The Calm, Composed Alchemy of Studio Richter Mahr

In the Oxfordshire countryside, musician Max Richter and his wife, visual artist Yulia Mahr, transform a former alpaca farm into an idyllic complex whose simple palette offers abundant white space for communal creativity.

A former alpaca farm tucked deep into the Oxfordshire countryside might not be the first place one looks for exacting, minimal design and sustainable, communal artistic production. Studio Richter Mahr is changing that: musician and composer Max Richter and his wife, visual artist Yulia Mahr, have transformed the farm building into a complex—including a state-of-the-art recording studio, Dolby Atmos mix and programming rooms, fine art studios, and a video edit suite—with a simple palette of timbre and solar panels. The pair sat with Surface over Zoom one rainy afternoon to explain how they did it.

Why build your own space?

Yulia Mahr: It’s easy to find studios in Berlin. In the British countryside, it’s a different thing to find space with large volumes of space. You can’t find old factory buildings. This was an alpaca shed. We were keen to have a minimalist aesthetic that returned to the Bauhaus.

Max Richter: The building is an instrument. Its reduced visual texture allows you to concentrate. This white space feels like a mental rest.

YM: We have a residency program where people can use the space for free. One thing they say is they’ve never gotten so much work done in their lives. Something here allows timelessness to creep into your work. It’s liberating to be here.

How did you organize it?

YM: Community is at the heart of what we do, so we wanted a building where we could make the central space communal. We have a cafe and grow 90 percent of our food here. We all have lunch every day, and visitors join us. We put large windows in each space because we wanted everyone to have a view of nature. Creative spaces often lack light, especially recording studios.

MR: One issue with recording studios is that you’re [usually] in cities. Trying to keep rumble out of the room means windows are a bad idea. Here, there’s no rumble. We worked closely with architects to have a space that was acoustically amazing but also wasn’t hostile to organic life.

YM: The recording rooms are on floated concrete floors. It’s a box within a box. Our living room is next to the recording space, but Max can be playing with a full orchestra and we don’t hear it.

The studio released a sample bank of piano sounds recorded there—is the studio being used as an instrument in those samples as well?

MR: Composers and musicians have ideas about the perfect piano sound. We spend our lives chasing this imaginary, perfect-sounding thing in our heads. I’m lucky to have the pianos I’ve been waiting for and this wonderful room. We have the perfect mics and mixing desk. So I thought, how about we explore this as a sample instrument? It’s handmade, not mass-market. We ended up with something intimate, direct, emotional.

Your part of the world isn’t known for its sunshine, but you’ve managed to make the place very sustainable. How?

MR: A lot of solar panels. I’m just going to show you the weather right now. [He turns the camera to afternoon windows covered in rain.] Basically like being underwater in the dark.

YM: In the summer, it’s easy. It’s harder in the winter. We’re basically off the grid.

MR: In the summer, we’re off the grid the whole time. We have batteries and it feeds back into the grid. Our ambition is to be completely off, so we’re adding more panels. The wood is there for acoustic reasons. I work with a lot of orchestral instruments and wood sounds great for an orchestra. All the wood comes from an organically managed forest in Germany which has been looked after by the same family for 200 years. It’s oak, so it’s going to last basically forever.

(All photography by Lorenzo Zandri.)

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