One of Modernism Week’s February online offerings will be the film The 1931 Aluminaire House Comes to Palm Springs. The house was designed for a 1931 exhibition in New York City, and it will eventually have a permanent home the Palm Springs Art Museum. Credit: Michael Schwarting

Every February, Palm Springs is overrun with fans of all things midcentury modern—going on house tours, enjoying modernism-themed parties and shopping at the Modernism Show and Sale.

That is, every February but this one.

“Our 2020 Modernism Week in February was our biggest one ever,” said Lisa Vossler Smith, the executive director of Modernism Week. “It had 162,000 attendees, and it was our 15th anniversary. We really had an incredible, over-the-top experience. It was kind of the last party of the year, because a few weeks after that, everything changed.”

Unfortunately, the world is still quite changed due to the COVID-19 pandemic—and as a result, Modernism Week has been delayed until April 8-18. However, Smith and her Modernism Week colleagues still wanted to make their presence felt in February, so they’re taking things online, with virtual events throughout the month, including talks with authors and architects, films and virtual house tours.

“Nothing’s a replacement for a live experience, but at least it can help to provide an online experience similar to the things that you see when you come to Modernism Week,” Smith said. “The programs that we’re working on are things that our repeat visitors would enjoy, as well as new faces who may never have the chance to come to Palm Springs.”

Smith said she sees a silver lining in the February Modernism Week “Online Experience.” Tickets for all of the events will go on sale Feb. 1.

“We have wanted to expand into some online lectures and programs—more educational-based things,” Smith said. “We didn’t really (previously) consider the option to create tours, but with the pandemic, and wanting to be able to enhance the virtual experience, we quickly realized that getting to view a special location is, in the end, much more engaging than just looking at photographs of architecture. It’s helping us start a library of online content that, in the long term, we’ll be able to continue sharing with the public.”

Smith said creating the virtual tours has been quite a challenge.

“When we could film, and when people could work, we had a very small production crew—only two to three people at a time working on these projects,” Smith said. “Of course, they follow mask-wearing and hand-sanitizing, and kept their distance from themselves and their subjects. Because we often work with homeowners who own the homes that are on the tours, they have also been very generous and very careful with us so that we were able to make health and safety a top priority, even while we’re in production. … It is really awkward. Imagine me saying to you, ‘Can I bring three people that you’ve never met before to your house? And we’re going to walk through every room and spend about four hours filming? Do you mind?’”

However, Smith said the owners of the featured homes have been very understanding.

“What’s so magnificent is that the homeowners have been very collaborative with us,” she said. “They do understand that it’s important, and they appreciate the value of creating new video programming.”

How did Smith and her team select the homes being featured during the “Online Experience”?

“In the beginning of the planning stages, you think strategically about what you’d like to pursue, and then it always comes down to the status of some of these homes,” Smith said. “Is it lived in? Does it have new owners? Is it under renovation? All of those factors play into the availability of homes and buildings for tours. It always comes down to collaboration with the homeowners and with the neighborhoods. When we talk about Modernism Week getting larger, there’s really only so much inventory. Even though there is a great wealth of it, we certainly don’t want to exhaust our homeowners, so we try to be very careful and not wear out our welcome.”

Even though some of the homes have been featured on in-person tours before, Smith explained that there’s always a new takeaway.

“Homes change ownership over the years, and they do often go through remodeling,” Smith said. “There are occasionally homes on tour that have been toured before. Frank Sinatra’s estate is a great example of that. Anytime we’re going to do an event, hopefully that house will be open, because it’s so special. That home, and a few others, are on view almost every year. There are always special private residences that are lived in throughout the year that the public would never see if it weren’t for Modernism Week tours. … You really never tire of seeing the details. It’s like a great movie: You get something new every time you watch it. Even walking through these very significant homes, I find that every time I see it, it’s new again.”

“It gives you a little bit of house envy. We don’t all live like that in Palm Springs, but to the outside world, it’s all movie stars and swimming pools.”

Lisa Vossler Smith, the executive director of Modernism Week, on home tours

Smith said she thinks people all over the world who are confined to their homes will be excited to view the inside of other homes.

“You’re so tired of looking at your own walls, so it’s fun to look and see how they live in Palm Springs,” Smith said. “I think the desire for travel and upgrades to your own home is always a part of the popularity of Modernism Week tours, because people find inspiration in seeing how other people have decorated or designed their homes. That’s always one of the fun outcomes. It gives you a little bit of house envy. We don’t all live like that in Palm Springs, but to the outside world, it’s all movie stars and swimming pools.”

Meanwhile, Smith and co. are continuing preparations for the delayed, in-person Modernism Week. Tickets are now on sale for the events—which will be socially distanced and altered to make things as safe as possible for attendees. That includes the 21st Annual Modernism Show and Sale, and the Modern Design Expo—which will be the first events held at the Palm Springs Convention Center since the shutdowns began last March.

Rosemary Krieger is the producer of both the Modernism Show and Sale, and the Modern Design Expo.

“The Show and Sale is really an important part of Modernism Week,” Krieger said. “Palm Springs has always been the mecca for midcentury modern, and when we introduced the show in 2001, it was so well-received, and it’s just grown exponentially each and every year.”

Of course, safety—and not growth—is on the minds of Modernism Week producers this year.

“We always have an opening-night party that benefits Modernism Week, but we are not having one this year due to COVID,” Kreiger said. “Because the opening-night party generally draws in an excess of 1,000 people at one time, we’ve decided to spread it out over four days. We’re going to practice all the proper social distancing, timed-entry and face-mask policies, so we’re doing our best to ensure a safe experience for all in April—provided that things settle down in California, and we can carry on with the show.

“We’re going to space it out a little bit more than we usually do. We usually have 90 dealers in the Modernism Show and 45 dealers in the Modern Design Expo. I’m guessing we’re going to be at probably two-thirds of that, and have maybe 60 dealers in the Modernism Show and 30 dealers in the Modern Design Expo. The vaccine rollout is going to define everything, and we’ll see where we are when we get to April. We’re going into this cautiously, because we just want to make sure we’re preparing to do the right thing.”

Krieger said everyone, including the people at the Convention Center, can’t wait for the events to take place—as long as it’s safe to do so.

Working with the Palm Springs Convention Center is amazing,” shared Krieger. “They’ve done everything that they can. … We’re just staying in touch with them, and they’re staying in touch with the state and the local guidelines. We figure out where we’re at and what we need to do to ensure that we have a successful event. The dealers are jonesing to get back to work. The last show that we did was the February Modernism Show last year—and then we shut down right after that. Everyone is looking forward to coming out of the gate strong in April with a good show, hopefully. … I think everyone is ready to get back to normal in the best way they possibly can.”

The Modernism Week “Online Experience” will take place throughout the month of February, and tickets will go on sale Feb. 1. Modernism Week will, pandemic permitting, take place from Thursday, April 8, through Sunday, April 18. For tickets and more information, visit modernismweek.com.

Matt King

Matt King is a freelance writer for the Coachella Valley Independent. A creative at heart, his love for music thrust him into the world of journalism at 17 years old, and he hasn't looked back. Before...

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