The 1946 Kaufmann Desert House, designed by Richard Neutra and immortalized in Slim Aarons’ photo “Poolside Gossip,” has hosted fabulous Modernism Week events.

How Modernism Week Started in Palm Springs: An Oral History

A group of architecture and design enthusiasts created a cultural phenomenon. In light of Modernism Week October's 10th anniversary, some of them reflect on the event's origins.

Michael Arkin Home & Design, Modernism

The 1946 Kaufmann Desert House, designed by Richard Neutra and immortalized in Slim Aarons’ photo “Poolside Gossip,” has hosted fabulous Modernism Week events.

The 1946 Kaufmann Desert House, designed by Richard Neutra and immortalized in Slim Aarons’ photo “Poolside Gossip,” has hosted fabulous Modernism Week events.

If you were one of the people who paid approximately $30,000 to buy an Alexander tract home in Palm Springs at the dawn of the Space Age, you would never have imagined that your 1,200-square-foot house would someday be worth $1.3 million. But such is the allure of the desert and the demand for modern architecture in a town whose name has become synonymous with midcentury design.

It wasn’t always that way. After earning its reputation as Hollywood’s favorite getaway in the 1930s and ’40s, and undergoing impressive growth in the postwar boom, Palm Springs stagnated. An exodus of residents and businesses in the 1980s left the city awash in “For Rent” signs and T-shirt shops. Although no one could have foreseen it, the migration down valley turned out to be a blessing in disguise: With little development going on, no one was taking a wrecking ball to the buildings and homes that today rank among the city’s greatest assets. On the contrary, by the late ’90s, The New Yorker and Vanity Fair were reporting on the preservation of homes in Palm Springs, including the iconic Kaufmann Desert House, and lauding the work of early architects who, inspired by the desert, were experimenting with new materials and designs — names like Richard Neutra, John Lautner, Albert Frey, and E. Stewart Williams.

People noticed. Among them was Jacques Caussin, a French-born antiques dealer specializing in 20th-century design and the producer of the successful Miami Modernism Show, launched in 1993.

By the end of the ’90s, Caussin had tired of producing the event by himself. Considering a move to Palm Springs, he approached Robert Smith and Rosemary Krieger of Dolphin Promotions about becoming co-producers of the Miami show. With the deal signed, Caussin took off for the desert and soon after started the Palm Springs iteration, a precursor to Modernism Week.

Modernism Week started in 2006 and grew year after year until it became the wildly popular, 11-day festival that draws international recognition today. Exclusive home tours, expert lectures, and themed parties draw more than 100,000 architecture and design enthusiasts each February. To satisfy demand, organizers expanded in 2013 with a fall “preview,” now known as Modernism Week October.

On the eve of the 10th annual Modernism Week October, the story of how a design show seeded one of the desert’s most distinctive signature events is remembered by the voices of those who were a part of its inception.

Armando’s Bar

Palm Springs Modernism Show.

The Modernism Show

ROSEMARY KRIEGER, president, Dolphin Promotions Inc.: Once he relocated to the desert, Jacques called and said, Palm Springs would be the perfect backdrop for another Modernism Show. There’s a lot going on out here, and it’s all centered around midcentury modern. So, we flew out [to Palm Springs] and met with Carl Prout, who at the time was the president of the Palm Springs Preservation Foundation, which became the beneficiary of our opening night ticket sales.

JACQUES CAUSSIN, co-founder and director of sales, Palm Springs Modernism Show: We produced the first Palm Springs Modernism Show & Sale on President’s Day weekend in 2001, and it was an immediate success. It astonished all of us.

KRIEGER: We debuted with 40 exhibitors and 3,500 attendees. As the dealers were moving in, we said, “Boy, this is going to be a flash in the pan.” Little did we know that it would morph into what it did, and I’d be pulling out of all of my antique shows and putting all my eggs in the 20th-century basket. February 2023 was our 23rd show, which had 130 exhibitors and 15,000 attendees — 1,200 people, including former first lady Laura Bush, attended opening night, which benefited Modernism Week.

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Architect William Krisel waves at a bus tour.

SIDNEY WILLIAMS, former director of education and public programs, Palm Springs Art Museum (1994–2003): The Modernism Show was always on President’s Day weekend, so at Jacques’ suggestion, the museum planned a symposium on the next weekend. Initially, it was only two weekends.

CAUSSIN: Extending the Modernism Show was never part of the concept. People came to town, bought midcentury homes for nothing, rehabbed them, gave them their original look, and it all helped the show. If they were interested in midcentury architecture, they could go to the symposium the following weekend and learn.

LISA VOSSLER SMITH, CEO, Modernism Week: The Modernism Show was generating interest in the architecture here as modernists were coming to shop. They were looking at these beautiful homes and buildings and wondering how they could get in.

The Big Idea

Success has many authors, and no one agrees on who conceived the idea of Modernism Week. In 2006, programming was added to fill the days in between the Palm Springs Modernism Show & Sale weekend and the museum’s symposium weekend, marking the debut of Modernism Week. In 2007, the February event expanded to 10 days, and in 2013, an 11th day was added.

WILLIAMS: In 2005, a small committee, maybe six or seven of us, would meet in the museum café. We were all volunteers, and we collaborated on our vision of what Modernism Week could be.

WILLIAM KOPELK, chairman of the board, Modernism Week: We knew people were coming to town for the two weekends. As it got more popular, we realized there was an audience that was staying the whole week. Stewart Weiner, who was vice president of the Palm Springs Preservation Foundation, and I got together and said, “Why don’t we create something to keep all these like-minded people in town for the five days between the two events?” That’s how Modernism Week was born.

WILLIAMS: I think it was Jacques’ idea. He has a marketing background and certainly understood the value of what we were doing.

CAUSSIN: It’s a little embarrassing, I believe it was mine. The show was a success, the symposium was a success, so after a few years, we said, “Both of our events deal with the same subject. Both of our events are successes. So what if we did the Modernism Show one weekend and the museum did the architectural symposium the following weekend, and we’ll try to find things to do in between — lectures and home tours — and call it Modernism Week?” I take credit for starting the Modernism Show. Eleven people take credit for starting Modernism Week.

SMITH: I’ve heard from four different people that it was their idea. But I can tell you who was likely in the room. The initial steering committee was made up representatives of the Palm Springs Modernism Show, Palm Springs Preservation Foundation, Palm Springs Modern Committee [aka PS ModCom], Palm Springs Historical Society, and Palm Springs Art Museum.

STEWART WEINER, former vice president, Palm Springs Preservation Foundation (1998–2006): It didn’t take a great genius to see that it was a good idea to give everyone who was coming here for the Modernism Show weekend a reason to hang around during the week. That would help the hotels and the restaurants.

In the Beginning

LYDIA KREMER, former publicist, Modernism Week (2006–2012): I believe there were three entities — the Palm Springs Preservation Foundation, ModCom, and the Palm Springs Historical Society — that kicked in seed money of $1,500 each. Talk about humble beginnings, that really underscores it.

WILLIAMS: We started out with the symposium, the lectures, the films. But as the tour aspect of Modernism grew, it really brought people in.

KOPELK: We knew the one thing people really liked was touring houses, and we knew enough people who were completing restorations and would open their homes to us.

CAUSSIN: The bus tour was part of the original concept. It’s still the most popular event.

KOPELK: It was really promoted through the Palm Springs Preservation Foundation. We had a website. We took out ads. We asked people to promote it, so it was an organic thing.

SMITH: It was one event at a time, one tour bus running. It was small in the early years.

KOPELK: The first year, we had 300 people and six events. People didn’t understand what we were. We had our work cut out for us.

WILLIAMS: We started collecting attendance data because we wanted to get the city of Palm Springs interested in becoming a sponsor. As soon as we could show them the economic impact — heads in beds — we could get their attention.

KREMER: In a sponsorship proposal that we wrote to the city a month after the 2007 event, we talked about attendance being 5,600. We were requesting $20,000 for the 2008 event.

SMITH: Now, in 2023, the city of Palm Springs gives $50,000 as civic presenting sponsor, and other desert cities including Rancho Mirage, Palm Desert, Indian Wells, and La Quinta are sponsors and host events in their cities as part of Modernism Week.

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Modernism Week's CAMP. 

KRIEGER: The Modernism Show has always been the centerpiece of Modernism Week. Show attendance has increased 10 to 20 percent per year since Modernism Week started. Back then, having 2,000 to 3,000 was considered a good show. Now, we have almost 15,000 in three-and-a-half days. The meter keeps ticking in an upward direction.

WILLIAMS: After 18 years, it’s a huge economic boost to the city.

SMITH: Modernism Week 2023 generated an economic impact of $55,375,425 for area hotels, restaurants, shops, and other businesses throughout the Coachella Valley. Everything just snowballed into a world-class, internationally known festival that attracts people from 50 states and 20 countries.

Concluded in February, just before the COVID-19 shutdown, Modernism Week 2020 reported the largest attendance yet — 162,000 people. After one year of virtual programming and a second with suppressed turnout due to lingering concerns about public gatherings, audiences came roaring back for Modernism Week 2023. Attendance in February totaled 105,477 and included 350 events. CAMP (Modernism Week’s “Community and Meeting Place,” the headquarters for event information, bus tour departures, and merchandise during the February confab) saw more than 26,000 visitors throughout the festival.

Modernism Week October

CAUSSIN: After three or four years, the hotel association approached us and said they were very happy that Modernism Week was a big success, but they didn’t have a problem filling rooms in February, and that if we could do something in the fall, they would help us.

SMITH: In 2013, Modernism Week started its fall event in collaboration with DoCoMoMo — a national organization for the documentation of buildings, sites, and neighborhoods of the modern movement. [DoCoMoMo] was starting a home tour weekend in October [around the country, including in Palm Springs].

KOPELK: We decided to celebrate that and embellish it with Modernism Week Fall Preview, which is what we were going to call it because we were going to preview what was coming in February. The more popular it got, the more days we added. We decided to call it Modernism Week October.

CAUSSIN: Modernism Week was already established and a success, so we said, “Why not?”

WEINER: I think people locally may like October better because it’s less crowded than February.

SMITH: It was shoulder season, and the locals really wanted to buy tickets without things selling out so fast. Fall 2022, we had 14,000 attendees for a full, four-day event.

Giving Back

In 2009, Modernism Week became a 501(c)(3) nonprofit. Since then, it has established an annual scholarship program for local high school seniors pursuing college degrees in the fields of architecture and design. It continues to provide financial support to local and state preservation organizations and neighborhood groups working to preserve modernist architecture throughout the state.

KOPELK: We felt there was a need to encourage students to go into continued education in the design field, and because of that, we wanted to offer an incentive. Since 2011, we’ve donated $285,000.

SMITH: We partnered with One Future Coachella Valley, a local matching organization. That really helped us amplify the scholarship program.

WILLIAMS: The students that go off to study design, architecture, and preservation have grown up in a city that appreciates the legacy, so it’s great to have these students continue that legacy. They’ll be a real asset in the future for preservation, new architecture, and the future of Palm Springs.

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Modernism Week reception.

The Future

KOPELK: The nonprofit that produces Modernism Week created a new identity: MADE, an acronym for Modern Architecture Design Experiences. MADE productions include Modernism Week in February, Modernism Week October, small group architecture tours run by Modernism Week from October to May, travel excursions like Modernism Week at Sea, and MADE Beverly Hills, which is the first event we held outside the Coachella Valley.

SMITH: We’ll celebrate our 20th anniversary in 2025. It’s worth celebrating because all of the original partners are still involved, and we’ve grown to have more than 60 event partners and more than 20 participating neighborhoods. We went from a handful of people asking friends to open their homes to having over 300 homes open during the course of 11 days [in February and about a dozen homes over four days in October].

One needn’t wait until the 20th anniversary to celebrate Modernism Week. What started in a brainstorming session became a community event and ultimately, a cultural phenomenon. However, like the fortuitous homebuyers who purchased Alexanders in the 1950s and ’60s, members of the original committee might never have imagined what it would become. But Palm Springs, known today as the modernism capital of the world, owes both that title and its gratitude to their vision.