The high desert city of Marfa in West Texas is unique in several ways. Beginning with the weird, Marfa is famed as a vantage point for a mysterious apparition of bright, orb-like lights that appear in the remote desert at night, which some attribute to the exciting unknown, others to distant cars. The city hosts a festival in celebration of The Marfa Lights each year.
Illusory lights aside, Marfa is still anything but average. In 1971 minimalist artist Donald Judd moved from New York City to Marfa, inspired by the desert’s open space, and began installing large-scale art pieces there. Judd’s work and the concept of desert-as-canvas appealed to the era’s avant-garde, with Marfa soon attracting artists from across the globe. Today the town is home to galleries, art education centers, Judd’s 340-acre Chinanti Foundation, and a playground of mesmerizing structures built into the desert. Artist-in-residence programs and tourism fuel Marfa’s commerce year-round. In a remote border city, it makes for a strangely harmonious coupling—between the old Marfa, a ranch town with one stoplight, and the new Marfa, a world destination for culture.
Like many artists who came before, it was in this dreamy atmosphere that Bay Area musicians and designers Simone Rubi and Robert Gungor sought inspiration. After spending time in Marfa recording an album, the two packed up their belongings in California, trading in city life for the expansive space to create. Though happy as new Marfans, the former baristas quickly realized that something crucial was missing.
“Marfa’s such a small town,” says Robert. “There was no real third space.”
Seeing a need for specialty coffee, the duo called up Blue Bottle Coffee in Oakland and requested permission to serve their coffee in a café in Marfa. The roaster agreed, Simone and Robert flew back for training, and in June they launched Do Your Thing—Marfa’s one and only specialty café, a warm community space that immediately attracted the city’s creatives like under-caffeinated moths to a flame.
“When we first opened I had a lady come behind the bar, hug me, and say, ‘Thank you,’” says Robert.
“In a lot of cities its sort of dime a dozen these days with specialty coffee, but since it’s never been here, people are so enthusiastic and happy,” says Simone. “And it keeps us inspired to have that response.”
Drawing on the city’s mystique and the couple’s design sense, Do Your Thing is a little San Francisco and a little Wild West. Set up in The Lumberyard, a minimalist-industrial lumberyard-turned-community hub, sharing space with an art gallery, a modern loft apartment (rentable by the night), The Marfa Book Company, and metal-work sheds converted to artist spaces, the cozy shop is welcoming with warm lighting, a central fireplace constructed from an old propane tank, hearty organic porridge, slabs of thick sweet and savory Texas toast, and, of course, excellent coffee.
The space is small—about eighteen people can be seated comfortably at a time—and usually packed. Locals and visitors alike sip Blue Bottle espresso and pour-overs featuring Dallas’ Cultivar Coffee Roasters, munching organic breakfast and lunch crafted by Simone and a rotation of guest chefs from out of town. Behind the hardware store’s original glass case, fresh baked goods are set out each morning and quickly bought up.
The “modern,” half espresso, half steamed milk in a four-ounce Heath Ceramics cup, is an ode to the Bay Area roaster that encouraged the project, while the dolled-up toasts pay homage to San Francisco’s Trouble Coffee Company. On a given day, you might find a trio of ranchers in Stetsons sipping coffee, a musician from LA shooting espresso by the single-group La Spaziale S1 Vivaldi II, or Frances McDormand, dropping in after her book shopping next door.
“It’s such an art destination, you feel like you’re in a cultural center,” says Simone. With its organic evolution, its artistic tilt, and its repurposed space, Do Your Thing fits snugly into Marfa’s cultural identity. Photography from visiting artists grace the walls, usually vivid images of beaches and green scenery, a contrast to the barren landscape outside. Splashes of bright red, the shop’s signature color, liven up the rustic interior. Simone and Robert even started a barista-in-residence program, where artists can move to Marfa, live in their guestroom, work four shifts a week at the shop, and focus on creative pursuits.
If it sounds like this strange town leans towards the pretentious and ultra-hip, Simone and Robert stress that it’s an unassuming nature that makes Marfa so special. The isolated town of just over 2,000 people, three hours from the nearest city, has only one corporate entity: a Dairy Queen. Other businesses stand quietly, with little signage. On the outside, galleries bleed into the landscape’s grays and tans, and only inside begin to stir the senses. The same minimalist charm that attracted Judd to Marfa in the seventies, and filmmakers for projects like No County for Old Men and There Will Be Blood, today keeps Marfa a cultural oddity. It’s a small, simple town where you can do your thing (Simone and Robert call this “the modern day carpe diem”), brush shoulders with the art world’s elite, and still live life quietly and humbly. And now, with citified coffee.
—Regan Crisp is Fresh Cup’s associate editor. Photos by Simone Rubi and Cory Van Dyke.