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Classic cars from the ‘50s and ‘60s have their place in Palm Springs’ Modernism Week events


Editor’s note: In February, Palm Springs, California, stages its annual Modernism Week, a festival celebrating  midcentury architecture, art, fashion, design and culture. But wait, there’s more: In October, there’s a Modernism Week Fall Preview weekend that highlights the automobiles of the era with the Cul de Sac Experience and the Casual Concours. To whet your appetite for both weeks, John Grafman caught up with Cul de Sac Experience curator Jeff Stork.

The Cul de Sac Experience has become one of the highlights of the Modernism Week’s Fall Preview, at least for those that have a drop of motor oil in their veins. This event in Palm Springs, California, is a blend of architecture and automobiles of the same period. Actually, this takes the concept to the next step, as this is totally immersive with all the homes in state of the art (1950s) condition, many of which are open for viewing. The homes are very much in step with the mid-century modern flair, from the materials to the small details and art.

This gathering can’t happen just anywhere, as the towering mountains provide a majestic backdrop that’s timeless. This is probably as close to time traveling as one can get.

AutoDesignO tackles the gregarious Jeff Stork, former General Motors marketing team member and now a private-collection curator and automotive writer who also is curator for Modernism Week’s Cul de Sac Experience.

Walking down the sidewalk of the Cul de Sac Experience at Modernism Weeks Fall Preview is like a walk back in time. What part does automotive play in discussing Mid Century Modern?

Stork: Automotive styling is fashion stamped in steel. It’s an indelible date stamp. With an architecturally preserved structure, the right car is the strongest visual element to creating a time capsule experience. From there add the clothes, the music, the accessories and go as far as your team is willing.

How did you get involved, and how challenging was it getting the right cars for this event? Why were these particular autos special in telling the story?

Stork: Cul de Sac Experience started by accident in Tom Dolle’s (of Tom Dolle Design) kitchen. His house was on a home tour, and he had his ‘67 Pontiac convertible in his driveway. He asked if I would bring over a couple of period-appropriate cars to park at neighboring houses. I showed up with a ‘64 Riviera and a two-tone ‘59 Olds with crazy tail fins. We looked through his kitchen window at the scene and knew what we had to do. And people went crazy over them all day. We knew we were on to something.

What are the hallmarks of mid century design that carry over from architecture to automotive?

Stork: Both reflect the era they are conceived in, and both focus on line and perspective. In the late forties, the International style with its clean geometry seemed to be moving faster than the roundish cars did. But then automobiles became inspired by rockets, and by the late ‘50s — with the advent of the tail fin — the car caught up.  

The selection of cars at the Cul de Sac Experience is memorable, in part because of the styling, but also due to being so well preserved. Are these the anomaly in the Palm Springs area, or is the desert home to a treasure trove of nicely preserved, mid-century Detroit metal?

Stork: The desert has a surprising number beautifully kept cars. I rely on a small set of carefully curated collections. The first time I drew pretty heavily from our own collection, but now people even reach out to us. Once the theme is decided, I pick out the cars that best support the statement we are trying to make, and then I start calling owners. No one has ever said no. Not once. It’s amazing. It’s like being part of a Cul de Sac Family.

This isn’t the first time that Modernism Week has featured the Cul de Sac experience, and it’s clear that period-correct cars help to re-create the era. Should MW expand upon the pairing of cars and homes?

Stork: The important thing to realize is that Cul de Sac is a Time Capsule Experience. So the cars are very important, but so are the clothes, the music and the period accessories. I’ve talked about curated car displays in Modernism Seminars and have helped on other tours, but it’s more than just plunking an old car in a driveway. It’s about selecting the most appropriate choices for a specific tour, and then supporting them with as many period elements as you can. That makes for a memorable tour.

What are some of your personal favorite cars from the late ‘50s and early ‘60s (and why are they standouts)?

Stork: You can pretty much tell my taste from the Cul de Sac display. I love the crazy tail-finned 1959 GM cars so much — they’re more like rocket ships with wheels than automobiles, but they were late to the party and fell from grace quickly.

The Sixties had such refinement. The sporty yet upscale four-place Thunderbird, The elegant 1961 Lincoln Continental with its center-opening doors, the razor-chic 1963 Buick Riviera, the Mustang which transformed the compact car experience, and the iconic Avanti, which of course was designed right here in Palm Springs.

Modernism Week 2020 is scheduled February 13-23. For information, visit the Modernism Week website. This year the week includes several car-centric events, including a presentation by author Susan Skarsgard on “Where Today Meets Tomorrow — Eero Saarinen & the General Motors Technical Center, a presentation by author William Knoedelseder on “Fins: Harley Earl and the Rise of General Motors and the Auto Industry,” and another by author Gabrielle Esperdy on “Greetings from Autopia: Architecture, Urbanism & the Roadside Metropolis.”

John Grafman
John has spent a decade modeling concept-cars and two decades in the automotive media, and he’s not insane. He got his hands dirty in the design studios of BMW/Designworks, Ford, Hyundai, Kia, Metalcrafters (Chrysler, Dodge, Mercedes-Benz), Mitsubishi, Porsche, Toyota, Wings West, Five-Axis, and more. John continues as the Executive Editor at AutoDesignO. His editorials and images cover everything from Avanti to Rolls-Royce. Styling gets him excited, but that’s only part of the story.


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