When you think of Midcentury Modern design, especially in a city like Palm Springs where 20th century architecture is revered and preserved, you might picture permeable walls of glass and open floor plans furnished with Saarinen tulip tables, Nelson bubble lamps and molded plywood Eames chairs.
But when it comes to 21st century living, such overly stylized midcentury minimalism can make a home feel like a museum, frozen in time like the famed Eames House in Pacific Palisades.
That’s not the case with Howard Hawkes and Kevin Kemper’s 1963 tract house in Palm Springs. Within minutes of walking into the H3K designers’ home and taking in the views of the San Jacinto Mountains from their warm and inviting living room, it doesn’t just feel Midcentury Modern. It feels Modern Midcentury.
“I would describe our aesthetic as Midcentury Modern inspired,” Kemper says. “Most people don’t want to live in a 1950s house. They also don’t want to cook in a 1950s kitchen or take a shower in a 1950s bathroom.”
The couple’s close friend, Claudio Zanet, says that walking into the designers’ home is like stepping into the past while being rooted in the present.
“Every last curated detail amplifies the feeling of being warmly welcomed,” Zanet says. “We have spent many evenings seamlessly moving from indoors to outdoors without any compromise to the feelings of warmth and comfort. Whether it’s the four of us enjoying a predinner cocktail or an intimate gathering of 100, this home delivers on the quintessential Palm Springs experience and lifestyle.”
The couple didn’t even visit the bank-owned property in the Vista Las Palmas neighborhood before they bought it in 2010 for $700,000. Several subcontractors, allegedly angry that they had not been paid for their prior work, had removed the home’s cabinets, fixtures and pool equipment. “They even took the gravel,” Kemper says.
Built in 1963 as a model home in the Summit Estates development for the Alexander Construction Co., the home was designed by architect Charles Du Bois to include several Polynesian-inspired characteristics including the roofline.
“Hawaiian and Pacific/Asian influence was very big in the ’50s and early ’60s,” Hawkes says. “Many of those homes [in Palm Springs] had been altered or renovated to not resemble their original design. We were fortunate that the bones of our house still existed, and it just needed some refinement to achieve the look we wanted.”
While sheltering in place during the COVID-19 pandemic, Hawkes says he and Kemper were inspired to “pull the trigger and get started on creating the house of our dreams.”
Well-versed in restoration, the couple spent six months renovating the house last year. They started by focusing on the original details they wanted to preserve: the Polynesian-inspired wood-shake roof, decorative concrete screen blocks, a double-wide front door, which they painted a vibrant shade of yellow for a pop of color, and a floor-to-ceiling stone fireplace that rests next to a picture window overlooking the pool.
“We tried to stay true to the roots of the house,” Hawkes says, “while updating it for modern living.”
For their new home, the designers, who love to cook and entertain, created a chef’s kitchen with custom walnut cabinets, a massive curving island with built-in storage that disguises the cooking area from the home’s open dining and living room, and a soothing green backsplash featuring handmade tile by Sonoma Tilemakers. The couple says that in terms of color, they were going for an organic midcentury vibe. “I like the softness of the green,” Hawkes says.
Additional modern updates include new terrazzo tile flooring throughout, updated bathrooms with textured INAX tile from Japan and a cedar shake roof made with Class B fire-treated wood. They also replaced the glass garage door with a more period-appropriate wooden slat solid door and painted it a soft shade of green. (The original house included a carport, which was enclosed before the couple purchased the home.)
In keeping with the home’s Polynesian influences, the couple also installed tall wooden Witco Tiki-style pieces from the 1970s in a niche they created out of a closet in the entryway and added handmade bronze Sunburst door pulls by Philip Watts Design to the front doors.
The home’s Polynesian touches were especially meaningful for Kemper, who grew up in Hawaii (hence the home’s Modernism moniker “Hi-Sun”). “There are so many aspects to Midcentury Modern,” Kemper says, such as “Atomic, Hawaiiana,” which Hawkes describes as a more gentle take on Polynesian or even Tiki architecture.
Hawkes and Kemper are known for their bold interiors, which incorporate colorful accents, retro textiles and wall coverings and midcentury-inspired furnishings. However, the designers’ home, which will be open to the public for tours during Modernism Week, is surprisingly subdued.
When they opened their four-bedroom, three-bathroom home to the public for tours last October, the married couple says many visitors presumed their 2,400-square-foot home was a staged show house for Modernism Week. “That’s not the case,” Hawkes says. “Even though our house is an extension of our H3K showroom, we actually live here.”
“This is our personal residence,” Kemper says. “We want it to feel like our permanent home, not a vacation home.”
To create their own version of Midcentury Modern living, the couple combined midcentury-inspired furnishings and glamorous Brutalist accessories, including metallic lamps and mirrors, and varied materials — walnut cabinets that play off the stone fireplace and terrazzo tile flooring.
Art is another essential component in creating the Modern Midcentury look they wanted. Walking through the house, Hawkes points out artworks that “tell a story,” including street art from Cuba, an oversized photograph by Palm Springs photographer Gary Dorothy and a portrait they purchased because it resembles Kemper’s mother circa 1978.
“When a friend came over for dinner, he asked me, ‘Why do you have a portrait of Dory Previn hanging in your living room?’” Kemper says with a laugh, referring to the singer-songwriter who died in 2012.
Regardless of the mystery woman’s identity, the painting makes a statement in the living room, anchored by a pair of mahogany room dividers from the 1960s by Czech designer Ludvik Volak, a comfortable serpentine sofa that is available at H3K Home+Design in a few different colors and configurations, and a pair of chairs they dubbed Diablo chairs because of their hornlike construction.
In the dining room, a custom table made from Corian (they conveniently added an outlet in the middle for fondue night) can seat 12 and is installed off-center to provide plenty of room between the living room and kitchen. Upholstered swivel chairs, which surround the table, provide easy access to conversation at casual gatherings.
Outdoors, the couple added a kitchen and barbecue, umbrellas with scalloped edges and several covered seating areas where they can escape the searing desert heat. In a whimsical touch, they painted the exterior of the home’s fireplace facing the swimming pool a vibrant yellow to give the outdoor area a cheerful burst of color.
For the full-time desert dwellers, who are both 54 and met as students at USC, Palm Springs offers them an opportunity to create what they call effortless escapism for clients who are looking for a desert home.
“The vibe in Palm Springs is lots of color — lots of fun,” Kemper says. “People usually want something completely different from their main house.”
“So many people love to create their own style that gets away from a lot of the design constraints that exist in other cities and places,” Hawkes adds. “Palm Springs is definitely an escape.”
Located within walking distance of the city’s bustling main drag, the duo’s Palm Springs home exudes the “effortless escapism” they are so skilled at creating for others.
“We feel like we’re in our own world here,” Kemper says, standing poolside and gazing at the San Jacinto Mountains.
Adds Hawkes: “It’s nice to come home to a soothing environment.”
Modernism Week Featured Home Tour: Hi-Sun
The designers hope to be on site during the Modernism Week home tours, offering tips on everything from paint colors (Hawkes says their favorite white paint is “Whisper” by Dunn-Edwards Paints because “it looks fabulous in the daylight and illuminates well at night”) to blending vintage midcentury design with contemporary furnishings. But don’t expect to see them using their chef’s kitchen. “We are moving to a hotel during Modernism Week,” Kemper says.
Hi-Sun tours will be held from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Feb. 17-20 and Feb. 24-26. Tickets are $35. modernismweek.com