Christopher Kennedy on Mid-Century Modernism

Thunderbird Heights

Palm Springs is synonymous with celebrity and celebrities are passionate about modernism. Everyone from the Obamas to Joe Jonas come here to soak up the sun and the desert chic vibe.

What is the “desert chic” vibe, you ask? I can think of no better person to answer this than Christopher Kennedy. Working out of his shop in Palm Springs’ Design District, Christopher is a master at conjuring up the modern and luxurious look that is Palm Springs.

I chatted with Christopher to ask him about his style and to get a few tips on how you can achieve desert chic at your house. Here’s what he said.


John: So, the first question I have for you, what is a good buzzword-y name for your style? You know that soundbite-y name.

Christopher: I don’t know that I have one word, I like to think that we do “Vibrant California Glamour.”

John: When you say glamour, do you mean like movie star glamour?

Christopher: Maybe Vibrant California Nostalgia is a better descriptor in my case. I would keep the vibrant in there because I think we’re known for that.

John: Bright colors? Tell me more about vibrant. What do you mean by vibrant?

Christopher: We are definitely known for our use of color. Our designs are exuberant. I think they’re a bit bold sometimes and a bit brave. I definitely love the use of color and pattern. Generally, I think the design should inspire and put a smile on your face. People often tell us that our designs tend to make them smile and that makes them happy. If that’s the case, then I consider it a job well done.

John: Have you ever had a client who was on the fence about “vibrant?” Sometimes, it can be scary to do something bold.

Christopher: We always want to do something that is appropriate for the clients but have our good spins. At the end of the day we are serving clients and it is their home, so we want it to be as much of a reflection of them as for us. There might be a bold move that we have to talk someone into, but once they see it they are generally very, very happy and I’m glad that they took the leap of faith.

John: How do you present your bold move?

Christopher: I tend to present my favorite option. Occasionally, I will have a back-up in the bag but rarely do I feel I have to do that. We tend to present a whole look. Of course, there will be cases where we give them an option or two. But people generally choose our option one, which makes me very happy.

John: Do you think that’s because you’ve worked with them long enough that you have a sense of what they like and what they don’t like? You’re picking things that suit them but still represents your style. True statement?

Christopher: I think that we all have a God-given gift in this world and perhaps one of mine is having a good sense of what someone is going to like. Nine times out of ten, I tend to get it right. I wish I could explain how, but I think it’s one of those magical things that I was meant to do.

John: So, tell me about your relationship to mid-century modern design.

Christopher: I guess it was just fate that I found my way to Palm Springs in my late 20s. I’ve always loved modern design. All things mid-century have become part of my brand and my ethos. Just 15 years later, I’m glad the world is going more modern and more contemporary and catching up with what I’ve been doing my whole career really.

John: There’s mid-century inspired design and then there’s mid-century modern design that is about antiquing. Some people want things that are inspired by mid-century modern design while others actually want things from that period. It feels to me like your designs are inspired by mid-century rather than a literal take. Am I correct?

Christopher: I don’t necessarily want to be formulaic or create a museum or a time capsule in the designs that I do. I don’t think that is doing service to the great mid-century modern masters either. They were futurists, thinkers, and inventors, and if they were alive today, they wouldn’t be resting on their 60-year-old laurels. They would be pushing the envelope forward and saying “what’s new and what’s next”; just like they were doing when they were alive. I always want to push the envelope and be inspired by them. I do use a lot of vintage pieces in my designs, but I also use new pieces that are forward thinking that may have been inspired by the great minds of mid-century masters.

John: How would you describe what mid-century modern is today to someone who didn’t know about it?

Christopher: Historically, modernism was sort of a backlash against ornament and excess. It was about using new technology, bringing the outside in. For me, the core of mid-century modernism is embracing technology, honesty in building materials and building systems. Sometimes doing more with less. I think it is about surrounding yourself with fewer things that you love and that have meaning.

John: I did not hear you mention any specific designer’s names or any specific color or shapes. Why is that?

Christopher: To me, mid-century modernism as it relates to Palm Springs is not about a certain architect or a certain chair or a certain lamp. What really inspires me most about the mid-century era and about life in Palm Springs is the life behind the style. For me, mid-century and my designs are about a time of grace, style, manners, and common courtesy. Families sitting down to dine together, talking on the phone and not just texting. It’s really a lifestyle that’s been lost and it’s that feeling that I strive for in my designs rather than any one particular piece of furniture. I think that in our increasingly casual, and fractured world, maybe subconsciously we have yearned for that more simple, honest time. And perhaps that’s a small part of life that continues to have a hold on our consciousness.

John: When I think of Palm Springs modernism and mid-century modern design, it’s a lay by the pool, indoor/outdoor lifestyle. But the way you’re describing it is very different. Can you elaborate?

Christopher: Part of what inspires me about the celebrity history of Palm Springs is not surrounding myself with pictures of Marilyn Monroe, it’s about looking at the photographs. They were glamorous and they were also on vacation. For many of them like Doris Day, Rock Hudson or Frank Sinatra, they were living their lives away from the paparazzi. For many of them, Palm Springs was the only place in the world where they could truly live authentically. To me, that idea of grace and beauty combined with realness and easiness is a feeling that I strive for in the projects and products I design.

John: Say, I live in Winnipeg and it’s February and I’m attracted to mid-century modernism, but I don’t quite know how to do it. How would you guide me? What should I be looking for when I go to the store?

Christopher: For me, it’s about small things. I think if people want to channel the Palm Springs cocktail culture, get a great set of shakers and glasses. On Friday night, invite some friends over, put on some decent clothes and shake some cocktails. Use great mid-century glassware. It’s the small things that you can do that aren’t expensive that give you the feeling that you’re living a swanky lifestyle in the mid-century. It can be the dishes you use, it can be a great set of barware. It can begin by putting on your favorite outfit. There are small things you can buy that can make you think you’re in Palm Springs in March.

John: My mother is a big owl fan and so whenever people go on trips they pick owls for her. Everybody has their thing. Some people like elephants and some people like tiger print. How do you go about integrating that in a way that makes sense?

Christopher: When people have a collection like that I tend to group it in the same location for impact. I had a client whose mother collected crystal paperweights. She loved them. She passed away and we redid the home. This was his parents home and they were trying to make it fresh for a young family from Newport Beach that would come out on the weekends. I created a beautiful long entry table in the foyer and I just put them all there, in one location, creating a great tribute to his mother. It was a symbol of the beauty and abundance of his mom. They would walk in the door and be reminded of her. It’s not like there’s one spread on every surface around the room making it look cluttered.

I often group collections for impact. In the Parker, there’s a whole wall of macramé owls. Actually, there are two walls in the corner from floor to ceiling. I take something quirky and embrace it and put it all in one place, giving it a dramatic impact.

John: Where else do you draw your inspiration?

Christopher: I draw inspiration, obviously from Palm Springs, specifically from nature. When I get stressed out and I have a lot of clients calling or have multiple projects going on, maybe dealing with construction, contractors, budgets, and pipelines, I’ll just go for a hike. I just love to embrace the natural beauty of Palm Springs.

Color is something that inspires me also. My go-to colors are tan, blue, and green. I’m inspired by the blue of the water and the sky. The green of the palm trees and succulents are definitely the parts of nature in Palm Springs that inspire me and it’s what keeps me from getting too stressed out.

John: Do you have a project that you’re most proud of, that most represents all of your inspirations?

Christopher: I’m very proud of a family home that we did in Thunderbird Heights. It was a young family with four children. They also had a great art collection and they wanted a very luxurious mid-century look. It was a 1960s house where they had added crown molding and travertine floors and tried to make it something that it wasn’t. We took it back to its classic California ranch roots. We imported terrazzo, painted the walls with my favorite color; white. There are blue sofas and lots of colorful art.

There’s an art piece in the living room that is a fur covered bathtub. It’s actually a piece of art from a local gallery but the kids do their homework in there. It was just a beautiful home that represents the best of mid-century that is also very livable at the same time.

John: If people want to see your designs and be inspired by what you do, what’s the best place for them to look?

Christopher: If they want to follow along on what inspires me in my adventures and my projects, they can find me on Instagram @christopherkennedyinc. Our website talks about our design process, there are some great portfolio images. We also have our retail shop in the uptown design district where they can come in and immerse themselves in all things California nostalgia.

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