Regarded as a masterpiece of Mid Century Modern design, the Sunnylands estate has hosted the political elite, wealthy and famous.
Surrounded by the white, flat desert of the Coachella Valley sits the Sunnylands estate. The modernist dream house in Rancho Mirage, California, is truly one-of-a-kind and is considered the pinnacle of Mid Century design. In the book Sunnylands: America’s Midcentury Masterpiece, author Janice Lyle depicts how Walter and Leonore Annenberg created a compound from hundreds of acres of desert and made a marvelous, unique retreat where the ultra-wealthy and famous could escape reality.
So, who were the Annenbergs and how did they create such a charming, impressive and unique oasis?
Walter Annenberg was an American businessman and media magnate. He owned Triangle Publications, which printed The Philadelphia Inquirer, TV Guide and Seventeen magazine, among others. He was appointed as U.S. Ambassador to the United Kingdom by former President Richard Nixon, and he and his wife, Leonore, were often called the greatest philanthropists of their generation. They donated their billion-dollar art collection to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, as well as hundreds of millions of dollars to cultural, educational and medical institutions.
Design Dream Team
The Annenbergs’ design team consisted of movie-star-turned-decorator William “Billy” Haines and esteemed California architect A. Quincy Jones. “Both designers grasped the Annenbergs’ desire for a fresh paradigm of American glamour, a modernist country house sensitive to both the region and the climate, but also an impressive background for their extraordinary collection of Impressionist paintings,” Lyle writes.
“The Annenbergs very much wanted a house that would be open to the outdoors,” Lyle writes. “Jones achieved that sense of openness and relaxed living with a surprising diagonal entrance, a central garden also on an oblique axis, partition walls that don’t rise to the ceiling, and an egg crate–coffered ceiling connecting the interior and exterior. Wide expanses of glass blur the line between indoors and outdoors, pulling the green landscape inside the residence.”
Haines, known for popularizing the Hollywood Regency style, says he struggled to balance the Annenbergs’ diverse collections with the requirements of entertaining on a grand scale and their highly specific design taste. Sunnylands wasn’t just a place to relax; it was also an unrivaled party destination. For four decades, the Annenbergs hosted a New Year’s Eve celebration, and an invitation was “the ultimate social prize.”
Nature as a Muse
Jones chose a low-slung profile for the estate—a classic modernist approach. Along with abundant diagonal lines, generous windows blurring the outside and interiors, and partition walls that do not connect with the ceilings, the design is a study of openness and free-flowing space. The Sunnylands estate reflected its surroundings through its color scheme, drawing from the mountains, desert and colors that were just outside the home. Haines had no interest in modern materials, unlike most other Mid Century Modern homes in Palm Springs at the time, and instead used custom fine fabrics and avoided any mass-produced material. “Haines designed every piece of furniture in the house—all of the sofas, tables, chairs, lamps and mirrors—to capture a sense of luxury mixed with informality,” Lyle writes. Jones took a Mayan-inspired look to the exterior of the home, a timeless theme that is not present inside the estate.
“With its celadon interior, its dazzling collection of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist paintings, and long, low sofas that look like vintage Cadillac convertibles, Sunnylands today is a passport to eras gone by,” Smith writes in his foreword, adding, “In the Palm Springs area, the mecca of Mid Century Modern architecture, this extraordinary survivor—maintained as fresh as the day it was built—is the undisputed masterpiece.”
The current state of the esteemed estate.
Following Walter Annenberg’s passing in 2002 and Leonore’s in 2009, their estate turned into a retreat available to the President, Secretary of State, leaders of Congress, Supreme Court justices and other political elite where they could promote peace and engage in creative and problem-solving conversations. The couple hoped the Annenberg Foundation Trust would turn Sunnylands into the “Camp David of the West.”
However, you don’t need to be a politician to enjoy the historic site of diplomacy, leisure and a blueprint of Mid Century Modern design: Sunnylands is now open to the public and sees about 90,000 visitors every year.
Read more about Sunnylands in the book by Janice Lyle, available at Vendome Press.
To learn more about Sunnylands co-architect A. Quincy Jones, read A. Quincy Jones Transforms the Modern Tract Home.
And to learn more about Harry Bertoia’s kinetic sculptures, see Shedding More Limelight on Harry Bertoia. And of course, don’t forget to follow us on Instagram, Facebook and Pinterest for more Mid Century Modern inspiration!