Journey by Design: Marfa, Texas
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
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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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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 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.