Roy Lichtenstein’s 1992 “Wallpaper With Blue Floor Interior” hangs in the dining area of the Max Palevsky residence in Palm Springs.

“Palm Springs Modern” Book Celebrates 25 Years

Twenty-five years ago, author Adele Cygelman and photographer David Glomb released "Palm Springs Modern," a seminal book documenting local architecture. Here, the author shares an excerpt.

Adele Cygelman Home & Design, Modernism

Roy Lichtenstein’s 1992 “Wallpaper With Blue Floor Interior” hangs in the dining area of the Max Palevsky residence in Palm Springs.

Roy Lichtenstein’s 1992 “Wallpaper With Blue Floor Interior” hangs in the dining area of the Max Palevsky residence in Palm Springs.

The 1990s were not a happy time in Palm Springs. Like Sleeping Beauty, the city lay neglected and forgotten under layers of dust. The good news was that its midcentury modern gems sat undisturbed. So when photographer David Glomb and I started our adventure documenting the best examples of residential modernism, we not only found many original residences, but also many of the original owners. The late Max Palevsky was one. His low-slung residence in Little Tuscany designed in the late 1960s by Craig Ellwood was a masterwork of understatement filled with an exceptional collection of 20th-century art and furnishings. 

Palevsky was typical of the visionary homeowners we encountered. He had founded Scientific Data Systems, which sold to Xerox for $1 billion, when, he joked, “a billion was worth something.” He was a founder of Intel, was heavily involved in politics, and became a noted art collector and philanthropist.

As we celebrate the 25th anniversary of Palm Springs Modern (Rizzoli, 1999), we shine a light on Max Palevsky’s house, which is still in his family’s hands. It was here that we launched the book in Palm Springs at a cocktail party in 1999, so it is fitting that things come full circle this month with a Modernism Week cocktail party celebrating 25 years. As Palevsky told Allene Arthur, who covered the first event in The Desert Sun, “I’ve lived here 30 years and never met my neighbors until now.”

Following is a chapter from the book, documenting the story of this home. Hear more about the book during a special Modernism Week presentation Feb. 16 at the Annenberg Theater.

max palevsky house, 1968–’70

Craig Ellwood, architectural designer

Armando’s Bar

The exterior wall, punctuated by openings with vertical slats, wraps around the pool and spa, presided over by Alexander Calder’s “The Blackboard” (1970). 

Craig Ellwood and Max Palevsky met in 1965 when Ellwood designed the award-winning plant/administration/engineering complex for Scientific Data Systems in El Segundo, California. “It was done in an International, hard-edged, modern Mies style, which was a style I grew up with in Chicago — it seems right,” says Palevsky, who founded SDS in 1961, which was acquired by Xerox in 1969. Palevsky retired as director and chairman of the executive committee of Xerox in 1972 and became a supporter and active collector of contemporary art.

In 1970, he commissioned the structural engineer and designer to build a vacation house on what local architect Stewart Williams calls “the best site in Palm Springs.” The site abuts the mountainside, with sweeping views east and south of the Coachella Valley in an alluvial area dominated by massive boulders. “Behind us is a runoff ravine, and at the top is a waterfall,” Palvesky says. “When it rains, the water sweeps down, and land is washed away. George Alexander got the city and state to build a dam, and then he bought up the land below it and developed the area using five basic house designs. A lot of movie people moved there — Donna Reed, Dinah Shore, Kirk Douglas. My wife and I looked at a number of lots, and we had to make a critical choice: Build on a flat lot down below where it stays light longer or get a lot on the hillside where the sun sets behind the mountain earlier. We decided on the hillside because it’s more private.”

Palevsky knew from the start that he wanted a classical piece of architecture, and he and Ellwood traveled to Morocco in search of inspiration. “One of the sights that impressed us were walled houses where everything could be put into a central courtyard and locked up at night. Walls were constructed of  big boulders and rubble,” Palevsky recalls. “We thought we’d try to get that effect, but it would have been too expensive, and the plan didn’t really fit Ellwood’s more classical aesthetic. So we kept the notion of the wall and made the side with the view all glass.”

In the central courtyard, a 1st-century Roman marble column holds court.

In the central courtyard, a 1st-century Roman marble column holds court.

Ellwood had been designing steel-frame structures in Los Angeles since 1949 and by the early 1960s had absorbed the lessons of symmetry and volume in Mies van der Rohe’s work. The long white pavilion hunches low on its site, an unobtrusive presence against the rocky hillside. Behind the glass entrance screen, a path leads around the central square block that consists of four identical guest bedrooms, two on each side. A wall of white-painted brick, punctuated by openings with vertical slats, runs the entire length of the house to the east, defining its outer, most exposed side and providing a protective envelope. To the west is the mountain. The south end of the property ends at a ledge, where the wall of brick wraps around to meet a wall of glass. The main house, which sits on an east-west axis perpendicular to the entrance, is a simple construction: Side walls support steel beams, and glass panels are hung from the beams. “The universal reaction was that it’s crazy to use steel in the desert, why not use wood, it’s much cheaper,” says Palevsky. “But steel is easy to maintain. And you can’t get that clear roof span with wood.”

As in classical villas, a central rectangular courtyard sits in the center of the property, providing an interlude between the guesthouse and main house. Strategically planted ficus in pots and bougainvillea line one side of the courtyard. None of the plants around the house were introduced at random — they are placed to ensure total privacy. Standing quietly in the courtyard’s heart, instead of a fountain, is a 1st-century Roman column of concrete with a marble veneer. “I own some antiquities, and I saw the column lying on the floor in a London gallery,” Palevsky recounts. “J. Paul Getty had bought it, but he hadn’t paid for it. The column makes the inner court — it provides scale.” [...]

Much of the furniture was built-in, especially in the walnut-paneled master bedroom where Ellwood devised a headboard complete with an intercom system and electronic controls for the drapes and lights. The house and guest rooms are furnished with iconic examples of midcentury modern design — Breuer chairs, Eames lounge chairs and ottomans, George Nelson benches, Saarinen tables, Richard Schultz outdoor furniture around the pool. [...]

Armando’s Bar

In the primary bedroom, an Eames lounge chair and ottoman provide fireside seating.

Palevsky’s collection of contemporary art includes works by Roy Lichtenstein, Donald Judd, Andy Warhol, Ettore Sottsass, and Alexander Calder. “It’s taken 27 years for everything to settle,” he says. “It’s hard to do a house and get it right so nothing is bothersome. It’s a particularly good house for children because nothing is breakable. I have six kids who grew up here, and we had a lot of fun.”