Travel Photo Credit: Lucas Finlay

Palm Springs—Escape Plan

For editors Neal McLennan and Amanda Ross, a Palm Springs house offered a mid-century design fix and family getaway all in one William Krisel-designed parcel.

It began with a birthday weekend in Palm Springs, a dangerous diversion for a couple of designophiles in search of a vacation home. Amanda Ross (style and travel editor at Vancouver magazine) and husband Neal McLennan (food and travel editor here at Western Living) flew in from a rainy Vancouver, and found added temptation in the fact that, in 2011, the price was very right. “Homes in Palm Springs were literally selling for half their pre-recession price,” says McLennan. Meanwhile, Ross—who comes from a family of architects and was long-steeped in the lore of mid-century modernism, of which Palm Springs is mecca—longed to grab a pied-à-terre there, whether the place was a steal or not.

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A year of hunting led the couple to this 1957 William Krisel gem. Once a show home for the centrally located Sunmor Estates (one of the best-preserved mid-century neighbourhoods in town), it holds pride of place on a third of an acre, delivers panoramic views of the San Jacinto and Santa Rosa mountain ranges, and only has neighbours on one side. There is, naturally, a price to pay for such plum positioning: lookeeloos roll by on double-decker buses during Modernism Week every February; they peek over a corrugated steel fence into the chicly hard-scaped yard, which is complete with bocce court, minimalist sun beds and a 32-foot-long swimming pool.

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Ross and McLennan are keenly aware of the architectural history that brings those buses by. But still, “we don’t want to be slavishly devoted to the period,” says Ross. “This isn’t going to be a Mad Men set.”

“Nothing kitschy,” agrees McLennan. “No George Nelson Marshmallow sofa, no hanging orb chairs.”

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To be sure, thoroughbred mid-century pieces are easy to spot: there’s a classic Arco lamp in the living room and (after giving way to multiple nudges from friends) a marble Saarinen table in the dining area, complete with a set of aqua blue Eames dining chairs. The house numbers are even designed by the great Richard Neutra, whose marvelous Kaufmann house is a quick drive away. But what the exuberance of Palm Springs teaches us is that design rules are made to be broken: while Krisel, for example, would likely approve of the poured-concrete fireplace surround, he might be surprised to find those whimsical White Poodle table lamps (by Torre and Tagus) in the master bedroom. Or the ultra-colourful, 12-foot-long canvas commissioned from designer and friend Ian McLeod, of Johnson McLeod Design Consultants. Designers are the best friends to have—McLeod and his partner, Kerry Johnson, have stayed at the abode numerous times, and each time they source something fantastic: spray-painted tumbleweeds, a blue Ghost chair or just the right accent piece to tie a room together.

The homeowners wanted to keep the outside (left) a minimalist white with just a pop of chartreuse. Inside, the guest bedroom (right) features artwork “influenced” by Jean-Michel Basquiat. The master bedroom (bottom) has an original canvas by Ian McLeod that is note perfect.

“If I had my way, we’d be minimalist—Bauhaus-level minimalist,” says McLennan. But Ross insisted on some idiosyncratic touches (“It was a bit of a fight,” he happily admits): a stylist herself, Ross snagged a cane headboard for the master bedroom on Craigslist and spray-painted it white; distinctive throw cushions from Designers Guild collected on a trip to London were toted home in a hastily purchased golf bag.

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A minimalist white palette does prevail in the background, though, inside and out (the raw desert-wood ceiling soaked up eight coats of paint), and that lets the eye hop between those smart hits of colour: the aforementioned Ghost chair in the master bedroom, a green-plaid bouclé wool armchair in the living room, even simple bowls of freshly harvested citrus on the counter.

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From its mid-century heyday onward, that’s what Palm Springs has inspired—fresh beginnings and optimistic novelties. Generations of L.A. folk (and, increasingly, Canadians) come here to find something new, a bright and sun-drenched experiment in living. And that’s exactly what Ross and McLennan found—happy new weather, world-class restaurants, a pack of old friends and a slightly sunnier perspective. Their Vancouver home, where they raise their two young girls, is decidedly traditional, and located on a wooded, curving street. Now they’ve built themselves a permanent weekend getaway—with enough clean, modernist lines and juicy, Palm Springs-worthy colours to satisfy them both.

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