Life on Mars
Innovative projects land Texas design firm on prestigious top 100 list
In just three short years, Houston design firm MaRS is already making waves beyond Texas — going so far as to overtake global players like Gensler and Marimekko on Interior Design magazine's recent top 100 list of international projects.
For those who find contemporary design too cold or too sleek or too conservative, MaRS offers a fresh outlook that fuses a sort of Koolhaas cool with a willingness to laugh — a quality that's set design purists on edge since Robert Venturi mounted a gold TV antenna atop a Philadelphia retirement building in the early '60s.
"We often try to add a bit of humor to our work, which helps smooth out the more rigid edges of modernism," says interior architect Kellie Mayfield, who launched MaRS with architect Erick Ragni in 2010 after the two met working for the celebrated Lauren Rotett Studios in Los Angeles and Houston.
"We often try to add a bit of humor to our work, which helps smooth out the more rigid edges of modernism," says designer Kellie Mayfield.
Mayfield and Ragni lured thousands of art collectors to a playful lounge at the 2012 Texas Contemporary Art Fair. With shipping pallets, red umbrellas and seats made from exercise balls, the clever bar area not only won them attention from the design community, but also helped the team score a contract to work with the fair in October 2013 when it returns to the George R. Brown.
"Art has always been an integral aspect of our work," Ragni tells CultureMap from the firm's quirky hip headquarters in a midcentury office complex off West Alabama and Buffalo Speedway. "It creates a tangible sense of place, especially when you work with local talent."
The designers work regularly with Houston artists like Paul Fleming and Gonzo 247, the latter of whom was given free reign to cover one of MaRS' office walls with a massive mural.
Design as storytelling
When Mayfield and Ragni describe the world of MaRS, it's clear their vision stretches far beyond the traditional boundaries of architecture and interior design. With experience designing everything from furniture and upholstery to large-scale building efforts, the duo forges a multilayered environment capable of "telling a story," as they like to say.
"We want to express the unique personality found in each of our clients and each of our projects," Mayfield says. "As such, we tend to draw our inspiration from a wide range of material."
For Shipley Snell Montgomery — a young downtown law practice with a relatively modest budget — MaRS repurposed stacks of outmoded legal books found in the office to create a trademark reception desk. At energy exploration firm GEC Houston, the designers built furniture inspired by rolls of vintage geological maps sitting in a company storage area.
As for what's on the MaRS horizon, North Texas will soon experience the studio's room redesigns at the W Dallas Victory sometime in early 2014. For a taste of what to expect, check out the early carpet patterns.