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How Palm Springs, long a design hot spot, leveled up

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With Modernism Week, Coachella—and now Desert X—Palm Springs has become an international destination

A bright mural by Block Shop at the Ace Hotel & Swim Club in Palm Springs
A freshly painted mural by Block Shop at the Ace Hotel & Swim Club in Palm Springs
Courtesy of Ace Hotel & Swim Club

This Sunday marks this end of the visual campaign from the Coachella Valley that has been waged upon your Instagram account for more than two months. No longer will your feed be filled with art-seekers in flowing sack dresses and white wicker hats, their reflections against the desert flora repeated to infinity in a mirrored shack.

The triple whammy of Palm Springs Modernism Week, Coachella, and now, Desert X will be over this weekend, ending the assault of social media FOMO for anyone who did not make the pilgrimage to the Southern California desert this spring. But the unbridled mainstream success of all three events has likely dramatically changed the region for good.

Doug Aitken’s Mirage for Desert X
Doug Aitken’s insanely popular installation Mirage for Desert X
@tristanbanning/Instagram

Sending art and design fans out into the desert is not a new concept, of course. High Desert Test Sites has been curating similar installations in the region north of nearby Joshua Tree for years (see also: Marfa, Burning Man). What happened in Palm Springs this year was not only the addition of the brand-new Desert X to the popular music and design events, but a newfound synergy that saw attendees moving between all three festivals for what felt like the first time. (All of which, I’m almost positive, are timed to coincide with the East Coast’s dreariest weather, on purpose.)

The martini-by-the-kidney-shaped-pool sophistication of Modernism Week has been around forever, but didn’t gain its Instagram pedigree until it started drawing younger design and architecture fans in recent years. Coachella, on the other hand, is a newer, hipster-native phenomenon that only recently made the transition past the glowing-insect-fabricated-from-rusted-auto-parts festival aesthetic and into a bona fide art and design destination.

“Chiaozza Garden” by Chiaozza was one of the art draws at this year’s Coachella
@kirstenalana/Instagram

By smartly straddling the second weekend of Modernism Week and both Coachella weekends, with works by well-known established artists and in traditionally appealing spots like Sunnylands, Desert X united both audiences with the widest appeal. Anyone with a smartphone couldn’t resist posing for a selfie with Doug Aitken’s mirrored Frank Lloyd Wright house or Philip K. Smith III’s 300 mirrored slabs. (Seriously, though, why so many mirrors?) Desert art is intergenerational fun for the whole family.

The only problem with Palm Springs becoming the new Milan or Basel or Miami is finding a place for everyone to stay. Palm Springs and its environs have always been a resort community for Angelenos, but anyone who’s tried to spend the night there in recent years knows that there are a finite number of tastefully appointed steel-frame midcentury modern homes for rent. The New York Times fretted about young LA design fans overwhelming the city’s old-guard, zero-growth residents who are trying to limit both development and Airbnb rentals (disclaimer: I’m in one of the photographs). This will become a flashpoint as more people want to visit—or buy a piece of the modern dream themselves. Which is why some developers are taking it upon themselves to build new homes with classic design pedigree.

Meanwhile, local motels—not even the cool old ones!—set their festival prices at mind-boggling rates of $400 per night.

A pink door has become such a famous Instagram destination it was part of a Modernism Week bike tour.
Palm Springs Style

On the southern edge of town is the spot you might say sparked Palm Springs’ art and design renaissance: the Ace Hotel, which opened in 2009, eight years after Coachella launched and in many ways still inextricably connected to the music festival that happens 22 miles away.

But the Ace has matured in a Desert X-ish, crowd-pleasing way: It has imported the work of great architects and artists which makes the spot worthy of a design pilgrimage in itself, yet its faithfulness to its Howard Johnson motor court origins still endear it to midcentury architecture fans. As I sat at the counter of the Ace’s diner during Modernism Week, I saw them all: Instagram power users, families, famous architects, octogenarians, soaking in the weird mix of wonder and austerity that the desert always provides.