Mod-Shop ’Til You Drop: Uptown Design District
It’s official: When it comes to Modern design, Palm Springs is one of The Most “Stylish” Cities in America.
That’s according to Wayfair.com, the nation’s largest online-only retailer for home decor and furnishings. Based on their per capita statistics for Modern-style furnishings sales, Palm Springs easily beat out every other stylish U.S. city - including Beverly Hills and Miami.
Palm Springs (or “Mod Mecca” as Architectural Digest dubbed it) is home to the world’s largest collection of intact Midcentury Modernist architecture. The city remains at the forefront of Modern’s newfound worldwide renaissance - mainly thanks to eleven days of February Mod-madness otherwise known as Palm Springs Modernism Week, the largest event of its kind on Earth. Palm Springs’ population more than doubles during the celebration, held concurrently with the Modernism Show & Sale (for decor and furnishings) and Palm Springs Fine Art Fair (for post-war and modern art).
But where can you buy a piece of the action the rest of the year? In Mod Mecca, pretty much everywhere.
Palm Springs overflows with one-of-a-kind boutiques brimming with hard-to-find vintage Midcentury Modern decor and updated 21st Century Modern reinterpretations. Brand-new stores and short-term pop-up shops continually reshape Palm Springs’ ever-evolving retail scene.
To help navigate your mod-shopping safari, our five-part blog series will introduce you to different Palm Springs’ shopping areas, each with quirks and class all their own: Uptown Design District, Downtown, Sunny Dunes Vintage Row, The Curve District, and The Backstreet Arts District.
THE UPTOWN DESIGN DISTRICT
Visitors driving south on Highway 111 towards Palm Springs curve past sand dunes and windmills, until the iconic “flying wedge” roofline of the Palm Springs Visitor’s Center appears (actually a former 1965 gas station designed by master architects Albert Frey and Robson C. Chambers). Travelers now know they have entered a parallel retro-futuristic universe of Desert Modernism.
The Uptown Design District technically lies a mile further down Highway 111 (a.k.a. Palm Canyon Drive), but a tsunami of popularity is pushing Palm Springs’ Modern shopping almost up into the empty desert itself.
Along a two-mile stretch of North Palm Canyon Drive (between Tachevah Drive and Alejo Road just north of Downtown), Palm Springs’ world-class Uptown Design District is truly a Modern shopper’s dream come true. For several long blocks, more than 50 unique boutiques, galleries, shops, and galleries buzz within stunningly-restored Midcentury Modern buildings.
WHERE HOLLYWOOD GOES MODERN
Uptown is sandwiched between the celebrity neighborhoods of Old Las Palmas and The Movie Colony, where everyone from Marilyn Monroe to Greta Garbo once owned vacation homes. And the celebrities are coming back: After Martha Stewart gave a thumbs up after an Uptown shopping spree in 2009, others followed.
Ryan Gosling and Eva Mendes were both spotted shopping for Modern furniture in recent months, and in 2014 Leo Dicaprio purchased Dinah Shore’s former estate - a 1.3-acre Midcentury masterpiece a mere stroll from Uptown.
Uptown’s cache is booming: Facebook millionaire Ezra Callahan’s hip Arrive hotel is scheduled to open in the area in 2015, and Hyatt’s “luxury lifestyle hotel” brand Andaz is slated for 2016.
RESURRECTING A ONCE-DEAD DISTRICT
It’s hard to imagine that just a decade ago Uptown was an embarrassing eye-sore: downtrodden, derelict, and deserted. And the first impression of Palm Springs for visitors driving into town from Interstate 10.
In 2007, the city took the lead and purchased the 3.5-acre historic property at North Palm Canyon and Alejo, the anchor of Uptown’s southern flank. More than half a million dollars were spent upgrading the site’s Palm Canyon Theatre and Desert Art Center. Other Uptown restorations followed, including the historic El Paseo Building, a gorgeous 1920s Spanish Eclectic complex.
The investment paid off: In 2012, the El Paseo Building became home to the uber-chic world-class Workshop Kitchen + Bar, which has won both international architecture and national restaurant awards.
That same year, restoration began on Uptown’s former Sunset Towers, where the popular Hollywood celebrity drinking hole Don the Beachcomber opened in 1953. After fifteen years sitting vacant, the complex bustles once again with stylish bars and restaurants.
The Midcentury building’s iconic Modernist tiki torches were relit for the first time in decades during 2014’s Modernism Week Fall Preview weekend. And like Uptown herself, they shine once again in a very Modern resurrection.
MEET UPTOWN’S MIDWIFE, AKA TRINA TURK
“We were in no man’s land when we first opened in 2002, but I loved the [Midcentury Modern master architect] Albert Frey building, so we opened there anyhow,” said fashion designer and part-time Palm Springs resident Trina Turk, who debutedher flagship women’s boutique in Uptown in 2002. “I knew I wouldn’t get any walk-in traffic. But our goal was to make a beautiful showcase for our clothes.”
It was a gutsy move for Turk and her $100-million-a-year brand worn by the likes of Halle Berry and Jennifer Aniston. Turk decked out her 2,000 square-foot store with shag carpeting, pebbled tiles, bead curtains, and floral foil wallpaper – all perfectly complementing the funky-retro Palm Springs style of her clothing line.
Stylish Modern-themed stores like Interior Illusions interiorillusionshome.com and Modern Way www.psmodernway.comhad forged ground in Uptown as early as 1999. But even with the addition of Turk’s international brand name, several more years passed before retailers and shoppers began to gravitate to Uptown. The neighborhood didn’t even have its official name on light-post banners until 2011.
But nowadays, Trina’s original boutique has spawned an Uptown mini-kingdom. Three new adjoining stores - Trina Turk Swim & Spa, Mr. Turk menswear, and Trina Turk Residential home decor - sprawl across 5,000 square feet of space impressively designed by L.A.-based architect Barbara Bestor.
“We might have pioneered Palm Springs’ Uptown Design District,” Trina humbly admits. “If we ended up helping to revitalize the neighborhood, we’re happy about it.
UPTOWN’S RICHLY COMPLEX SHOPPING COMPLEXES
At the dawn of Uptown’s revival, hard-core Midcentury Modernists and in-the-know interior designers from L.A. could be seen poking their heads in and out of the ‘hood’s boutiques and galleries. Today, Uptown attracts a wider swath of shoppers, thanks to its number of businesses doubling in the last four years to nearly 60 at last count.
To find out about individual Uptown retailers, check out our online database of shopping listings.
Although technically on the Downtown side of the street that borders Uptown, this 1940s-era outdoor shopping arcade is a Midcentury Modern gold mine that feels very Uptown. Home to eight shops with fascinating and rare bric-a-brac from the 1930s to 1970s, you’ll discover vintage Modern paintings, pottery, furniture, lighting, sculptures, objets d’art, and thoughtfully-selected books on Modern design. The prices are some of the most reasonable in Palm Springs for Modern items. The bulk of this treasure trove is hand selected by the talented owner Jim Jim Gaudineer (who purchased the nearby Loewy House - Midcentury Modern icon). Also in this complex is Bon Vivant, displaying one of the most gorgeous collection of colored Midcentury glassware you’ve ever laid eyes on.
457 North Palm Canyon Drive (at Alejo)
Anchoring the southern edge of Uptown where it abuts Downtown (at the corner of North Palm Canyon Drive and West Alejo Road), The Corridor harbors gourmet cafes, art galleries, designer shops, and other small locally-owned businesses. The Corridor is filled with locals walking their dogs over spacious lawns, or catching up on town gossip at cozy outdoor tables in shaded courtyards. The Corridor’s tasteful California-Spanish aesthetics are a far cry from the days when this was the downtrodden Palm Springs Hotel. The town’s perennial favorite bookstore/gift store is Just Fabulous (as its name will tell you)! Celebrities with homes in the Coachella Valley - like Anne Rice, Lily Tomlin, and Barbara Sinatra - have all held meet-and-greet booksignings at Just Fabulous. Recently expanded, the 2,500 square-foot store presents an enormous selection of books on Modern, as well as the only New York Museum of Modern Art Books “Shop in Shop” in the country. Peruse Just Fabulous’ Palm Springs Modern home decor, which include furniture and lighting fixtures from The Jonathan Adler Collection.
515 North Palm Canyon Drive (at Alejo)
This artful collection of ten designer boutiques inhabits an architectural work of art : the iconic Harold Hicks building designed in 1955 by famed Midcentury Modern architect E. Stewart Williams. Within, you’ll find everything Modern, from vintage 1960s jewelry to present-day modern art, from Beatles T-shirts to one-of-a-kind chandeliers. The architectural design team who oversaw the building’s restoration - Brandon Hoskins and Stephen Wilson - ended up opening their own beautifully-curated store space here as well. Called Towne www.towneps.com, it specializes in exquisite furniture, both vintage and Modern-style.
1345 North Palm Canyon Drive (at West Vereda Norte)