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El Cosmico. Photo by Nick Simonite.
El Cosmico. Photo by Nick Simonite.

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The Rise of Marfa

How a Texas town came to rule design

The town of Marfa, Texas, lies 200 miles from the nearest airport and 60 miles from the Mexican border. Marfa sits in a desert landscape, one that looks so much like an idealized version of the American West that it served as a location for both There Will Be Blood and No Country for Old Men (and, 58 years ago, for Giant). At first glance, it's a typical one-stoplight desert town. But look more closely, and you'll notice the motor-court hotel has been spiffed up for design-conscious guests and the former army barracks are, in fact, a world-class art museum. Behind the storefronts of an old bank and supermarket, you'll find the workspace of one of the greatest American artists of the second half of the 20th century.

Long an art–world destination, Marfa suddenly seems to be on the minds of everyone in the design community. A designer in New York City visits Marfa on an "inspiration trip" for her work. Steven Alan's first home store is filled with furnishings that hail from this West Texas town. Designers of the Ace Hotel in downtown Los Angeles cite Donald Judd's home as an influence.

The town was founded in the late 19th century as a railroad stop. From the beginning, Marfa's architectural and interior style was influenced by its locale. In the high desert, timber and other materials were scarce, so most of the early buildings were constructed from adobe. Spare and simple, there is a modern feeling to even century-old adobe homes.

The Architecture Office in Marfa. Photo by James Evans, image © Judd Foundation. Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY.

In the early 20th century, U.S. cavalry officers made camp near the railroad, establishing what would become an army post there. Later, pilots trained in Marfa. Their structures shared a spare architectural style with the town's early buildings. The large, industrial spaces were functional and free of flourish—ideal for their later use as exhibition space for modern art.

In the 1940s, artist Donald Judd passed through West Texas as a serviceman on his way to Los Angeles from Alabama. While his experience was dictated by the bus's scheduled stops, the landscape of the area left an impression on him. He spent the 1960s in New York, part of a group of artists producing a radically stripped-down brand of art, including monumental minimalist sculptures. Imagining a permanent home for his art and an escape from the hubbub of the city, Judd recalled the landscape of the West and moved there in 1973. Reflecting in 1985, Judd wrote that he chose Marfa "because it is the best-looking and most-practical" of the places he considered for his home.

Once in Marfa, Judd began to purchase property—both for his habitation and for studio and exhibition space. With the help of the Dia Art Foundation, Judd acquired a number of buildings in town. After a falling out in the 1980s, Dia and Judd parted ways, with Dia transferring its property to a newly established organization, the Chinati Foundation. Today, the foundation holds most of Judd's and his contemporaries' public art works, and a separate organization, the Judd Foundation, maintains Judd's home and studios.

While Judd is best known for his art, he also became a widely admired furniture designer. His success at furniture making was due at least partly to Marfa. Finding himself in the remote desert town, his options for furniture were severely limited. So he asked the local lumberyard to cut wood and used it to assemble an unusual bed/room divider hybrid for his daughter Rainer's and son Flavin's shared bedroom. "A lot of the furniture designed in Marfa could be made out of what could be done simply," says Rainer, who is co-president of the Judd Foundation. "That's where the simplicity came from."

Judd channeled the same obsession with proportion and scale that informed his artwork into his designs for furnishings. "Don became a master of scale and dimension," says Rainer. "He devoted beyond a normal person's allotment of time to proportions and detail." Eventually, he had many of these pieces reproduced back in New York by more sophisticated woodworkers and craftsmen and sold to collectors.

He paid similar attention to the design of his living and working spaces, precisely placing every chair. His homes were well documented: in 1985, House & Garden ran a 12-page story with full-page photographs of Judd's Marfa compound and text by Judd himself. The photos were later published in Europe. Writing for the New York Times, journalist and critic Alice Rawsthorn asserted his homes had "an enduring influence on interior design."

Photo by Jasper Sharp, image © Judd Foundation. Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY.

Judd's studio space inside a Marfa bank. Photo by Jasper Sharp, image © Judd Foundation. Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY.

Judd was aware of his legacy. In his will, Judd had stipulated that his homes in Marfa and New York City should be kept exactly as they were in his lifetime and opened to the public. Unfortunately, Judd's wishes for his estate were tested too soon: in 1994, at 65, Judd died suddenly of lymphoma.

Interior designers had already begun to take note of Marfa. When attorney-turned-hotelier Liz Lambert bought a run-down hotel in the South Congress neighborhood of Austin in the late 1990s, she took her design team out to her family's West Texas ranch and to Marfa to gather inspiration for the hotel's design.

Designer Jamey Garza was part of Lambert's team. It was Garza's first trip to Marfa, and the beds he later designed for Lambert's San Jose Hotel—platform beds made from reclaimed hardwood—were reminiscent of Judd's homemade furnishings. The look Lambert, Garza, and the architectural firm Lake | Flato created was the seed of the modern Marfa style.

La Mansana de Chinati/The Block, Northeast Studio, Marfa, TX. Image and Judd Art © Judd Foundation. Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY.

In 1996, an influencer of a different sort made the journey to Marfa: Martha Stewart shot a story at the Chinati Foundation's property. The September issue of Martha Stewart Living ran a picture-perfect party with a barbecue meal laid out on Judd's minimalist tables in the former horse arena at Chinati. At the time, Chinati's associate director, Rob Weiner, told the Sentinel, "This is the widest press coverage the museum has received and benefits not only Chinati, but the entire region as well." Little by little, the mainstream was taking note of Marfa.

As Chinati's reputation grew, new businesses arrived. Lambert's San Jose Hotel in Austin was an almost instant success, and the look that Lambert and her team created was widely copied elsewhere. Lambert, Garza, and Lake | Flato were brought together again to work on Marfa's Thunderbird Hotel, a 1950s motor court that was to be converted into a hip boutique hotel. While Lambert eventually bowed out of the project, Garza and Lake | Flato saw it to completion. Jamey Garza and his wife Constance moved to Marfa to work on the hotel—and they never left.

The Thunderbird, like the San Jose, was minimal, with nods to its Texas locale. The hotel had a two-fold impact on the design community: it helped cement the "Marfa look," and it provided a place for visiting design enthusiasts to stay while in town. (Previously, there had been only the old Hotel Paisano and a now-defunct motel.)

In 2003, Virginia Lebermann and Fairfax Dorn opened Ballroom Marfa, the first contemporary gallery to set up shop in Marfa. Housed in a former dance hall, the gallery brought contemporary art and performance to the town. In 2005, Ballroom Marfa and the nonprofit Art Production Fund helped create Prada Marfa, a permanent sculpture by the Berlin artists Michael Elmgreen and Ingar Dragset, 26 miles outside Marfa. The "store" is a traditional adobe structure, the construction of which was overseen by architects Ronald Real and Virginia San Fratello. (The two architects later designed plans for a ground-up adobe Marfa house.) The provocative installation got a lot of press, drawing more eyes to Marfa and providing a future backdrop for art pilgrims' selfies.

El Cosmico. Photo by Nick Simonite.

While Liz Lambert broke off from the Thunderbird, she didn't sever ties to Marfa. A native of West Texas, her family has a ranch nearby. In 2006, Lambert bought a 13-acre property at the edge of Marfa with the idea of developing it. Initially, only a few sheds and horses sat on the land, but once Lambert began work on what would become El Cosmico, a hotel and campground, the buzz was immediate.

At the close of the first decade of the 21st century, Marfa had become a destination—and not just for art. By 2009, enough restaurants had opened that the New York Times ran an article about the "foodie scene in Marfa." In 2010, Readymade magazine shot El Cosmico and ran it on its cover (the accompanying article included ten lessons from El Cosmico that readers could use in their homes). In the summer of 2012, Marfa seemed to be in the pages of every magazine on the newsstand: Vanity Fair ran a feature titled 'Lone Star Bohemia', ELLE DÉCOR showcased a Marfa home ('Lonestar Statement'), and British Vogue sent Tom Craig to shoot model Karen Elson in the desert town.

Art Studio in Marfa. Photo by Elizabeth Felicella, image and Judd Art © Judd Foundation. Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY.

More than just a passing destination and shoot location for the fashionable set, Marfa has always had its own interior style, which has come into focus in recent years. The bones of the look are adobe walls, cement floors, tin roofs, and raw timbers. Inside the minimally furnished rooms are natural hardwood, powder-coated and raw steel, Southwestern textiles, cowhides, and leather. The new Marfa designers have a penchant for neutral backdrops with pops of vivid hues. In fact, the current Marfa aesthetic is so specific that dozens of local properties for rent as vacation destinations on AirBnB and VRBO are furnished to resemble a Liz Lambert hotel or even a Judd interior.

El Cosmico. Photo by Nick Simonite.

What now seems like a calculated look is very much a product of the fact that there isn't much else to be had. Just as Judd had few choices when he furnished his home in the early 1970s, so today's Marfa transplants must make do with what they can find locally or devise a plan to bring things in. For example, when artist Michael Phelan and his wife purchased a former gas station and renovated it, Phelan's design decisions were made in part by scarcity of materials. Tables were made from local materials and the rest of the furnishings were driven up from a Houston IKEA in a moving truck. The home was nonetheless featured in design world darling Domino in August 2007.

Liz Lambert's El Cosmico was conceived in the same sprit of making-do. While there is a certain romance to the hotelier's boho-chic trailer park, there is also a very practical side to it: transporting a trailer or a yurt is a whole lot easier than transporting building supplies to a town that is more than 175 miles from the nearest Home Depot. "We had to consider what could work, what was easy, and what was affordable," says Isadora McKeon, the Director of Marketing & Communications for the Bunkhouse Group, who was involved with the hotel's planning.

It's also no coincidence that leather is a prominent material in many Marfa interiors. Much of the surrounding land is cattle ranches. When Judd arrived in Marfa he had a cattle feed mill in his back yard (he constructed an adobe wall around his compound in part to block the view). While Judd surely admired and collected Navajo blankets and Native American pottery for their craftsmanship, they remain popular in interiors because they are also available in the area.

Comparing a West Elm side table to a Garza Marfa design.

Marfa's remote location almost guarantees that it will never become a conventional tourist trap. But the town's style has influence far beyond Texas. Architect John Pawson owes a huge debt to Judd's work, as do many younger designers. "Judd's work, in particular his living and working spaces, have always been a source of inspiration for Commune," says Roman Alonso, partner at the Los Angeles-based design firm responsible for the Ace Hotel in L.A. "There is rarely an inspiration board or concept that doesn't include an image from his world. His spaces are functional, and personal, and collected and layered in the best way—it's what we strive for." Major home brands send their creative teams to Marfa on research trips, and mass retailers like West Elm and CB2 have produced furniture that looks an awful lot like Jamie Garza's designs. Kevin Sharkey, Martha Stewart Living's executive editorial director for decorating, recently travelled to Marfa for the first time, and his magazine published two Marfa interiors in the past calendar year.

Lorem iMarfa's art and design are in conversation with the natural world that surrounds them. The open sky, the clean light, the miles of unspoiled desert and the mountains beyond—these are the things that drew Judd to Marfa in the first place. The landscape, the low cost of living, and the community are what convince a few pioneers, like the Garzas, to stay, Jamey Garza says. "There are people in this town, like ourselves, that have found this a great place to experiment and work out ideals in design."

Editor: Sara Polsky

· Marfa, Texas archive [Curbed]
· Inside Donald Judd's Home Studio, Open for Tours in June [Curbed NY]


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