McCray & Co.
Partners in work and life, Chris McCray and Grace Hall, help define the Austin style vernacular with their imaginative and inspiring designs
by Staley Moore
Photographs by Bill Sallans
Chris McCray and Grace Hall of McCray & Co. are the masterful design minds behind some of Austin’s most memorable spaces: the magical and whimsical French eatery Lenoir; the funky, cool Stiles Switch BBQ; and the Texas-meets-Japanese (and always buzzing) Kemuri Tatsu-Ya. We sat down with the design duo to find out more about their inspiration and why it’s good to be a designer in Austin.
How did you get into design?
[McCray] Ever since I can remember, I’ve enjoyed drawing objects and spaces — I just feel like I never stopped.
[Hall] I’d always make these weird collages when I was in high school, and it just led me to this aha moment, when I realized I could make a career out of art. We both attended Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond [at different times], and we’ve been practicing as designers ever since.
What’s your first step in the process when creating a new space?
Our first step is to meet the client — preferably at the space — and listen. We often say that listening is our best tool in design. The goal is to hear what our client is really needing and wanting and see how they’re going to use the space. That way, we can work with them to design a space that both functions really well and aesthetically feels like them.
Why is it good to be a designer in Austin?
Austin is such a creative, open-minded, connected town. More than any other place we’ve been, people here are so independent and open to crazy, out-of-the-box ideas for their spaces. And we love being able to collaborate with so many talented artists and makers here to create spaces that are super-unique and interesting.
What are some of your favorite and most memorable design moments at some of your commercial Austin projects?
We like to say that our favorite design moments are the ones we’re working on next! We really try to work in a layered and highly detailed way, so the spaces are always revealing something new to people as they experience them. Here are a few things that come to mind as favorites in some of the existing spaces we’ve done—the custom light fixture we designed for Picnik that holds plants that trail down from it, the huge collection of Texan and Japanese ephemera in Kemuri Tatsu-Ya, the reveal of the graffiti in the restrooms at Ramen Tatsu-Ya, the “serape wall” at Taco Flats, and the woven panels and the 3-D neon “OPEN” sign in the storefront at MaryJae Smoke Culture.
What are the best things about working together?
We’re constantly inspired by everything around us. The fact that we’re always together means that there’s this seamless flow between work and life. And we’re pretty good at supporting one another and giving each other permission to do the things we each love, which helps us grow in both our personal and professional lives.
What upcoming projects are you excited about?
Oh, there are so many! We’re finishing up a couple of residential projects that are supercool and that we can’t wait to share. A few of our restaurant clients — not naming any names! — are expanding into new concepts and new towns, and those projects are really exciting. One name we can name: In the new year, we’re starting the build-out on the new Nine Banded Whiskey tasting room in Dripping Springs, which is going to be awesome.
1. TOPO CHICO:
We love Topo Chico. Like, LOVE Topo Chico. Neither our home nor office fridge is ever not fully stocked. It’s become a joke among clients: When folks come into our studio for a meeting, we offer water or Topo Chico and that’s it.
We find lots of textiles as we’re out searching for antiques, and this is one that we picked up with a project in mind and haven’t been able to let go of. It’s always in a prominent place in our home.
3. DISH WITH ROCKS:
[Hall] Chris always picks up interesting little natural artifacts for me when he’s traveling or just outside walking around. This is a collection that I keep on my desk at home.
4. “FOR SALE” SIGN:
We’re suckers for hand-painted signs. We picked this up at a flea market long ago.
5. DEER SKULL:
[Hall] I found this at the Austin Antique Mall awhile back. It just called out to me, and I couldn’t say no. I love it.
6. “MARKET FINDS” NOTEBOOK:
We’re always searching for interesting things for clients at antique stores, flea markets, and places like Round Top or Canton Trade Days. We used to have an antique booth, where we sold items that we hadn’t found a home for yet. This was one of the ledgers where we used to record our finds.
7. DONALD JUDD BOOK:
[McCray] The Judd Foundation recently came out with this book, which documents Judd’s furniture designs. I really appreciate the honesty of materials he used in his work, as well as the utilitarian nature and beauty of the furniture.
8. SCORPION BELT BUCKLE:
Scorpion Belt Buckle: [McCray] This is my all-time favorite personal find while out antiquing. The dealer wanted $15, but I managed to talk him down to $10 for it.
9. STERLING-SILVER CUFF:
[Hall] I’m a minimalist when it comes to most things, including jewelry. I love this cuff, and it’s one of the few pieces of jewelry that I wear almost every day.
[McCray] I’ve been collecting water pitchers from the 1940s and 1950s for many years now. I love the range and diversity in the design of these objects that used to have such a big presence in everyday life but now have essentially become obsolete.
11. 3 SNAKE PIECE:
[McCray] This is an art piece that I purchased in the mid-’90s from a small gallery in Charlottesville, Virginia. The artist is Michael Finster, the grandson of the late folk artist Howard Finster. If you don’t know him, look him up. He was a real badass.
We picked the mother of this plant up when we moved back to Austin in 2011. It’s grown up big now, and we’ve repotted the pups and stationed them all over our house. We love them.
13. DISH WITH SWITCHBLADE AND RING:
This dish is one our favorite things from our friends at Era Ceramics. We keep our little doodads in it when we’re not using them, like Chris’ switchblade or Grace’s engagement ring. [P.S.: The engagement ring is all metal, and Chris designed it.]
14. JITTERBUG PERFUME BOOK:
[Hall] This book just makes me happy. There’s something about the physical size, weight, and design of it that’s really satisfying, and the story is so fun and rich and beautiful. I go back and read it at least once a year.