Ironically, the Midcentury Modern movement, so often linked to a glamorous past of smiling people sipping cocktails in orange living rooms, gained its momentum after the devastation of World War II. Phoenix became a landing pad for the stylistic revolution.
"In the post-war era, just like the rest of the nation, there was a housing shortage," says Alison King, the founder of Modern Phoenix, whose co-partner of the week is the Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art. "So many GIs came and trained here. Phoenix was at the top of their list as an affordable, warm, dry place to come. Along with that, you need schools, churches, commercial buildings."
"In the first decade after World War II, something like 450,000 homes were being built in the Valley," adds Vic Linoff, president of the Mesa Preservation Foundation and a presenter during the week's bus tour of Mesa's glamorous and quirky neon signs from the era.
"Houses were being built by the dozens," adds historian Marshall Shore, Linoff's co-presenter on the neon tour. "They couldn't build them fast enough for people. The population more than doubled, often tripled after the war."
This led to mass experimentation with fast, affordable housing designs. Gone was Victorian fussery and old-world curlicues, and in came a minimalist stamp on architecture, furniture, and home accessories. Tour any local space of that era, or those inspired by it today, and you'll see this wasn't just an attempt to build a city on the cheap. The marriage of the Southwestern landscape and the revolutionary aesthetic seems like a match made in heaven.
"The wildness of the desert pairs really well with rectilinear forms that contrast with and organize the desert," says King, who also is an associate professor of design at the Art Institute of Phoenix.
Rob Spindler, head of archives and special collections at ASU libraries, will be showing architectural drawings from the period, and he agrees that the landscape is almost inseparable from the style.
"When you come to the Valley," he says, "one of the things that hits you right away is the question of sustainability. You experience the heat. You experience the dryness of the mouth. You begin to think about where is the shade, where are the conditions that support life in the desert. The environmental conditions of the Valley drove creative individuals to think about different ways of building places to live."
After the '80s and much of the '90s, the midcentury look has gained traction again. Ignoring the problems of the period — stifling gender roles, racial inequity, the repression of sexuality — it's easy to get seduced into a nostalgic haze when stepping into a midcentury home, which isn't altogether unwelcome in today's world.
"The modern era of collecting and interest in antiques didn't come about until the assassination of John F. Kennedy," says Linoff. "People were looking to a period that might give them a sense of comfort and greater simplicity in their life. That really sparked this modern era of collecting. Now, we're in a very similar period. Our country is full of turmoil. There's great uncertainty in everyone's life, so there's a natural tendency to look at things that will psychologically give you comfort. It's just history repeating."
So, whether you're hoping to get away from the scrum of presidential politics or you just want to explore some hidden gems in the Valley, mix yourself a vodka gimlet and head out to a town both historic and modern all at once.
Below is our day-by-day field guide to Modern Phoenix Week's offerings. Most events are stacked on the weekends, so if you're a diehard fan, you'll need to learn how to bi-locate or make some tough decisions. King has her recommendations for novices, citing the neon sign tour of Mesa, visiting Paolo Soleri's Cosanti, and the marketplace as the top things to see (the home tour, of course, is an obvious choice, but it's sold out). Definitely go to modernphoenix.net to RSVP or order tickets for events; each offering is a hot item and spaces are limited.
Friday, April 1
Coinciding with First Friday, Modern Phoenix Week kicks off with a gallery show on historic Grand Avenue at Bragg's Pie Factory. Titled "Mod-AZ," the show focuses on the period, mostly with architectural drawings, renderings, and 3-D models, although furniture, fabric, advertising, and design will also be part of the exhibit. An artist's reception makes this night extra special, but if you miss it, the exhibit will be shown through Saturday, April 16. Tonight's event, from 6 to 10 p.m., is free and housed at Chartreuse Gallery, located at Bragg's Pie Factory, 1301 Northwest Grand Avenue in Phoenix.
Saturday, April 2
A tour of Cosanti, one of the Valley's true architectural and artistic wonders, is a must-do during Modern Phoenix Week. Paolo Soleri, a revolutionary architect whose focus on organic forms and the merging of nature with urban planning earned him worldwide recognition, settled in Scottsdale in 1956. His workshop and structures at Cosanti are truly a modern marvel of how to work in harmony with nature instead of against it, and yet the shapes and visual details are reminiscent of Medieval, Roman, and Etruscan artistry. "I take my students there on field trips," says King. "Even when we go in July, we can still manage being there because of the way the architecture is built." The director of the Paolo Soleri studios, Roger Tomalty, will co-lead the tour with Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art curator Claire Carter. Cosanti is located at 6433 East Doubletree Ranch Road in Paradise Valley. The tour, $15, starts at 9 a.m. and will take place again on Saturday, April 9, at the same time.
The Uptown Plaza at Central Avenue and Camelback Road took an aesthetic beating in the intervening years since it was built by Del Webb in 1955. The insider's tour of the plaza, unfortunately sold out, is led by Walter Crutchfield of Vintage Partners, the company behind the current resurrection of the plaza as a Midcentury Modern icon. The free tour starts at 11 a.m., and the Uptown is found on the northeast corner of Central Avenue and Camelback Road.
If you think IKEA is the height of Danish design, hustle over to the Danish Modern event at the Copenhagen Imports showroom, located at 1701 East Camelback Road in Phoenix, for the last event of the day. The free evening starts at 6 p.m. and includes a talk by historian and author Mark Mussari.
Sunday, April 3
Need some Hollywood glamour on a Sunday morning? Tour the mid-century Hotel Valley Ho on Main Street in Scottsdale and see what stars like Bing Crosby, Janet Leigh and Zsa Zsa Gabor were on about. The hotel, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright student Edward Varney, is still a design hotspot, thanks to an overhaul in the early 2000s by local company Westroc Hospitality. The tour costs $19.56, a nod to the hotel's inaugural year, and meets at 2 p.m. at the hotel, 6850 East Main Street in Scottsdale. (This tour is also available on Saturday, April 9, at 1 p.m.)
To cap your first weekend of midcentury activities, King recommends joining Mesa's Neon by Night bus tour. Shore and Linoff will be your emcees for the evening on a three-hour, 12-mile bus tour to view around 60 neon signs that made Mesa sparkle in the '50s and '60s. "These signs really talk to the post-war boom that created the state that we know," Shore says. Famous signs, including the diving lady which fell in a storm in 2010 and was eventually restored with the financial help of nostalgic residents and tourists alike, will be on display, and the tour will end at the glamorous Buckhorn Baths. "This is an iconic property that, beyond the sign, is one of the reasons that the Cactus League baseball activities were situated here in the Valley," says Linoff. Because of a mineral spa onsite, players would show up early and get pampered before their training started. Both Shore and Linoff were able to get the large sign turned on the last time they did this tour back in 2013, and they're gunning to light up the night again this year. Meet at the Park and Ride at Price Freeway and Apache Boulevard at 6 p.m. to hop on the bus, and you'll be returned there at 9 p.m. Tickets are $36.87. Part of the proceeds will help the restoration of neon signs in the Valley.
Monday, April 4
Look around your place. It's filled with plastic — everything from furniture to computers are constructed of it, and at Design Within Reach's Scottsdale Quarter showroom, you can listen to a free lecture on the history of plastics. Sure, the material invaded our lives after World War II, but plastics-collector Christopher McPherson will reveal just how far back our history with plastic really goes. Titled "A Century of Plastics," the evening runs from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. and is located at 15059 North Scottsdale Road, Suite 180.
If you're not feeling the plastic vibe, head over to the Luhrs Reading Room at ASU's Hayden Library to explore archival materials focused on Blaine Drake, Frank Henry, and Alfred Newman Beadle. Head archivist Spindler, along with librarian Dennis Brunning, will be giving a presentation about the drawings, specs, and correspondence on display. "Here's an opportunity for individuals to come and see some rarely seen archival materials that demonstrate the creative methods and the wonderful creativity of these great architects and place them in a context that helps us all think about the value of architecture in our community," Spindler says. An added bonus are materials related to the university's own Midcentury Modern buildings, including some of Henry's original designs for the outdoor areas of Hayden Library. The Luhrs Reading Room on ASU's main campus is on the fourth floor of Hayden Library. The program, $25 for the general public and $20 for SMoCA members, begins at 6:30 p.m.
Tuesday, April 5
Architecture, adaptive reuse, sustainability, and design-build are among the topics tackled during the SMoCA Architecture Slide Slam — think very short, fast-paced TED talks by local architects. Starting at 7 p.m., the free event is held at the Scottsdale Center for the Performing Arts' Stage 2 Theater, 7380 East Second Street, Scottsdale.
Wednesday, April 6
For even more of the Valley's architectural context, head over to Changing Hands Bookstore on Camelback for "Arizona Storytellers: Stories of Phoenix Design." Architects, designers, and historians will discuss the iconic spaces of the area, plus some notorious design kerfuffles from 7 to 9 p.m. The evening costs $12 and is located at The Newton, 300 West Camelback Road.
Thursday, April 7
Ah, the Italians. If you're really a modernist, you can't help but think of the peninsula's influence on the look of the times. (The closing scene alone of Fellini's 8 1/2 evokes the atmosphere perfectly.) SMoCA docent Deborah Robin gives a talk about the early modern movement of Italian Futurism from 5:30 to 8:30 p.m. Titled "Futurismo," the lecture, held at Studio 3125, 3125 South 52nd Street in Tempe, is free.
Friday, April 8
Looking for a sophisticated date night? Visit SMoCA for their double feature of films set in the mid-century era. A Single Man, starring Colin Firth and Julianne Moore, starts the evening, followed by Far From Heaven, again featuring Moore, this time joined by Dennis Quaid and Viola Davis, among others. Longtime New Times contributor Robrt Pela and artist Paul Wilson will be part of a panel discussion between films. Cocktail attire is encouraged, so don't arrive in the ubiquitous flip-flops and black stretchy pants. The movies start at 6 p.m., and at $10 for the general public and $8 for museum members, it's by far the cheapest double-movie night in town. SMoCA is at 7374 East Second Street in Scottsdale.
Saturday, April 9
This is the gauntlet of the week, with lots of events spanning the entire day, which is mostly centered at Scottsdale Center for the Performing Arts. Aside from repeats of the Cosanti and Hotel Valley Ho tours (see details above), camp out at the center starting at 11 a.m. for the Modern Marketplace. If the week's events have given you the bug to redesign your place, this is where you need to be. Designers, architects, landscape artists, green builders, historians, and preservationists are on hand at a variety of pop-up shops that will feature home design, as well as lighting, fashion, jewelry, literature, and home renovations. It runs until 5 p.m., and peppered throughout the day are various workshops and talks about the era.
The day ends with a lecture on how Phoenix can learn from Palm Springs' remarkable architectural preservation of their midcentury heritage. "A lot of people compare Palm Springs with Scottsdale and Phoenix," says King, adding that by taking cues from the California town's success, we can "see how we can take Phoenix to the next level as a city." Palm Springs resident and advocate for architectural preservation Robert Imber gives the talk, which starts at 5 p.m. and costs $10 for the general public and $8 for museum members. The remaining events are free, although lectures and panels do require an RSVP. See website for details. Scottsdale Center for the Performing Arts is located at 7380 East Second Street.
Sunday, April 10
The home tour is the crown jewel of Modern Phoenix Week, as evidenced by its monumental attendance. Capped at 1,000 tickets, this year's tour features 11 homes and one commercial property. King handpicks all the sites and shoots for a wide swath of options. "I usually try to find at least one apartment or condo," she says. "At the top of my list are time capsules. Occasionally, I find a house that hasn't been touched in 50 years. Flocked wallpaper for me really hits my pleasure button."
More along the lines of a time capsule is Miles McDermott's two-bedroom apartment. Walking into his place, you half expect to be served an amorphous heap of Jell-O mold out of the kitchen, which features turquoise appliances. All the furniture is period appropriate, as are the televisions, and he says everything has stood the test of time. His hope is to raise enough capital to buy several places throughout the region and turn them into living museums of the Midcentury Modern lifestyle. "It's a culture of its own. It has its own colors. It has its own language. It has its own shapes and symbols."
The commercial space of this year's tour is 444 West Camelback Road, an unassuming building designed by famed Valley architect Fred Guirey. Driving past the spot, you'd never turn your head. The few signs in the office windows are for a hot-dog-cart company, an English-Arabic immigration services office and a couple of accountants. Go up to the fourth floor, however, where a jagged cupola crowns the building, and you start to see what makes this property special. In every direction, mountains jut up against the sky, and the building's roof does the same, a reflection of the natural lines of the surrounding peaks. Lorenzo Perez, a co-founder of Venue Projects, which will soon start its rehab of the building, will give the tour, which he considers a unique preview of things to come. "It's not polished," he says, adding, "That's what makes it kind of interesting."