Journey by Design: Marfa, Texas

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By Kate Reggev
Big names and installations in art and design make this small town in Texas a significant destination.

At the far end of West Texas in Presidio County lies Marfa, a small desert city that has become a must-see attraction for the art world. Originally founded in the 1880s as a water stop, the town grew during World War II because of its airfield, but was really put on the map after the 1970s, when renowned artist Donald Judd began buying buildings to function as a permanent home for himself and his art. Judd’s early purchases included former artillery sheds, airplane hangars, and barracks, which he filled with large-scale installations and pieces. 

In contrast to these industrial spaces, oversized installations, and minimalist artwork is the town’s historic center, which features neoclassical buildings with a Texan twist like the Hotel Paisano and the Presidio County Courthouse. Since the 1970s, other artists have made Marfa their home, making it a burgeoning artists' community for those looking for a simpler life. Here, we explore this town’s range of art installations and galleries, artisanal shops, historic and modern hotels, and even a bit of nature—the Marfa lights.  

What to See and Do 

Judd Foundation

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The Judd Foundation's Marfa location offers tours of minimalist artist Donald Judd's residence and studio, where some of his first large-scale architectural projects are located. Also available are guided visits of Judd's downtown spaces, which include the Architecture Studio, Art Studio, and the Cobb House and Whyte Building, which contain furniture and early paintings.

The Judd Foundation's Marfa location offers tours of minimalist artist Donald Judd's residence and studio, where some of his first large-scale architectural projects are located. Also available are guided visits of Judd's downtown spaces, which include the Architecture Studio, Art Studio, and the Cobb House and Whyte Building, which contain furniture and early paintings.

With noted minimalist artist Donald Judd largely credited for Marfa’s emergence as an artist’s mecca, his fingerprints remain on several of the town’s most significant institutions, including the eponymous Judd Foundation. 

The Judd Foundation offers two different guided visits in downtown Marfa: La Mansana de Chinati/The Block (Judd’s residence and main art studios until 1979, including his personal library and permanent installations), and The Studios (Judd’s downtown studio space). Together, these two tours really allow visitors to have a first-hand experience of his concept of permanent installation in the Chihuahuan Desert. 

The Chinati Foundation

The Chinati Foundation, an independent, nonprofit museum that opened in 1986, was originally centered on Judd's own artwork as well as that by Dan Flavin and John Chamberlain.

The Chinati Foundation, an independent, nonprofit museum that opened in 1986, was originally centered on Judd's own artwork as well as that by Dan Flavin and John Chamberlain.

Judd was also involved with The Chinati Foundation; although he initially received financial support from the New York–based Dia Art Foundation, he turned The Chinati Foundation into a separate, independent institution. Today, it is a contemporary art museum that continues to preserve and present to the public its collection of permanent large-scale installations by a select group of artists. 

Prada Marfa 

After being recovered from its fair share of vandalism, Prada Marfa has become a permanent part of the Texas landscape. Though the structure lacks a real door, the two large windows are filled with actual shoes and bags by Prada.

After being recovered from its fair share of vandalism, Prada Marfa has become a permanent part of the Texas landscape. Though the structure lacks a real door, the two large windows are filled with actual shoes and bags by Prada.

Located about 30 minutes outside Marfa, the iconic Prada Marfa is a permanent installation by artists Elmgreen and Dragset. Created to look like a Prada store—it was constructed out of adobe bricks, plaster, paint, glass, aluminum framing, and carpeting, complete with Prada wares in its two windows—the sculpture is intended to never be repaired, so it slowly decays into the natural landscape. Sitting all alone in the desert, the piece is particularly wonderful at dawn or dusk.

Marfa Book Company

Located in the ground floor of the Hotel Saint George is the Marfa Book Company, which has been around for nearly 20, and offers a range of programming beyond the traditional book store. From book readings to musical performances to agave festivals, Marfa Book Company is a unique stop.

Located in the ground floor of the Hotel Saint George is the Marfa Book Company, which has been around for nearly 20, and offers a range of programming beyond the traditional book store. From book readings to musical performances to agave festivals, Marfa Book Company is a unique stop.

If you’ve had your fill of artwork, make a stop at Marfa Book Company, a bookstore, publisher, and film, music, and performance space. In business for nearly 20 years, their programming ranges from book readings to Agave Festival Marfa, an annual celebration of agave and its influence on culture through food, film, music, and scientific programs.

Marfa Lights

The Marfa lights—glowing orbs that enigmatically dance, blink, or remain in place in the desert sky—are sometimes called ghost lights and have been intriguing people for decades.

The Marfa lights—glowing orbs that enigmatically dance, blink, or remain in place in the desert sky—are sometimes called ghost lights and have been intriguing people for decades.

What’s a trip to the desert without some paranormal sightings? Even before Marfa broke out onto the contemporary art scene, the area was known for the eerie orbs of lights that can be observed after dark near U.S. Route 67. The balls of light are known to remain stationary in the desert sky, pulse on and off, or dance in the sky, splitting and merging as if controlled by a mysterious being. While some ascribe the lights to ghosts, UFOs, or other phenomena, scientific research suggests that most of the lights are atmospheric reflections of automobile headlights and campfires—but that’s for you to decide. 

What to Eat and Drink

Food Shark Food Truck

Food Shark, a local mobile eatery, does not disappoint. Starting at noon, there are already a hungry throng queued up and lounging on Donald Judd–designed furnishings.

Food Shark, a local mobile eatery, does not disappoint. Starting at noon, there are already a hungry throng queued up and lounging on Donald Judd–designed furnishings.

Just about everything in Marfa is curated, down to its food trucks and restaurants. Food Shark is one of the most popular eateries, and serves what they call "Mediterranean-by-way-of-West-Texas food." Expect lines starting even before they open at noon for lunch (Food Shark has been around since the mid-2000s, so everyone knows all about it), and the thrilling opportunity to lounge on Judd-designed furniture.  

Capri

The modern, Mexican-inspired interiors of Capri reflect its menu, with traditional rugs and warm wooden chairs contrasting with carefully selected modern artwork and a sleek bar. 

The modern, Mexican-inspired interiors of Capri reflect its menu, with traditional rugs and warm wooden chairs contrasting with carefully selected modern artwork and a sleek bar. 

With an interior designed by Hollywood set designer Sean Daly and a menu by Rocky Barnette, Capri is impossible to miss in Marfa. The menu leans Mesoamerican, seen in everything from the drink choices to the ancient cooking techniques of the Chihuahuan desert to the salads, tortillas, and meats. The restaurant, with its high-desert decor and vibe, is located in an old military hangar, and is part of the Thunderbird Hotel.

Stellina 

The central bar wraps around the dining space at Stellina in Marfa. The restaurant's interior design hearkens back to the minimalist designs of the artists that transformed Marfa into the renowned town it is today.

The central bar wraps around the dining space at Stellina in Marfa. The restaurant's interior design hearkens back to the minimalist designs of the artists that transformed Marfa into the renowned town it is today.

From the cofounder of Food Shark, Krista Steinhauer, is the two-year-old Stellina, a small-plates Mediterranean restaurant on Highland Street in Marfa. The menu changes regularly, but sticks to a mix of Mediterranean and Mexican food, with a wine list to match. The space boasts high ceilings with sculptural pendant fixtures, and a long central bar that wraps around the dining area. 

Do Your Thing 

Located in a former lumberyard and tool shop, Do Your Thing is the perfect place to grab some coffee and explore the four artist studios that the eatery shares space with.

Located in a former lumberyard and tool shop, Do Your Thing is the perfect place to grab some coffee and explore the four artist studios that the eatery shares space with.

For a quick bite and some coffee, look no further than Do Your Thing, a cafe that serves up coffee and quick bites. Located in a former lumberyard and tool shop, the shop shares space with four artists studios, and its founders, Simone Rubi and Robert Gungor, host a range of events, from private dining to art events. 

Where to Stay

El Cosmico

The Vagabond Trailer at El Cosmico features a pink exterior and restored, marine-varnished birch interiors.

The Vagabond Trailer at El Cosmico features a pink exterior and restored, marine-varnished birch interiors.

Opened in 2009, El Cosmico is a unique type of lodging where guests can stay in a range of housing types, including teepees, tents, yurts, trailers, or an apartment above an art gallery in downtown Marfa. The lodgings are owned by Liz Lambert, a hotelier who owns several other properties in Texas, but El Cosmico is particularly unusual: it covers 18 acres and offers herbal workshops, hosts an annual festival, and has a retail entity geared towards camping tools and wellness.

Conveniently located within walking distance of downtown Marfa, Corte del Norte offers a compound with two small residences separated by a shared courtyard. 

Conveniently located within walking distance of downtown Marfa, Corte del Norte offers a compound with two small residences separated by a shared courtyard. 

If you’re looking for something in between a traditional hotel and camping under the desert stars, Corte del Norte is a compound of two adobe homes with a shared courtyard in between. The two-bedroom Love House sleeps five, while Rock City House offers space to sleep four with one bedroom, one bath, a living room, kitchen, and a shared dining shed and stock tank. Both homes were designed by Jamey and Constance Garza of Garza Marfa, and the compound's walking distance to Marfa’s shops, galleries, and restaurants make this the perfect home away from home. 

Hotel Saint George

Hotel Saint George is Marfa's newest hotel, and mixes a nod to the town's military and industrial history with high-end finishes and products in both public and private spaces. 

Hotel Saint George is Marfa's newest hotel, and mixes a nod to the town's military and industrial history with high-end finishes and products in both public and private spaces. 

Hotel Saint George opened in 2016 as the town’s first high-end hotel, complete with an art gallery and the multi-faceted Marfa Book Company. The building was designed by Houston–based Carlos Jimenez Studio and outfitted by Alice Cottrell, and its interiors lie somewhere in between high-end luxury and industrial chic with polished concrete floors, distressed leather couches, sheepskin rugs, and mahogany and steel accents.