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This Texan’s Marfa recs

Curbed’s interim EIC Mercedes Kraus shares inside tips on her favorite region of her home state

Lush green hills along Texas Highway 90, between Van Horn and Marfa, in late October.
Mercedes Kraus

Hello! I’m writing from a few weeks ago, right around the time I stepped away for maternity leave. Past Me would like you, dear reader, to extend a warm welcome and sincere scroll depth to Mercedes Kraus, Curbed’s interim EIC for the next few months. Mercedes has helped lead Curbed since 2015, and now resides in Los Angeles with her husband and 7-month-old son. You’re lucky to be getting a slice of her creative mind and Texan heart, so let’s pass that baton without further ado! —Kelsey

Hey y’all. It was 2008 when I left the great state of Texas, and each year since, I’ve wondered when I might return in glory (lol) as its prodigal daughter. But after roadtripping across Texas at the end of October—with a 7-month-old—some of the (lone) stars fell from my eyes.

To be brutally honest, I think it’s because Los Angeles is so beautiful and so endlessly compelling—and California’s natural features so grand—that in just two years here, the Texas places in my mind have begun to pale in comparison. One area of the state, though, only gets better with time.

Far West Texas, particularly the three-town triangle of Alpine, Marfa, and Fort Davis, and the entire area south to Mexico—that is to say, throughout Big Bend—inspires in me too much romantic waxing for one newsletter. Here’s trying.

(Don’t worry, I’ve also got tips—I know you’re here for the meaty stuff. And for a future edition, I plan to sniff out, literally, the best fancy candles: The only waxing involved there will be the smell-good kind.)

Marfa Stewart

Out in that semiarid desert grassland, the rainy season hits in August, which means we were treated to lushness in October. We missed Marfa’s Chinati Weekend by a couple weeks, when Martha Stewart and others of the moneyed set flew in on private jets for the programming- and fundraising-heavy gathering. (Normal people drove in or took a bus.)

In fact, the first time I visited Marfa was for this weekend in 2006, when nearly all of the works at Chinati Foundation are open to the public and the tiny town booms. I got to walk by myself through the two “sheds” that house Donald Judd’s 100 untitled works in milled aluminum and remember them feeling symphonic. That evening, the main street of Marfa was shut down for a public dinner party, and a mariachi band played for us on a small stage as the clear sky turned dusty purple.

I would later name my son Judd.

The Chinati Foundation building on Marfa’s main street, Highland Avenue, houses several works by sculptor John Chamberlain and can be visited on the foundation’s comprehensive tour.
Mercedes Kraus

Donald Judd is not actually the reason Marfa is what it is today—you can thank Tim and Lynn Crowley for that—but what he made while he lived there, and the two foundations that maintain his legacy (Chinati and Judd), have remained potent to the town’s identity and its draw.

Two Judd items of note: One, the man was incredibly holistic—and specific—in his idea of environment. You see that play out at 101 Spring Street in New York City, but in a bigger way in Marfa. Two, Judd’s object-first ethos (just don’t call him a minimalist) included functional furniture, and as of 2017, you can actually buy reproductions online. It’s expensive. You can see it all in person, though: Anyone interested in environment/space(s) must absolutely make time—and book ahead—for both tours at the Judd Foundation.

In 2013 I was lucky enough to have Caitlin Murray, director of archives and programs at the Judd Foundation, be my guide on these tours of Judd’s home, studio, and personal gallery spaces. She and I loosely knew each other in Austin, so she let me and a couple others join the private tour she was giving to Texas-famous singer-songwriter Jimmie Dale Gilmore. (Start with his 1991 and 1989 albums.) You could say I was smitten once again: My husband Ryan and I have since built bookshelves modeled on Judd’s personal library.

Caitlin has edited many a book on Donald Judd, including the most recent Interviews, which I bought at Marfa Book Co., along with a West Texas Cloud Appreciation Society tee. The bookstore-gallery-publisher-venue rivals anything you’ll find in New York or LA; Caitlin and her partner Tim are its owners.

The store is inside the circa-2016 Saint George, a widely publicized and stylish hotel that is, in fact, completely skippable. (Other things to skip? Prada Marfa and the Marfa Lights.) That’s especially true now that The Sentinel has opened. Another multihyphenate—this time a coffee shop-bar-taco stand-lifestyle store—it’s owned by the regional newspaper, an exercise in “exploring the future of community supported journalism.” A laudable mission, and an excellent establishment any time of day.

The exterior of the Sentinel, which opened in June, shares a logo with its owner, the regional newspaper.
Mercedes Kraus
Leather and wood Mexican Equipale chairs (in the foreground) are a mainstay here—just 60 miles from the Mexico border.
Mercedes Kraus

Note: The following is NOT a comprehensive list; there are plenty of other great food spots and hotels and shops in Marfa—these are merely my top top faves.

Other spots in Marfa I love:

For art: Don’t let anyone tell you to skip Chinati. I recommend either the full tour ($25) or all three self-guided tours ($30). The self-guided are “the sheds” (where I experienced a visual symphony), the Dan Flavin buildings (for your Instagram fulfillment), and the new Robert Irwin—an artwork and experience that is in fact an entire building. The thing that I think you, a fan of this newsletter, would really miss if you don’t do the full tour is the arena. If you are unable to take the Judd Foundation tour (see above), you must do the full Chinati tour so that you can experience the arena. (Pro tip: get to know your docent—locals in Marfa are super friendly, will give you great tips, and might even invite you to a local party or happening.)

For dinner: Stellina is the best restaurant in town. It is the spot you do not want to miss. Wait for your table while watching the sun set on the Presidio County Courthouse at the north end of Highland Avenue.

For a drink: Capri has a fantastic bar (order a sotol for me) and a delightful garden with fire pits.

For a hang, or a stay: The Paisano. Regional architects Trost & Trost designed the historic Spanish Revival hotel along with others nearby, including the Holland Hotel in Alpine and the Gage Hotel in nearby Marathon (pronounced Mair-a-thin.) Famous for hosting the cast of Giant, it’s got sweet, quaint rooms—some with balconies—and a warm fireplace in the lobby for the cold season.

For groceries: The Get Go. Satisfy your organic or otherwise “good” food needs—and grab a tote.

For browsing and buying: Wrong Marfa is an extremely cool store and gallery (they actually have a brilliant list of Marfa recs) and the rock shop. And again, Marfa Book Co.

For a late night: The Lost Horse Saloon, if for no other reason than to chew the fat with the proprietor, an eyepatched cowboy.

For a follow: My friend Travis Klunick is a poet and flora/fauna obsessive whose Instagram shows what lies beneath the average West Texas visit, and may inspire you to actually make the trek out.

A sitting area in the historic Hotel Paisano.
Mercedes Kraus
A dining area in the stylish but skippable Hotel Saint George.
Mercedes Kraus

Note that Marfa is a truly small town, and nearly everything is open only part of the week—and then, only sometimes half of the day. Roll with it (or plan ahead). Smallness also means that you can and should walk—everywhere.

There are some cool houses in Marfa. Some you’ll spot easily, some are hidden—in October, I nearly walked by this house we profiled without noticing—and some, of the kind featured in books like Marfa Modern, are made of adobe. Well, to get more state money out of those homes, adobe—one of the world’s cheapest building materials—is now getting taxed in Marfa. It’s not just the fancy homes, either: Longtime residents in humbler adobe abodes are having to cough up—sometimes paying three times as much in taxes. Here’s your required reading on the subject.

That’s enough about Marfa for now, though we love a design destination. What really makes my heart flipflop is the West Texas landscape—the grassy hills, the absolute flat, the incomprehensibly wide sky. And of course, hiking down in Big Bend National Park is an experience in spacetime. It’s one of the few places I’ve looked out on a vastness that feels prehistoric, like I might watch a distant dinosaur amble across the dry, grassy basin.

On my radar for the next time I’m out in West Texas: I’d like to stay in Fort Davis at the recently restored pueblo-style Indian Lodge (ugh, the name but wow, the view) and go back to the McDonald Observatory for a star party. I’d also like to spend more time in Big Bend—finally visit the ghost town of Terlingua and swim in the Rio Grande.

The road—Texas Highway 118—into Big Bend National Park on New Year’s Day 2018.
Mercedes Kraus

This week in tabs

  • I only scrolled quickly through T Magazine’s list of 25 rooms that influence the way we design. I was impressed with the inclusion of an ancient room and appreciated the overall discussion about what makes a room, but otherwise I was kind of bored. Am I a bad design geek for admitting that?
  • This succinct video on the myth of recycling has a maybe-obvious spoiler: Most of your recycling is not actually being recycled. The only thing they recommend you do? Stop pretending it is. (We actually have 101 things you can do to live sustainably. Because you’re not totally powerless, even if it is companies and governments that need to make the biggest changes.)
  • That video prompted me to finishing reading (yes, the tab was still open) Alissa Walker’s plea to public officials to stop funding billion-dollar airport expansions, considering the huge, and rising, toll of air travel on the planet. (Though as she would say, emissions from cars are still the worst.)
  • I watched Jenny Slate’s new Stage Fright special last weekend and was struck by the level of vulnerability it offered, not just in the knowing way she talks about her neuroses, but how she gently interacts with her family: Mixed into the live standup performance is a visit to Slate’s childhood home in Massachusetts—a charmingly traditional two-story, with Laura Ashley wallpaper lining Slate’s bedroom. It reminded me of the home tour Kim Kardashian gave Vogue and how, despite how awkward and contrived it felt, there was something genuine in the whole family hanging out on the bed. Home! The heart! It’s there!
  • This is probably more of a shameless plug, but I’ve been reading all of our decade look-backs and predictions this week, gathered under the punny title “On The 10s.”

An aside on side tables, and 2020

Vintage Kartell-ish side table—and the image—are from Etsy. (Not exactly, though; the ones I got don’t have detachable legs.)
The two-unit Componibili I passed up. Image via Hive Modern.

I just bought some Kartell-style yellow plastic side tables on Etsy for our bedroom, passing up the darling, if eensy, actual Kartell Componibili Storage Modules from Hive Modern when they were on sale for $100 (from $140) over Black Friday / Cyber Monday. Why? Honestly I generally winnow the shopping down to my faves and then let Ryan make the final call.

It’s my 2020 home resolution (well, the main one anyway) is to finally round out our bedroom, and the side tables were a big step. Next up is lamps. Ryan suggested the H. T. Huang-designed Toucan Lamps, which I also love. But they’re about $100 each on Etsy, which feels like more than I want to spend. I’m going to sit on it for a while and maybe even set an Ebay alert (where designed things tend to go for cheaper). I’ll keep y’all posted on what we pick.

In the mean time, what are your home resolutions for 2020? Send me an email—I’d sincerely like to know.

Sign up now to get Editor’s Notes directly in your inbox before everyone else. Every other week, you’ll hear from Curbed interim Editor-in-Chief Mercedes Kraus as she shares her latest observations, intel, advice, and shopping recommendations.