Before joining forces in 2010 and forming the Houston-based , Kelie Mayfield and Erick Ragni each had significant design careers of their own. The Texas natives met while working at and soon realized that they shared an affinity for art and enjoyed incorporating work by local artists into their interiors. In the years since, they’ve built a successful firm that has drawn the attention of luxury hotels, law firms and retail brands for its creativity and ability to showcase a space’s unique qualities through design. Here, studio principals Kelie Mayfield and Erick Ragni discuss the importance of being “visual storytellers,” the balance between work and fun, and what life is like on MaRS.
Docservis: MaRS is a fairly young firm. What do you think helps make it stand out from the competition?
Erick Ragni: We’ve noticed that there’s a service gap in firms that are more geared towards being multi driven. We specialize in giving principal attention to every client. We made a conscious decision to deliver that level of service to all of our clients.
Kelie Mayfield: We’re a design firm and we’re also a design culture. We want to create an office where everything we do and everything we think about is a product of what we’re about.
ID: Are most of your projects Houston based?
KM: With our combined [past] experience, we’ve worked in a lot of different countries worldwide. However, since its inception, MaRS has been predominately Houston based. We’re also working on projects in the greater Texas area and are reaching into projects in New York and San Diego. We both have international experience, but as we’re starting off, we don’t have the luxury of having [international] clients. But our goal is to become global.
ID: You’ve designed many office spaces, including ones for a medical center and a law firm. What is your approach like for corporate clients?
KM: We try to be what we call “visual storytellers” and create an image and brand for companies, since their brand market is so significant to them. It creates a culture within the company, and also represents to outsiders what their ideology is about. We try to have the space and the architecture and the design elements all tell a story and enforce the brand and the philosophy about what the company does in our design.
ID: Your studio also creates custom furnishings, including pieces inspired by Cadbury Crème Eggs and Marlboro cigarettes. What is it about everyday objects that inspire you?
ER: I think we’re interested in everyday objects because they’re something that seems rarefied or exclusive. On the one hand we like the mundane, but we also like to transition it into something that’s unique and specific.
KM: We always try to create a memorable object for a particular project, which will never be repeated. It’s a one-off art piece that we did specifically that helps to report that story we’re trying to tell.
ID: In the past you’ve said that art has always been an integral aspect of your work. Why is that?
KM: We’ve always been connected to the art community and it just seems like a natural thing to incorporate. We believe that we have a personal gift to create a space. We want one that can bring different artists together and that makes something more interesting and gives more depth to the project.
ER: [Many] people and things can bring an interesting view to design. We’re always looking for different methods of how people are researching and acting on a particular medium.
KM: Our joy is working on a site-specific installation piece with artists. From the very beginning of a project, we’re always thinking about how we can integrate art into the architecture.
ID: What would be your ideal client relationship?
KM: It’s case by case. Having very involved clients can be refreshing when we can educate them through the process and teach them about architecture, space, and art.
ER: It’s that kind of marriage where everyone has a unique perspective, but everyone also brings something to the conversation. I think that yields the absolute best product.
KM: We try as a firm to have a collaborative approach to all of our projects and be really engaged.
ID: What is the typical creative process like when you’ve first entered a space?
ER: Each space speaks differently. I think at this point in our careers, we’re guided by our experience when it comes to initially looking at a space. We try to be sensitive to the unique qualities of each individual space.
ID: Can you foresee any future trends for home and office interiors?
ER: In Houston we’re seeing an increase in density, which has led to more responsible urban living. There’s been more acceptance toward smaller, more responsible urban living spaces.
KM: One thing we’re also seeing is luxury living projects that combine commercial, hospitality, and residential space, and MaRS is perfectly suited for that type of work.
ID: What is one new project that you’re doing that you’re particularly excited about?
KM: We have a residential project that we’re doing for an art collector. On one extreme it’s very serene and quiet, but on the other hand we’re also doing a hotel project that we want to be very chic and rustic sophisticated.
ID: I have to ask, what’s the story behind the alien photo on your website?
KM: We hired a branding company that started around the same time that we did. They designed our website, and we told them we wanted to inject some humor into our culture. Some architecture firms take themselves way too seriously. Life is too short, so we wanted to put a smile on people’s face.
ER: We can be very professional, but we also try to have fun. We want [the design process] to be fun and enjoyable for everybody.