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Tour The Modern Architecture Of Marfa, West Texas’s Artist Oasis

Donald Judd may have brought modern art to Marfa, but modernist architecture has longer roots there.

If Austin is a “cool liberal oasis” nestled in the arid Texas landscape–as it was once described to me–then Marfa, Texas, is its artier asylum to the west. The town, population 1,900, was solidified as an artist hub by the minimalist artist Donald Judd, who lived there during the ’70s and ’80s and whose Chinati Foundation still operates a museum of contemporary art. The writer, poet, and feminist icon Eileen Myles has a house in Marfa, and Beyoncé has made a highly publicized drop-in. A slew of hip restaurants, food trucks, and art installations—including the eminently photogenic Prada store facade—have turned the tiny ranching town into a mecca for vacationing Brooklynites. As a friend put it in a postcard on my fridge, Marfa “has so many hip sites, yet no cell-phone service. How weird.”

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Unsurprisingly, the houses in Marfa, Texas, are also a lot more stunning and carefully curated than is typical in remote West Texas desert enclaves. As depicted in Marfa Modern: Artistic Interiors of the West Texas High Desert, a new photo book from the Monacelli Press, Marfa is home to almost as much modern architecture as modern art, and many of the houses scouted for the book even pre-dated Judd’s arrival in 1971. As Helen Thompson, the book’s author, writes in the preface, “The desert outpost town featured humble structures of necessarily straightforward architecture, which ironically made them good candidates for conversions that reflect a present-day version of modernism. Restricted palettes of materials, edited details, plainspoken geometries, meticulously considered proportions, and a deliberate deference to the way light and shadow figure into the interiors fit perfectly with the often-harsh environment.” Most Marfa houses, she writes, fall into three general categories:

The first is vernacular modern, meaning old, probably adobe, and possibly historically significant structures that included elements of modernism out of necessity before the architectural movement existed. Next is handmade modern, or structures that are more ad hoc but express the simple volumes now identified with modernism. The last is recent modern, which refers to architect- or designer-conceived buildings.

Most of the gorgeous houses there, new and old, are made with local materials, and with the assistance of local artisans. Many are occupied by artisans themselves, or by displaced artists who have moved there in recent years; the first three houses profiled in the book, for instance, are owned by a textile designer and fashion designer, a chef, and a conceptual artist, respectively. Bright, glossy photographs of sprawling living spaces meticulously arranged make it easy to imagine why people would uproot themselves from densely packed cities to the Texan desert.

Designer Barbara Hill used birch plywood on both the ceiling and the floor of this former dance hall, for visual continuity. She favors strong design statements, so she extended the entire kitchen across one wall, overleaf, and emphasized the gesture with an extra-wide industrial sink. The Poetry chairs at right are custom-made by Hill, with pithy excerpts from romance novels inscribed on the upholstery.

Many of the houses have been converted from previous spaces—an event venue, a dance hall—and still make use of the concrete floors and birch plywood ceilings that remain from an earlier Marfa. The New York-based artist Michael Phelan lives in a converted gas station, with its painted-over cinder-block wall now serving as a display for his art and the pieces of fellow artists and friends. While some of these houses were converted from industrial spaces downtown, others are set against the desert landscape, craggy mountains in the backgrounds, broad cacti populating the front yards.

Much like the town itself, these houses are a mix of modern decor and heirloom pieces, new additions and old Texas architecture. Check them out in the slide show above, or buy the book here.

About the author

Meg Miller is an associate editor at Co.Design covering art, technology, and design.

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