Portfolio: MaRS Attacks

The distinction between “architecture” and “interiors” is often a fuzzy one. Though architects and interior designers both produce space as a com- modity, they regularly disagree on what qualities make it appealing. Specializations are useful to clarify areas of expertise, but they can interfere with creating a fully considered interior. One workable solution to this problem is a design office that can nimbly shift scales and scopes to best address the project at hand. This is precisely the way Kelie Mayfield and Erick Ragni, AIA, work together as MaRS (Mayfield and Ragni Studio).

Based in Houston, MaRS has designed everything from one-off furniture pieces to multifamily housing, but the firm focuses on the commercial interiors, residential, and hospitality sectors. The duo met at DMJM Rottet and moved to Rottet Studio, where Mayfield became a principal. Ragni left to lead his own architectural practice, Strasser Ragni, but the pair reunited in 2010. Both are trained as architects — Mayfield at the University of Houston and Ragni at the Southern California Institute of Architecture — which has led to a practice that, as Ragni characterizes it, is “an architecture office that produces interiors.” As a result of this combination, their work is perhaps more restrained than that favored by many interior designers, while more adventurous than the tastes of most architects.

Mayfield and Ragni first combined efforts a dozen years ago on interiors for Vanco Energy Company, while both designers were with DMJM Rottet. Around the time of the project, Vanco, a deep-sea oil and natural gas exploration outfit that maintained holdings off the coast of West Africa, held rights to more acres in the region than Shell, ExxonMobil, and BP, combined. The team was instantly inspired by Vanco’s geologic researchers’ brightly-colored visualizations and topographic charts. They responded with plans that reflected the shifting strata of plate tectonics, frosted glass panels that created an undersea sensation, black terrazzo that brought to mind the company’s oil-drop logo, and generous use of Afromosia (African teak) and carefully-placed West African art pieces. For MaRS, choice and placement of art is critical to a design, never merely “decorative.” The fractured ceiling plane was hard to communicate through drawings, and was instead built directly from a glass-bottom scale model. The project’s success convinced CEO Gene Van Dyke of the importance of architectural design that subtly brands the company.

Energy speculation companies never last long, and in 2012 MaRS was designing offices for PanAtlantic Exploration, a company with holdings in South America and West Africa that formed when Vanco dissolved. (MaRS also completed work for Van Dyke Energy, the other company that resulted.) The project’s time line was short; only 12 weeks were allotted to design and build the office fit-out. MaRS acted quickly with a set of reliable design moves: The front desk resembles a geode; custom carpets borrow imagery from subaquatic surveys; ceiling light is bounced through a set of shallow, wavy fins; and feature wood tables are gnarled, referencing the driftwood that arrives on distant shores. Mayfield remembers the project leaping “straight from schematic design to con- struction drawings,” and the team found themselves ordering materials as they were selecting them, hunting for short lead times and tightening drawing deadlines to allow for slower production schedules. Design development, it seems, is a thing of the past, but this interior still shines.

Most recent is MaRS’s conceptual design for the offices of OGX Resources, a Midland-based oil and gas exploration company founded in 2004. The outfit drills in the Delaware Basin that straddles New Mexico and Texas, and MaRS appropriately folds a healthy dose of the Llano Estacado into their contemporary sensibilities. Renderings showcase dark woods, a tumbleweed-inspired chandelier, stairs hewn from oil derricks, and a break room island made of red gravel, a recognizable byproduct of fracking. The rich images for OGX were produced to establish a vision for the project, and MaRS hopes it will be realized.

Clients featured here are petrochemical companies, and the designs don’t shy away from the realities of the business; rather, they celebrate the industry’s materiality: the geologic processes and time scales involved in petroleum creation; the deep blackness of crude itself; the physical and visual artifacts of production; and the artistic output of local cultures.

An important partner for MaRS is 2050 Architecture + Planning, a firm based in Vietnam and led by Tuan Nguyen, AIA. The arrangement is not blind outsourcing; Nguyen was educated at Texas A&M University and worked with Ragni and Mayfield at DMJM. He left to create his own practice and has worked with MaRS since its inception. Nguyen’s office provides production firepower and rendering services, allowing MaRS to remain small while still marshalling larger office capabilities. 

The two companies operate in tandem, and literally around the clock. Nguyen’s team starts from reference images, plans, and sketches amassed by MaRS to generate wire-frame 3-D models. Hand drawing remains their most valuable design tool; the “immediacy of thought-to-paper” is irreplaceable, says Ragni. From there, material samples, art pieces, and selected furniture are virtually placed. The views are then red-lined with overlaid notes and sketches hone the design into a final, polished image. The resulting renderings are the essential tools used to communicate the design to the client, and MaRS produces them quickly, in some situations even before a meeting, to showcase initial ideas or win over potential clients. Compressed schedules and expected photorealistic renderings are part of the new climate of architectural production, and MaRS excels in this environment.

In conversation, Mayfield and Ragni’s dialogue illustrates how collaborative and detail- oriented their partnership is. They speak cogently about how their small size allows flexibility between types of work — they thrive on the new challenges posed by each arriving client — and how squishy terms like brand identity, collaboration, and storytelling are redefining what successful projects entail. While unconcerned with style, they do value fun: Designs for the W Dallas and the Texas Contemporary Art Fair go wild with finishes; their website features a hidden link to a montage of “Soul Train” clips; and if you linger on their “culture” page, you’ll see the two turn alien green, complete with glowing antennae. If these Martians were sent to show us the future of the profession, then we are in good hands.

Jack Murphy, Assoc. AIA practices architecture at Baldridge Architects in Austin.

Originally published in the November/December 2014 issue of the Texas Architect