This West Texas Art Town Is Giving Austin a Run for Its Money

Douglas Friedman

With chefs, shop owners, and makers of all kinds putting down roots, Marfa is riding its next creative wave.

It's nearing noon on a bright Wednesday morning, and Virginia Lebermann is perched on the ledge of the adobe fireplace in her home library, puffing on an American Spirit cigarette. The Marfa visionary is herself a vision, with her Austen-heroine posture and custom-made cowboy boots patterned with peacock feathers. It’s been an incredibly busy few days for Lebermann and her husband, the chef Rocky Barnette, and she’s still catching her breath. “We always joke and say we go to New York to get rest,” she says. 


One of 15 untitled works in concrete by Donald Judd on the grounds of the Chinati Foundation.  Douglas Friedman

She’s joking but not joking. As if she weren’t busy enough running the hit restaurant Capri, the restored 1950s motel Thunderbird (rooms from $149), and the world-renowned arts foundation Ballroom Marfa––whose desert installation Prada Marfa became an Instagram pilgrimage site when Beyoncé posted a selfie in front of it––Lebermann is Marfa’s de facto host. The week prior, in addition to entertaining Louis and Marjorie Susman, the former U.S. ambassador to the U.K. and his wife, she played guide to Instagram creative director Charles Porch. 

Lebermann is emblematic of a group of creatives who in the past few years have put down more permanent roots here. What once felt like a one-horse town––a place that drew minimalist artist Donald Judd from New York in 1977, who built a mini-city to display his work, and then a resilient group of firstwave settlers who recall a dusty place with little other than a Dairy Queen––has evolved into a stylish destination. In recent years, there has been an influx of ambitious restaurants; smart shops like Freda and Mano Mercantile, run by two Rhode Island School of Design grads; and stylish hotels, such as the 55-room Saint George (rooms from $230; marfasaintgeorge.com), which, naturally, displays works by blue-chip artists like Christopher Wool and Mark Flood. 

Lebermann’s passion for the absurdly photogenic West Texas town, which sits three hours southeast of El Paso, is why Phaidon tapped her to write a book about it. Out next spring, it’s being shot by fashion and design photographer Douglas Friedman, who built a breathtaking modernist house on the outskirts of town after visiting five years ago and feeling what he calls a “primal need” to own a plot of land here. 


Left: The restaurant’s chef, Rocky Barnette. Right: The crudité plate at Capri. Douglas Friedman

“People don’t come here to drop in and shut off,” says Simone Rubi, a former Los Angeles resident who moved here five years ago. “They come to do and make.” In addition to co-owning Do Your Thing (do yourthing.us), a cult coffee shop in a tin shack known for its sourdough toasts and Memphis Group–inspired decor, Rubi and her fiancé, Rob Gungor, might be the most multihyphenate couple in town. She is a candlemaker-caterer-DJ-musician–graphic designer, while he is a perfumer-barista-musician-screenwriter (their perfumes and candles are for sale at the café).

That sense of boundary blurring extends to Marfa’s establishments. Big Bend Coffee Roasters is also an art gallery with largescale abstract paintings on its walls; the Well is a topflight yoga studio that also carries a serious and exclusive selection of Rhône Valley wines; and the sun-filled gallery Wrong Marfa, located in a tiny former church, also functions as a souvenir shop and events space. “Marfa is the opposite of a retirement community,” says Wrong’s owner, Buck Johnston, who moved here from California with her artist husband, Campbell “Camp” Bosworth. “We have so many young people coming and going,” adds Bosworth, whose hand-carved wooden Dairy Queen cones are on display throughout the stark space. 


A lounge at Thunderbird . Douglas Friedman

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It’s been more than two decades since Judd passed away, yet his streamlined aesthetic is reflected at every turn. Nothing in Marfa is messy or less than beautiful––not even the local Laundromat, which could easily pass for an art installation, with its moody lighting and stark rows of whirring chrome machines. The Get Go Grocery, a gourmet shop that carries local products, has a throwback feel that would make any design nut smile. Across the street is Marfa Brand Soap, a farmhouse-like space where artisanal bars are on display alongside lucky horseshoes. The next block over you’ll find the custom-leather shop Cobra Rock and its updated take on Western-style boots, and farther north, Communitie, a store founded by sustainable-fashion designer John Patrick Fleming. He had been living in Todos Santos, Mexico, when he started hearing about this magical little town in West Texas. “I went online and bought an adobe house sight unseen,” says Fleming. His breezy pieces stand amid woodblock-printed textiles and clothing by cult labels like Japanese brand Visvim. 

It’s the natural wonders, though, that drew Lebermann, who grew up on a ranch near Austin, to settle where members of her family have been ranching since the 1950s. “What people often forget is that we are on the border of Mexico,” she says. “It’s beautiful and also intense.” She has become no less a multihyphenate artist than her fellow Marfans. Ballroom Marfa, the nonprofit foundation she co-founded with Fairfax Down, hosts exhibitions of commissioned works from hot-ticket artists. It recently put on a show featuring New York–based Jibade-Khalil Huffman, who made a massive sculpture that pays tribute to Grace Jones for the space’s outdoor gallery. “I am not an absolute disciple of minimalism; I welcome other schools of thought,” Lebermann says––a provocative statement in a town where people speak of Judd in a tone of utmost reverence. 


Left: The shop Mano Mercantile. Right: Locally made soaps, blankets, and rugs at Marfa Brand Soap. Douglas Friedman

After opening Ballroom, she revived the Thunderbird, whose 24 rooms feature low-slung furniture and turntables with record libraries (Coltrane, Cash). Then, a few years ago, she and Barnette opened Capri. The contemporary art–filled restaurant (with works by Matthew Day Jackson and Dana Schutz) is where Barnette, who trained for a decade at the beloved Inn at Little Washington in Virginia, serves his wildly innovative dishes inspired by the region’s pre-Columbian cuisine. It’s also where visiting art-world bigwigs hold their big dinners, and this being Marfa, it regularly hosts artists’ residencies. Most of the time, though, it’s home to locals who come for cocktails and food that is astonishingly good for a town this small. 

Related: A Sumptuous Spring Drive Through the Heart of Texas

Darkness has fallen when a dozen friends gather here on a Thursday night. Laura Copelin, the executive director of Ballroom Marfa, is pitching to turn the town’s public garden into an orchard for easier access to top-rate produce. Meanwhile, Joey Benton, a Brooklyn native who moved here two decades ago and runs the design studio SillaSilla, is talking about opening a liquor store that would be a sophisticated alternative to the drive-through. Most of the faces in the crowd are familiar, some from dinner the previous night at Stellina, a Mediterranean restaurant with a big horseshoe bar, and some from a reading that Benton’s father, the novelist William Benton, gave at the Crowley Theater––a space that recalls an Edward Hopper painting––earlier in the week. 


A piece created by weavers in central Mexico hangs at the restaurant Capri, in Marfa, Texas.  Douglas Friedman

The meal starts with Barnette’s signature “rockamole” and house-made plantain chips and moves on to an even more divine appetizer: Fritos and black caviar, served with vodka in shot glasses fashioned out of ice. Then comes the main dish, a succulent Texan steak served alongside a bowl of spice rub that features toasted Oaxacan grasshoppers. 

“This is so, so delicious,” says Rainer Judd, Donald’s daughter and the copresident of the Judd Foundation, as she savors a bite of smoked-pineapple sorbet. With her blond hair and rangy limbs, she resembles Uma Thurman more than a little bit. After decades based in New York, Judd has recently returned to Marfa and bought the adobe home where she and her family originally lived before moving to “The Block,” the collection of buildings where her father displayed his first works. She is currently restoring the house to its former self. “Marfa is the place you go when you’re ready to not move around so much,” says Judd. “As far as I’m concerned, it’s the center of the earth.”