By John Grafman
This is a Valentine’s Day story like few others. This
is a story with a little bit of everything including one Brit, a Rover, a rat,
an era gone by, and of course a lot of love.
Palm Springs provides an ideal place to escape to in
the middle of February, with blue, balmy skies and warm weather. It’s also home
to Modernism Week, one of the most popular events in the desert. Palm Springs
is a magnet for lovers, just as Modernism Week is for lovers of 50s and 60s
design. Together, this is an ideal getaway.
The schedule for MW is steeped in unique lectures and
opportunities to tour iconic architecture from a period of exploration and creativity
in America. This period in time sparked the space race, cold war, and a time
where commercial and residential buildings started using concrete, steel, and
glass to create a feeling of openness to the world outside. New materials, like
fiberglass, allow for previously impossible designs in furniture and cars. This
was the atomic age, and a sense that anything was possible.
Across the Atlantic Ocean, England was in a time of
rebirth, due to the massive destruction encountered during the bombings of the
Second World War. Rebuilding from the devastation and rubble, cities like
Coventry experienced a transformation that influenced many Brits. One of those
happened to be a young Gerry McGovern.
Lessons on use of light, wood, metal, leather and
fabric in Modern design were not lost on him. Gerry’s mother’s acute eye for
design, and the international influence of the modern style that surrounded him
combined to provide offer an informal, but pivotal education.
Today, a gathering of about a hundred guests are
fortunate to reflect in the history of Modernism through the eyes of Mr.
McGovern. His upbringing as a kid in England decades agolaid the groundwork for
this extremely knowledgeable designer, and his current position as head of Design
at Land Rover. This is his opportunity to recapture his youth, and those
influences for our benefit.
The Modernism Week venue for this lecture is at the
period correct Palm Springs home of the “Chairman of the Board”, and famed Rat
Pack crooner Frank Sinatra. E. Stewart Williams originally designed the “Twin
Palms Estate” in 1947. The
location captures the magic of the days when fins on cars were commonplace, and
the outdoor space of a home was as important as the indoor living environment.
Gerry emphatically states, “It’s a family home. I think
that’s important. We tend to think of iconic design as sort of temples of
homage to design. But, this is a very nice family home. I would be more than
happy to live here. The value is the fact that it’s just as relevant as when it
Each element of the four-bedroom house is a testament
to the thoughtfulness, and timeless taste of the designers and architects. The
terrazzo flooring, shared flagstone interior and exterior walls, and teak
furniture still look beautiful. The expansive use of glass in the living area offers
a dramatic view of the piano shaped pool, cabana, and changing rooms. The clean lines of the home, surfaces and
materials read purely without need for embellishment. The long, linear and
angular forms of Frank Sinatra’s “Twin Palms” desert estate seem to match both
the flatness of the desert valley, and the steep and sharp geography of the 10,834 foot tall Mount San
This desert oasis, located in what’s known as The Movie
Colony neighborhood, served as Frank Sinatra’s primary residence from 1948 to
1957. The Movie Colony also served as home to silver screen legends Bob Hope,
Bing Crosby, Jack Benny, Cary Grant, and Al Jolson. Of course it was easy to
distinguish Frank’s 4,500 square foot house on East Alejo Road. According to
legend, Sinatra’s residence had the tallest palm trees in the area, and a Jack
Daniel’s flag that would be hoisted up a flagpole come cocktail hour (a perfect
informal, low-tech invitation to come over and have a glass).
The yard space at Sinatra’s in both the front and rear
echo the region with palms and grapefruit trees, but punctuated with greenery
and flowers to add a necessary touch of color. The house and yard are oriented
to frame the majesty of the surrounding San Gorgonio Mountains, which
romantically completes the picture.
And while over a half-century separates them, the Sinatra
residence and current Land Rovers stationed in the circular driveway seem very
compatible. The expressive shapes with minimal distraction and expansive
glasswork fit both dwelling and transportation equally. While E. Stewart Williams saw fit to
create massive sliding glass windows for Mr. Sinatra, Gerry McGovern is considerate
enough to incorporate both a bright greenhouse, and panoramic roof in the Land
Rover products for our enjoyment.
Many of the
visual characteristics of the Land Rover, along with the Mid Century Modern
architecture, have withstood the test of time. Gerry illuminates a bit further,
“One of the reasons we’re here is, we’re celebrating a design of period that
was very unique to the development of culture. I’m not saying we deliberately
want to take those influences and put them into the design of our cars.”
Nevertheless, great design is all around us. Being able to identify and
appreciate it is very important for the designers of today and tomorrow. It’s
those designs that spark further ideas and advancement. Will car enthusiasts
appreciate the Land Rovers of 2014 in fifty years from now in the same way we
love today the architectural styles of the 1950s and 60s? Time will tell.