Desert Modern Design
Adele Cygelman shares her insights into the most successful interior designer working in the Palm Springs area from 1954-1974. Cygelman’s book, “Arthur Elrod” shines a light on midcentury modern interiors. Follow along with this exclusive interview to learn more.
First, please offer an overview of your book and why you wanted to write it.
“Arthur Elrod: Desert Modern Design” gives an overview of the most successful interior designer working in the Palm Springs area from 1954 to 1974. No one outside Palm Springs knows his name, but everyone knows the Elrod House, his own home that he created with architect John Lautner that is one of the most iconic houses in the world and was featured in a memorable sequence in the James Bond movie “Diamonds Are Forever.”
I wrote the book because I felt it was high time that midcentury modern interiors were given the same amount of respect as the architecture. And no one worked at this custom level—with this skill set, color palette and curiosity about emerging materials and techniques—better than Arthur Elrod. Plus I’m on a personal mission to have people preserve these custom features instead of tearing everything out!
How do you define Desert Modern Style? What are some of the key architectural AND interior elements that encapsulate the design aesthetic?
Desert Modern style grew alongside the great midcentury modern architecture in Palm Springs. Before WWII, most houses were built in the traditional adobe way—thick walls, narrow windows, lots of tile, all meant to keep the sun out and the interiors cool.
Postwar, architects were intent on opening up houses to the light and maximizing the views. They felt that this was a healthier way to live and more suited to the informal way people were entertaining. And so along with more light and space, furnishings became lighter in color and weight (less mahogany, more walnut and pine), more built-ins added more function and pieces could be moved around easily. And because of all the light flooding in, colors grew bolder and more saturated—yellow, blue, red, green and white all featured prominently in fabrics, wallpaper and upholstery. Open-plan rooms encouraged better flow. Even in the 1950s/60s, kitchens were done by specialized kitchen designers. Deep overhangs added sun protection and also provided outdoor spaces that could function as lanais or extended eating/entertaining areas. Clerestory windows let the light in during winter months when the sun was at its lowest. All these concepts are commonplace now, but they were introduced first by modernist architects and designers and were readily embraced by their well-educated and well-traveled clients.
As a signature western U.S. geography focus, how can Desert Modern Style be adapted to homes outside of the normal areas, i.e. how can designers add to their repertoire?
All the lessons desert designers learned about which fabrics work in the heat and sun can be applied anywhere. Use linen and cotton, never silk or wool or anything that scratches. Use outdoor fabrics inside so that you can sit anywhere, even in a wet bathing suit. Be an early adopter of innovative materials and fabrication techniques. Use cutting-edge fabrics and upholstery, especially in kitchens, bars and family rooms where spills and stains happen frequently. Create different textures with techniques like pickled, stained or sandblasted woods that are effective and not expensive. Take a look at the scenic wallpapers that were so popular then and see if you can use them in powder rooms or dining rooms. Embrace the new, but there are many lessons from the postwar period that are still ahead of their time.
What should everyone know about Arthur Elrod?
Arthur Elrod was the most successful interior designer in Palm Springs, but his custom work was on a par with the leading designers of the day in New York, London and Los Angeles. All of his projects were published extensively in the Los Angeles Times and Architectural Digest, and he contributed design articles to Palm Springs Life. He worked primarily in residential design, but he always participated in designer showhouses and decorator shows, did model homes and condo units for developers, and started a commercial division for corporate design. He was forward thinking, innovative and service-oriented. He also worked in reverse—he started with clients’ vacation homes in the desert, then would design their main residence around the country. He was dedicated to his work and traveled all the time, either to job sites or to trade shows. Even on vacation, he was always seeking out new experiences, always curious and always learning. His work is timeless, and many of his interiors are as contemporary now as when they were created.
Finally, and a note — this might be more of an expansion for the presentation in LV — as a former AD editor, you know what it takes to effectively tell a story. How can designers, and even retailers, use storytelling to help grow or enhance their business?
Everything revolves around your own story. What makes you original is how you tell your story from your own point of view and your own experiences. Eliminate all the clichéd words and phrases used in the design world. Don’t start sentences with “I wanted/she wanted/we wanted.” Don’t try to “bring the outdoors in.” Don’t make a house “look like it’s always been there.” Don’t make the “transition seamless.” These are all meaningless clichés that truly don’t tell us anything specific about what you are doing. Instead, find a unique way to talk about your work that expresses who you are. Use examples from growing up, your childhood home, your travels, your family influences. Identify what sparked your interest in design—a relative’s house or a visit to a museum or an urge to redo your own room as a teenager. Identify your sources of inspiration—another designer you respect, a place, a TV show—and define what exactly about them resonates with you and why.
Even if you’re not comfortable writing and are used to working with images, put down in words what emotions you are trying to create in certain rooms and why certain colors resonate. Adding context and content will help others understand and identify with your story and it will help you focus on your strengths and get to the essence of what you are trying to accomplish. Writing will help you articulate your vision, and this will be extremely useful for any interviews, media write-ups and speaking engagements.
You can’t be all things to all people, but you can control your story.
Adele Cygelman is a longtime writer and editor who has covered interior design, architecture, and real estate for numerous magazines, including Architectural Digest and Robb Report. She is the author of Palm Springs Modern and Secret Gardens of Hollywood.