segued into the ’70s, the color palette used by Arthur Elrod Associates, which now consisted of Elrod, Raiser, Broderick, Bob Hammerschmidt, Tracy Thornton, Steve Chase, and Douglas Barnard, exploded with crimson reds, emerald greens, peacock blues, zinnia yellows, burnished bronzes, and jet blacks. It was a saturated color palette always used exuberantly, skillfully, and with great restraint. “Color is not easy to do,” emphasizes Los Angeles designer Brad Dunning. “Other decorators of the period were doing similar work, but no one did it better than Elrod—bold colors that were so ballsy, but he pulled it off. I constantly admire how he could mix things and it never looked vulgar, cheap, or garish. He could do those patterns and bright colors on a par with the best Color Field painters of the time like Kenneth Noland, Ellsworth Kelly, or Frank Stella, but he was doing it in 3-D.”

“I was thinking about his use of color,” adds Brad Dunning. “Those interiors of his and his associates do look somewhat aggressive, foreign, and certainly flamboyant and playful through today’s narrow eyes. Then I was thinking that at that time people were wearing clothes like his interiors and driving up to the houses in cars of those colors. We certainly proceed monochromatically through life now—cars, clothes, interiors. So if people look at those period color-saturated kaleidoscopic Elrod interiors now, they certainly can honestly say they look ‘dated’—they are. But don’t we appreciate period cars and movies, furniture and clothes with much admiration? That might be how we consider those interiors. They are of a time, but they are the best of that time.”

“His design approach was miles ahead of its time,” says Marybeth Norton [who worked there in the early 1970s]. “He was the master of midcentury design, and his circle of friends reinforced this, considering that Raymond Loewy, John Lautner, and A. Quincy Jones would stop by the studio for a chat.” Katherine Hough [who also worked there in the early 1970s] adds, “Arthur was an innovator. He was the first to do recessed indirect lighting, sofas with recessed kick bases, buffets floating on wall panels. He was very interested in meshing lighting with interior architecture. He didn’t just plop furniture down; he integrated the lighting with the furniture and rugs.”

“As an employee, he demanded the best of service, the best of appearance, and the best of social grace,” Marybeth Norton said. “I always remember him saying, ‘Very important! We are in a service industry, we enter our clients’ home through the service door, we address them by “Mr. and Mrs.,” and never assume that they are your best friends.’ ”

The firm had perfected the art of the installation and the reveal. “Before clients arrived to see the house for the first time after it was completed, Arthur insisted that the front porch or deck ordriveway be hosed off so that when they arrivedthere was no sign of us being there,” said Hal Broderick. “Arthur was a total perfectionist,” says Mari Anne Pasqualetti. “He expected the very best from all of us. When we presented clients with their new interiors, the level was astonishing. We had installed all their clothing in their closets, gourmet items in the refrigerator, fire in the fireplace, lighting to give a particular mood. We had all slaved to make every surface glisten, nothing 
out of place.”

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PHOTOGRAPH COURTESY PAUL POSPESIL COLLECTION: PALM SPRINGS HISTORICAL SOCIETY

Arthur Elrod (left), William Raiser and Mari Williams, wife of architect E. Stewart Williams, in the studio of Arthur Elrod Associates at 850 N. Palm Canyon Drive.

By the mid-1960s, Elrod had tired of the endless cycle of buying, remodeling, and selling his own houses. He wanted something more personal, more distinctive, more permanent. On December 6, 1965, he paid $27,500 for Lot 2 of .64 acres on Southridge Drive, the narrow rocky ridge that defines the southeastern end of Palm Springs.

Why did Elrod approach John Lautner instead of a Palm Springs architect? He was seeking something unique, something that pushed the boundaries, something that hadn’t been seen in the desert before. The two-year project became a collaboration of equals who respected each other’s work. For Lautner the result was one of the most significant commissions in his career, one of the few houses he created where the interiors were treated on a par with the architecture, and where the furnishings complemented and enhanced the structure.

Concrete, glass, copper, wood, and slate were the main materials used in the five-room, 5,700-square-foot residence. In keeping with his philosophy of organic architecture, Lautner integrated the site’s massive boulders and rock outcroppings into the structure. Walls were given a ribbed texture by pouring concrete into wood board forms. The copper-sheathed entry gate was designed on a pivot; the 16-foot-tall glass front doors were frameless. Black slate was laid in a herringbone pattern all in one direction from the pathway that travels from the carport to the entry, down into the living/dining area through to the kitchen. Floor-to-ceiling glass panes zigzagged around the edge of the living room to cut down the glare and were mitered at the seams so that no frames would disturb the views. A curved fireplace delineated the space between the dining area and a corner seating area. The half-moon-shaped pool perched at the ridge edge was filled to the brim and spilled down over the concrete wall, a vanishing-edge technique that Lautner had first experimented with at Silvertop. The final construction cost, according to Architectural Design, was $300,000.

The master bedroom suite was a complete cocoon, a private world of rich reds, warm woods, carpets, cabinetry, recessed lighting, and every amenity for total relaxation. A row of interior walls with built-in bookshelves and closets were clad in a richly grained South American courbaril wood, the ceiling lined with limed redwood boards, and the wall-to-wall carpet was woven gray goat hair from Decorative Carpets.

Elrod now had a house that matched his aesthetic and reflected his interests. It was an arena where he could entertain friends, associates, clients, neighbors, and the press.
The house debuted in print in the Los Angeles Times Home magazine on November 3, 1968. It was featured on the cover, a glorious composition in contrasting blues from the pool and grays from the concrete across the poolside terrace toward the elegantly flared column. The view beyond is of open desert and mountains, and two people—Mari Anne Pasqualetti and Bill Raiser—lean casually on the railing with their backs to the camera taking it all in. The house was featured in the May 1969 issue of House & Garden in a 10-page spread (but not the cover) titled “House Spectacular: Full of Daring Ideas.” The two magazine features started an avalanche of press for the photogenic house, its architect, and, just as importantly, its client. Architectural Digest, Palm Springs Life, Interior Design, Architectural Record and countless other publications featured the home as a modern architectural wonder.

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Leland Lee’s images ricocheted around the design world and are still referenced today. Arthur Elrod had long shunned the spotlight, preferring to stay in the background, rarely photographed, rarely socializing with clients unless it was a charity event or housewarming party. This house changed everything. Overnight he became a celebrity and, in most cases, became better known than his clients.

Still, for all the publicity and notoriety, Elrod preferred nothing more than getting up early, walking down the trails behind the house to watch the birds at the various feeding stations he’d set up, picking herbs to dry as potpourri, and enjoying the calm and peace of the desert at sunrise.