Design: Function in the Desert

Each year midcentury enthusiasts from all over head south-east of Los Angeles to visit one of the most timeless, yet time stamped, parts of the world at Modernism Week in Palm Springs. Vast arid mountains dotted with cacti and muted hues lead to this town in the Sonoran Desert that was changed by an architect who arrived in 1939, Albert Frey.


Aside from his eccentric ritual of doing a two head stands a day, Frey was certainly upright, dedicated to functionality and the connection to nature in all of his work. He ventured from snowy mountains in Switzerland to the contrasting yet still rocky expanse of Palm Springs, working on what is now revered as ‘Desert Modernism’.

Albert Frey in Frey House II

Frey lived by the hand of nature, intent on blending the boundary of outside and inside. He was frugal and harnessed materials that withstood weather and time. Known for having a soft impact on the world around him with building supplies, he also ate hardly any red meat and quietly practiced yoga.


In 1995 he said this of colour in his Frey House II with Jennifer Golub, "Green is very restful for the eyes. Like a billiard table. Actually my favourite colours are yellows and oranges, coral, all warm colours. But at the same time, I used a blue ceiling because it blends with the sky. It makes it very restful. And then, as you see, the yellow curtains are like the blossoming encelia flowers. When they bloom, that's the same colour. And at this time of year, when the sun is low, the water from the pool is reflected on the ceiling and makes interesting patterns."


Frey House II was completed in 1964 in Palm Springs, Califorina

Maintaining the rule that form follows function, Frey kept to a minimum with belongings, what he owned made sense to the design. Cabinets and spacious compartments unfurled from furniture. He made room for blank space and when designing for others he did not comprise on his principals which he described as, "Respect for nature. Take advantage of the modern techniques, manufacturers and what the engineers invent. Because the arch was an invention. Or the vault. Or the beam." For more insights to his design processes watch the vignette below.


One can't help but consider how Australians need to adopt more of Frey's mindset of minimalism in-step with the elements. Our climate is warping, forming anew and inviting us to change. It's as though nature herself is warning us that we need to harness the right materials to work more closely with the environment.


We need to see our reflection in the wild, to go lightly some might say. This is the only way forward, it is what we owe the land and the First Nations people from whom it was taken.


Images courtesy of Palm Springs Art Museum / Dan Chavkin

Video by Christoper S. Swan