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Desert modern design perfect for Southwest

Desert modern design celebrates everything that is light, bright, contemporary and timeless about the American Southwest. It is a stylish take on informal resort living that can be applied anywhere. That informal resort living has its roots in Palm Springs, California, where it has evolved and grown throughout the world and especially in cities like Las Vegas and Phoenix.

Adele Cygelman is a writer focusing on architecture and interior design. Her first book, “Palm Springs Modern,” celebrated its 20th year as a bestseller. Her most recent book, “Arthur Elrod: Desert Modern Design,” is about the person who most influenced desert modern design. Cygelman also is a frequent speaker at the twice yearly Las Vegas Market, where she led a seminar on the popular design trend in January.

“The desert modern style grew alongside the great midcentury modern architecture in Palm Springs,” she said. “Before World War II, most houses were built in the traditional adobe way with thick walls, narrow windows and lots of tile. It was all meant to keep the sun out and the interiors cool. Living in the desert meant dealing with extreme heat, dealing with creating shade and dealing with fabrics that could withstand the sun.

“After the war, 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. Those midcentury homes in Palm Springs are now being preserved, and today’s architects have learned from the ’50s and built upon those styles.”

That new way of living has given rise to furnishings becoming lighter in color and weight — less mahogany, more walnut and pine. And because of all of the light, colors grew bolder.

Open rooms encouraged better flow, and deep overhangs added sun protection while providing outdoor spaces that could function as lanais or extended eating/entertaining areas. Clerestory windows — vertical windows on high walls designed to allow light and breezes in — became popular. All these concepts are commonplace now.

Those wanting a desert modern look might start by painting all interior walls white.

“Dark walls or paneling take on a cabin-like vibe, while dusty neutrals give it a New Mexican look,” Cygelman said. “White, on the other hand, feels fresh and not too thematic. Fresh accent colors like coral, blue, emerald green and turquoise give great pops of colors that take away from the monotonous brown desert color.”

These same colors can be applied to fabrics and upholstery, especially outdoor furniture.

“At one time, homeowners weren’t able to leave their rattan or wicker furniture outdoors because of the extreme heat,” she said. “Modern technology has brought us new synthetic materials to withstand the summer sun and allows us to keep outdoor furniture outdoors throughout the year. At the same time, those same materials are being used for indoor furniture.

“The outdoor lifestyle is important to those living in the Southwest, where the home has expanded into an indoor-outdoor lifestyle.”

Additional elements for a modern desert design look and feel may include a Southwestern rug with a geometric design. It adds graphic coloring and can be the focal point for other accents in the room such as throw pillows, decorative accessories or upholstered furniture.

A leather side chair speaks to the Old West, while nature-themed artwork such as Joshua tree photography, cactus prints or abstract paintings speak to the desert landscape. A wood accent adds a rustic touch, while drought-resistant plants (cactus, succulents) are another essential for desert modern interiors.

Cygelman likes the idea of adding water features as you walk into your house. That could be a small stream you step across at the front entrance or maybe a water fountain. Such features add a sense of cooling down.

“The major appeal of desert modern design is that it is informal,” Cygelman said. “That’s why it has become so prominent throughout the country. These days, we’re all sitting home, and we need it to be relaxed and comfortable.”

Cygelman believes the future for desert modern design is in solar power because “running air conditioning 24/7 is expensive and homeowners are looking for other solutions.”

She continued, “And as we are discovering during COVID 19, homes are changing. They now have zones such as a work zone or dining zone or entertainment zone. We’re changing the look and feel of our homes so they are more relaxed and that can be done by incorporating desert modern design.”

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