Motels, Movie Stars, & Mystery: My Palm Springs Design Trip

Interior Designer Amity Worrel Explores History and Designer Destinations on Her Palm Springs Design Trip


Who wouldn’t want to visit Palm Springs in the heat of the summer when temperatures soar to the high triple digits? Well, that was just my thinking as I packed my bags and set out for my Palm Springs design trip. It turns out that the summers spent at my Austin interior design firm prepared me well. I headed to the desert for a new project launch, but naturally, I had to hit some designer destinations along the way for research. Palm Springs is a world unto to itself,   this mid-century modern haven was built to conceal the best poolside mysteries of the rich and famous.

A Quick Pit Stop in Pasadena

What’s a good cross-country road trip (or flight) without a few detours? Instead of flying direct into the Palm Springs airport, designed by famed modernist architect Donald Wexler and a design destination in itself, my tagalong friend and I decided to include a trip to Pasadena to attend CatCon. (Now, that’s an interesting story for another day!) Pasadena is an adorable LA suburb and home to the iconic Craftsman marvel, The Gamble House, designed by the Greene brothers, which was sadly sold out for tours — just an excuse to go back. We stayed at The Langham Huntington Hotel, which dates back to the Gilded Age and has been a luxury destination for royals, celebs, and us designers alike. You may remember it from The Parent Trap, the 1990s version. 

After the fun of Pasadena and CatCon, we hit the road to one of the most inspirational and frankly otherworldly spots in North America — Palm Springs. The history of how this desert community came to be is fascinating.


If You Can’t Take the Heat, Get Out of the Desert

The Cahuilla name for Palm Springs is Se-Khi, which means boiling water — boiling indeed! The desert welcomed us with 116-degree temperatures and a 14% humidity level. The locals tell you it’s a dry heat, and I just couldn’t keep up with the evaporation of all the water in my body! Maybe our humid Texas climate has some perks, after all. 

We spent the rest of the afternoon at the pool, lounging like lizards, taking a dip, and repeating the process over and over again. Staff came by every half hour with sliced watermelon platters sprinkled with tajin, water, and cocktails passed around to the slightly delirious guests. I got the feeling that the staff were worried about our safety in the heat! But if we’re taking a project in the desert, we’ve got to learn to acclimate to the environment. We rested up for the remainder of the trip, which would be design meetings and visits to some amazing Palm Springs design destinations. 

A Private Paradise: Why Movie Stars Escaped to Palm Springs

Part of the interior design process is learning about the place where you’re designing — going beyond the architecture and getting to the stories behind it. Palm Springs has been an escape for Hollywood stars since the 1930s. I assumed it was because the valley was a short drive from the studios and provided new vistas and activities. However, it is more nuanced and interesting than that. 

According to Palm Springs historians, the reason Hollywood stars took to the desert had more to do with hiding mysteries than playing golf and tennis (although they did that, too). Today, the inner workings of celebrity lives are broadcast across the media, sometimes directly from the celeb themself. We live today with an “all press is good press” mentality. However, the stars were much more secretive in the 1930s because a scandal could destroy their career overnight. 

Gossip columnists like Louella Parsons and Hedda Hopper held all the power over movie star careers. Because of the Great Depression, these publications were even hungrier for the next big story and would have paparazzi spies trail celebrities through Hollywood. Soon, word spread of a sanctuary shielded from the public eye, only driving distance away. While Palm Springs is a short 107 miles from LA, news reporters and paparazzi could only be reimbursed for up to 100 miles of travel. The stars found their safe haven. 

From the Spanish Mission architecture of the 1930s to the mid-century modern marvels Palm Springs is known for, a sense of privacy and recluse is the underlying design theme. Properties are protected with courtyard walls and tall box shrubs that open up to private paradises if you’re lucky enough to be invited. 

Designer Points of Interest in Palm Springs

Marrakesh Country Club

Marrakesh Country Club sits just 14 miles down the road from downtown Palm Springs in Palm Desert. It was recently remodeled by my old boss, Tom Scheerer, so of course, I had to take a tour. The property was originally designed by renowned architect John Elgin Woolf and is a prime example of another popular Palm Springs style, Hollywood Regency. Set around an oasis-like golf course, the community is dotted with glamorous abodes and anchored by the sunset-pink clubhouse. 

The renovation will be celebrated in print soon, so I can only reveal a little of what I saw. However, it was all executed with Tom’s usual restrained, unpretentious yet elegant hand. He is a natural at creating steady beauty and doing just enough and not too much to his projects. The outcome leaves you feeling that you have arrived at the brink of perfection. If there were even one additional faux palm tree or extra backgammon table, the effect would be too much.  

Private Palm Springs Residence

I also got to visit one of the private residences of an acclaimed designer and tastemaker, but in true Palm Springs fashion, I cannot reveal the homeowner’s name due to a need for discretion.  Suffice it to say, the theme of “just enough and not too much” when decorating a truly architecturally beautiful space was also repeated here. If you want to get a peek inside some of these mid-century gems, I’d recommend going during the October or February Modernism Weeks. Twice a year, these private estates drop the veil, and select owners open up shop for tours.  

Of course, I didn’t set off on this trek alone! My tour guide for the club and the private residence was Patrick Dragonette, an infamous collector, vintage furniture dealer, tastemaker, and gentleman who was so generous with his time showing me around. After the tours, we shopped at his store, Dragonette Ltd., and indulged in a robust meal made up of a Dutch Baby and sausage links at Elmer’s, a Palm Springs institution. Then, it was back to the hotel, which is equally inspiring and deserves a mention on this guide to Palm Springs!

Sparrows Lodge

The Sparrows Lodge doesn’t have your typical mid-century motel feel because, well, it’s intended to feel like a barn! It was built as Castle’s Red Barn in 1952 by actor Don Castle and his wife Zetta and became the original getaway for Hollywood elites. The rooms feature exposed beams, pebble-tiled showers, ultra-plush bedding, and even horse troughs for bathtubs! One amenity the rooms don’t have are phones and televisions, again taking the Palm Springs design theme of privacy and relaxation to heart. In the desert, you have no choice but to relax and release your inhibitions.  

The Desert Spirit

I am grateful for having clients who have decided to buy a place in this rare environment to relax. While Palm Springs is known for its mid-century architecture, it also offers Spanish Mission, Hollywood Regency, and even rustic barn designs. At its root, these desert abodes are designed to be private escapes. They’re luxurious and entirely unique, which is why I know this will be a fun project. 

I can happily spend more days lounging like lizards in the desert!