Hawkes and his partner, Kevin Kemper, have been remodeling and designing in Palm Springs for around 10 years. They’ve completed more than two dozen projects, including dish Creative Cuisine and The Twist in downtown Palm Springs.
Most of their work is for clients, Hawkes explained, but occasionally they buy a home as a pet project. The U-shaped, slightly asymmetrical Swan House was one such case.
Located in the exclusive Thunderbird Heights neighborhood in Rancho Mirage, the Swan House has been entirely remodeled while still recalling the vibe of the original 1958 layout. (Photo: Lucas Esposito/The Desert Sun)
“We just loved the bones of the house,” Hawkes said.
“Whoever the architect was, it was very thoughtfully thought out,” Kemper added. “It’s really easy to do symmetrical (design), but once you get into asymmetry, you can go really bad really quickly. They did a masterful job.”
Hawkes and Kemper have been trying to identify the house’s architect since they bought the property. The house’s records were lost sometime between its 1958 construction and the present, and the pair are still investigating its provenance.
Designer mystery aside, Hawkes and Kemper consistently refused the complete teardown some people recommended. They did, however, replace nearly every part of the interior — the drywall, some of the wood framing, the roof — and reconfigure some rooms, but on the whole, the building retains its original U shape, with one arm slightly longer than the other.
Hawkes and Kemper’s interior design is thoroughly modern. But it incorporates lots of “little moments,” as Kemper calls them, that pay homage to the house’s bones while serving a modern resident.
One of those moments, for example, is a tiny powder room, now a half-bath, where dark wallpaper and a floating vanity add drama to the room. Another is the master closet, the only room in the house that incorporates wood, identifying it as a private, intimate space.
The designers also mixed metals — pairing the house’s original chrome with gold and brass — and preserved the house’s original French doors, which separate some rooms from others. Instead of clashing, the features help give each room a unique identity.
“Instead of everything being brushed aluminum or chrome, it’s brass, it’s gold,” Hawkes said. “So far, I think it’s working really well, it’s not distracting, because there’s enough of each element that it ties the whole house together.”
Hawkes and Kemper did preserve one element entirely: The backyard pool. The classic Regency pool, which sits slightly off-center, is the central feature of the backyard and visible from nearly every room in the house.
“There aren’t really any windows that look toward the street, so in essence, it really is about ignoring the street and making sure life starts after you walk through that front door,” Kemper said. “You can feel like, you know what, I’m away from the world, and you can just relax and grab a cocktail.”
Another detail they honored in the redesign, Kemper joked, was the convenient placement of bars and refrigerators, ensuring that guests are never more than 20 feet from a cocktail or glass of wine.
The Swan House will meet its first guests on Sunday night, when it hosts a fundraiser to help bring the Aluminaire House to Palm Springs.
The Aluminaire House is an exhibition piece designed by Albert Frey and A. Lawrence Kocher in 1931. Palm Springs leaders vowed to bring it to the city several months ago. The committee in charge of moving the house from its current home in New York says they’re progressing, slowly but steadily.
“Everyone agrees in concept; we just don’t have details in a (written) agreement yet,” explained Mark Davis, a member of the committee. Davis said the team hopes to have the structure moved to Palm Springs, assembled, and on display — likely in the new downtown event space — by the end of 2016.
The Aluminaire House will allow Palm Springs to claim examples of Frey’s work from 1931 to 1989, when he designed his final residential project in Smoke Tree Ranch. In August, 14 Frey buildings in the Coachella Valley were nominated for the National Register of Historic Places.
“Sometimes we live in our little bubble, people forget what’s here (in the desert),” said Davis, who also serves as treasurer of the board for Modernism Week. “When officials consider these structures critical to the telling of the story of the U.S., then it comes back to us — the world thinks about this too.”
Sunday’s fundraiser, a sunset reception at the Swan House, begins at 5 p.m. Tickets are $100. For more information or to purchase tickets, visit ModernismWeek.com.
Hawkes and Kemper have not yet listed the Swan House for sale.