On the long road to Marfa, things start to slow down—just as the distance between stops along Highway 90 stretches to 30 minutes of nothing but desert. By the time visitors roll into the West Texas town, their perspective has shifted.
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"Well, it takes about twenty-four hours, and then you’re like...ahh," noted designer Barbara Hill says as she sits at the dining room table of her recently renovated casita. "You truly slow down—that’s the real treat."
Hill, a Texan to the core, is based a nine-hour drive away, in Houston, and first came to Marfa in the early 1980s. Over the decades, she’s extended her design practice here, working with contractor Billy Marginot and local fabricators to transform former beauty parlors and dance halls into stylish second homes for clients including herself. "Either you get it or you don’t," she says of the town’s charm. "If you do, you fall madly in love." Now she spends a total of about four months a year in Marfa, visiting for a week or two at a time.
Her current project is located just next door to her previous home base, the dance hall that she renovated into a sophisticated space centered on her collection of early minimalist art [Dwell, February 2011]. In early 2016, she purchased the adjacent property to protect her view, but as the renovation got underway, she kept feeling drawn toward the 19th-century casita.
"I wanted to clean it up and rent it out to some young person," Hill says of her original plan. "But when I got in there and saw the possibilities, as usual, the train took off, and it was all downhill from there."
She started—as she has so many times—by gutting the space. "All of it was gross, trust me," she recalls. The place was dark and dirty, the walls were cracked and worn, and the low ceiling appeared as though it had been homemade by the previous owners. Digging in revealed 100-year-old newspapers embedded in the flooring and the original bead-board ceiling hidden three feet above the existing one, raising it to 11 feet. Such moments of discovery are most exciting to Hill. "There’s hope for everything if someone’s willing to do it," Hill says of her approach.
At just under 1,200 square feet, the casita is smaller than her previous house, which she decided to sell (fully furnished, as she usually does), once it became clear over the course of the renovation that the casita would be her new Marfa home. In it she opted for some of the same industrial finishes she employed next door, like the sheets of Galvalume aluminum-zinc alloy roofing material she specifically requested uncrimped from the fabricator for the porch ceiling. Concrete floors provide a low-maintenance backdrop for her collections ("Furniture looks good on it," she says), while steel cabinets in the kitchen and bathroom by longtime collaborator George Sacaris add an industrial edge to the sleek space. This pared-down palette helps the house feel more open than its modest footprint would suggest. "If you limit the amount of materials, even though you’re using them in different ways, it makes the space feel bigger," Hill says. "There’s less clutter."
Other solutions, such as the front door sourced from Home Depot and embellished with a stick-on film for privacy, show what humble materials can do with a designer’s DIY eye. Even the giant Elvis Presley art work that is the focal point of the dining area bears her fingerprint: She had the piece rimmed in tubes of pink neon light. "Every house has a different vibe to me, and there’s something about the size of this," Hill says, that "makes it a little funkier, a little younger." A Pee-wee Herman print in the living room, which Hill hand-tinted, provided the starting point for the color palette: a mix of acid yellow, neon pink, and graphic black and white. Her collection of framed LPs—Butthole Surfers, Bad Company—and concert posters add to the exuberant Pop energy.
As a local—visitors are likely to spot Hill’s flaming red hair at favorite spots like Wrong Marfa, the design gallery and store owned by her friends Camp Bosworth and Buck Johnston—Hill knows it isn’t always easy to get things done here. It’s still the type of place where shops open only when owners feel like it. Or, occasionally, when Barbara Hill calls them up and asks.
That’s precisely what she does when she decides she might just be one refurbished Eames chair away from finishing the casita. She calls Cast + Crew, a nearby shop specializing in "desert modernism," and asks them to open so she can try out the piece next to the vintage Knoll Bertoia chairs surrounding her dining table. But once she gets the Eames chair out of the truck and inside, it’s clear that her vision for this particular home was already complete. The seat will not stay.
"I like to change everybody’s house," Hill says. "But once I get one for myself pretty right, I never want to change it."