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Helen Thompson and Casey Dunn Capture the Pioneering Spirit of Texas Architects in Their Latest Book

Pioneering Spirit

Pioneering Spirit

In their newest book, “Texas Made/Texas Modern: The House and the Land,” author Helen Thompson and photographer Casey Dunn capture the pioneering spirit of architects who combine 20th-century principles with the rugged practicality of sprawling ranch design. The book is the follow-up to “Marfa Modern,” where the duo went out to West Texas to discover the minimalist structures dotting that beautiful expanse of nothing.

After that book became a fixture on good-looking coffee tables everywhere, the pair, who are old family friends from Austin, were eager to collaborate again. On a recent evening, we sat in Dunn’s newly built home in East Austin to discuss the evolution of “Texas modern” style and their quest to find the perfect corner of the world.

Dorothy Guerrero: So how did you two start working together in the first place?

texas made/texas modern austin helen thompson casey dunn marfa modern atx pioneering spirit
Architects Ryan and Stephanie Lemmo situated this steel structure on a Hill Country precipice allowing owners, David and Kathy Clem, striking views.

Helen Thompson: I’d been working for a lot of magazines. And then suddenly it was Casey Dunn photographing it all. I had another book I had proposed, and I wanted Casey to shoot it, but I realized it involved too much traveling around. So we were sitting there and we said, “Well, where would we like to go? What would we really like to do?” And that’s when we decided — let’s do Marfa.

Casey Dunn: In the beginning we didn’t know if there was enough out there, but the further it went along, it was like, there’s too much out here.

DG: How did this second book come about? When did you realize Texas modern would be the next subject to tackle?

HT: “Marfa Modern” actually was a much narrower narrative of modernism, modernism that fits into a place. So we realized that there was a larger story to be told about modernism that’s specific to Texas. We were looking at pictures Casey had taken and realized there was something bigger we could talk about.

DG: In the acknowledgments you talk about “Texan-ness” as a concept. What does that mean to you?

texas made/texas modern austin helen thompson casey dunn marfa modern atx pioneering spirit
Thompson and Dunn pictured in the kitchen of Dunn’s East Austin home.

HT: Well, modernism has been around for a hundred years. It made its way to Texas somewhat later, maybe in the ’20s and ’30s. And there were some Texas architects who felt that what we built here should be more specific, not that universal glass-box look that you see that is typically modern. Their views coincided with a renaissance of awareness about the state, and there was an artistic movement. The Dallas Nine were doing modern artwork, and something was also happening with architecture. They felt that we should be using our resources here, we should be doing modernism that fit with the climate. So what evolved can really be traced from O’Neil Ford in the early ’30s to the architects who are now emerging from Lake Flato. Not everybody is in the book, but it’s all directly from that one lineage.

DG: Is there a common trait among the people who live in these homes?

HT: They all like living gently on the land. This is all about sustainable architecture. It’s all about catching the breezes and not using materials that don’t really belong here or building houses that don’t really fit in the setting.

CD: I’m always surprised by the range of people who own modern houses, and it’s the same in this book. Everyone was very — it wasn’t a similar type of person, but they all seemed to be inspired by Texas.

HT: They like being outside.

CD: And the landscape of Texas.

DG: Did you all have a hard time narrowing the houses down? How did the selection process go?

CD: I think we went through a couple rounds of revision in the beginning. It started with looking through stuff that I’d shot, and then Helen kind of came back with an idea that was like, This is the beginning of something. And then from that point we started to search out other homes.

We realized that there was a larger story to be told about modernism that’s specific to Texas.

HT: Which wasn’t hard to do. Casey sent me a lot of what he’d shot. We were originally going to do something about ranch houses. And then I started looking at those things, and I realized they were kind of emerging from O’Neil Ford’s brain from 1930, this whole look that we were liking. It had an aura to it.

DG: On the flip side, is there such a thing as Texas modern gone wrong?

CD: Let’s just put them on blast right here.

HT: I don’t think — can you go wrong with Texas modern? I guess some lunatic could.

CD: Yeah, if you let the landscape inform it and the site inform it, those are just good places to start.

HT: I think the people who want these houses are thinking of the land, they’re thinking of the environment. They’re not thinking, I’m gonna make this the splashiest Texas modern house ever.

DG: What are some of your favorite houses in the book?

HT: That’s tough.

CD: You’re asking us to pick our favorite children!

HT: I’ve always loved the Paul Lamb house. It’s very romantic. This is in Austin, and if you took all these materials away and did it in glass, it would be completely traditionally modern. But then he’s put reclaimed wood and fieldstone and suddenly it’s warm. All right, Casey.

CD: Well, I have a few. I love the Hazelbaker Rush house, which is in El Paso, overlooking Juárez. To me, it was so unexpected. It’s so set into the landscape, and the rocks and the landscaping were beautifully integrated in the back.

HT: I feel like it’s on the edge of the world, this house.

CD: Yeah. The muhly grass was turning when we were there, and it looked unreal. When I was editing these, I had to pull back on the vibrancy because it was like, people will think this is fake. It’s all the things that Helen said. It’s just very visually compelling.

texas made/texas modern austin helen thompson casey dunn marfa modern atx pioneering spirit
San Antonio’s O’Neil Ford House. The doors are original to the home and were carved by Ford’s brother Lynn.

DG: Is there a particular room featured in the book that you’d love to spend more time in? A special little nook?

CD: The Max Levy project in Dallas; I love Max Levy. His sensibility for designing with natural light is unmatched. His spaces are luminous. There is a room I love with wood slats in the book. In the morning there’s already soft and beautiful light, but at the point when the sun gets high in the sky, the light bounces around and comes through in a way that’s still soft. So, all day, the light has a quality that is either interesting or soft and quiet. It was really fun to photograph, and it would definitely be one of the places I’d like to spend more time in.

HT: The Lake Flato house in Mill Spring — that’s got a nice nook. This whole house really was a riff off of an old dam that was already there on the property.

DG: So will you guys do another book after this?

HT: We’re working on one right now.

DG: What’s it about?

CD: It’s about a place called …

HT: Santa Fe! Santa Fe modern.

DG: Do you two, being so aesthetically inclined, obsess about the look and feel of these books? Do you go back and forth about size, fonts, and paper style?

HT: Well, this whole book, it’s like we’re three parts, equal parts.

CD: That’s true. Our designer, Cody Haltom, is amazing. This was meant to be a companion to “Marfa Modern.” They’re the same size, shape. Some of that was already kind of informed by that first book.

texas made/texas modern austin helen thompson casey dunn marfa modern atx pioneering spirit
A former boarding house, this Marfa home references ranch utility buildings.

HT: The landscape in Texas is very hefty and rugged and “Marfa Modern” was more horizontal and finely textured. These books are very textural. I’ve been surprised at how many people mention that. I was thrilled that people noticed.

DG: These things matter!

HT: They do.

DG: Casey, you recently went through a home build and design. What new perspective do you have now that you’re shooting other people’s homes?

CD: I appreciate it 100 percent more. The level of problem-solving is so much more three-dimensional. Whereas I’m used to solving problems in a two-dimensional space. It’s also this mix between budget and aesthetics and the way you actually live. All these things are constantly at play, and at any given point you have to ask, What’s the higher priority?

DG: Is your personal aesthetic pretty modern, Helen? In your home?

HT: Comfortable. Just comfortable, I think. The house I live in now is pretty serene. It’s quiet.

CD: Mmm hmm. Also, I think that if you’re building a house, the goal shouldn’t be to make something that’s on trend because hopefully you’re going to keep the thing for a long time. Good design principles and good, honest materials are the best route.

texas made/texas modern austin helen thompson casey dunn marfa modern atx pioneering spirit
The Hazelbaker Rush house, located in El Paso.

HT: To me, this kind of architecture is full of joy. These guys were just realizing that Texas was cool. They were out here in the middle of nowhere, and people, I guess, thought we were hicks, or something. But they were discovering and were thrilled with what they were doing in literature and art and architecture. Houses that look like they belong where they are will always be in style.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.