Art Bar

Moon Papas Makes Bar and Restaurant Spaces a Real Trip

Matt Fries and Julian Luna craft futuristic art installations and immersive spaces, one far-out experience at a time.

By Daniel Renfrow April 11, 2023

Moon Papas

Matt Fries and Julian Luna of Moon Papas at Sixes and Sevens, one of their earliest bar projects.

Image: Marco Torres

On the ceiling of Matt Fries and Julian Luna’s Northside workshop, a series of cheerily patterned blankets hover over an LED-lit hexagonal sculpture glowing ominously in the center of the room that resembles a portal to another dimension.

Is this some new whimsical bohemian piece that the duo, known better as the design and fabrication studio Moon Papas, has created? Or is it simply the remnants of a blanket fort party they never took down? (Turns out it’s the latter.) With Moon Papas, it seems art and life are constantly, inextricably woven together.

Moon Papas’ work might best be described as large-scale interactive, immersive, and often illuminated sculptures. So far they’ve created projects for public art installations, and, increasingly, bars and restaurants. That success didn’t happen overnight. For various reasons, including collaborative, mediative, and, yes, financial, Fries and Luna spent many evenings working and sleeping in their studio.

“It was absolutely essential in the beginning for us to both live in this space,” Fries says between sips of a Lone Star beer early this spring. “We couldn’t afford not to live here. Being in the space all the time allowed us to establish the communication and collaboration that we needed to be successful.”

Moon Papas' unique ability to craft light and structure into otherworldly settings is on full display at Sixes and Sevens in Montrose.

Image: Marco Torres

Near the dimensional portal, just above eye level, is a submarine-shaped loft dotted with a series of porthole windows; Fries used it as his sleeping quarters while Luna caught his z's in a less whimsical area on ground level.

“We were super broke at the beginning. We moved in here, and we had nothing,” adds Luna. “Living here was helpful because we would have ideas and we would already be here in the space.” 

“It was hard, for sure, but it was everything. It was so personal,” Fries says of the duo’s early days. “We are also kind of masochistic and very determined. I think it would have been impossible for it to not have been, but it was always fulfilling. And it always felt temporary.”

Surprises abound through the Moon Papas–crafted light tunnel at Behind Closed Doors.

Image: Marco Torres

They spent much of those early days together designing installations for regional offshoots of Burning Man. Fries and Luna have since segued into fully enveloped, built-out environments. Sixes and Sevens in Montrose, which opened just as the pandemic started, was one of their earliest bar projects. Behind Closed Doors in downtown is one of their most recent ones.

And like any good collaboration, Moon Papas often brings in other creators to assist with their work. Programming and lighting software wiz Boston Kassidy contributed to the design for Behind Closed Doors alongside Shilo de Armas; Eric Rosprim of objektfab lent expertise for Sixes and Sevens. Both projects showcase Moon Papas’ expertise at blending light, structure, and future fantasy vibes into an experience—enough to make you wonder (especially if you’ve had a few drinks) if you’ve unwittingly stumbled onto a repurposed set from Logan’s Run.

“We don’t want to be confined to the gallery world where people can only see your work one time, at one place,” Fries says. “We liberated ourselves from that right out of the gate. We wanted to do stuff out in the world for people.”

Trippy lights? Fire vibe? Check and check at Behind Closed Doors.

Image: Marco Torres

Like any good artistic duo, Fries and Luna both bring distinct skills to the table. Fries’s background is in music. “I wanted to do music first, but then realized I made an awful musician.” He’s largely responsible for the electronic and musical components that are integral to many of Moon Papas’ installations. 

Luna’s specialty is fabrication. He's been building art cars since ninth grade and later studied sculpture at the University of Houston. He’s Moon Papas’ multifaceted fabricator, with an artistic arsenal covering materials as varied as metal, wood, ceramic, and even glass.

The pair decided to join forces in 2015 after the two collaborated on two projects: Las Veladoras de Mi Abuela, large-scale prayer candles, and Tripatorium, a light-controlled sound room that built upon Fries’s longtime practice of creating synthesizers controlled by light. The idea for the latter project sprung, like so many do, from a mushroom trip. While exploring the intricacies of one of his synthesizers, Fries found himself thinking, “Wouldn’t it be cool if I was inside of this thing?”

Fries and Luna created a similar effect through their Vibe Collider installation, a traveling art experience that includes two 18-inch subwoofers encased in wooden framing, lit by multicolored LEDs. A control panel monitors the frequencies on either side of the installation. Once the frequencies on both sides get within a certain range of each other, the sound creates a binaural beat. “It vibrates your body, but you’re hallucinating that tone,” Luna says.

While Moon Papas’ bar and restaurant projects typically don’t involve that level of a sound component, the results are often “trippy” and one of the reasons why the duo has become such a hot commodity among restaurateurs looking to create enthralling spaces for their patrons. 

“What inspires us a lot now is creating an environment, creating a distinct feeling in a space,” Fries says. “We love the idea of people seeing things and having it stretch their belief about what is possible. We’ve been learning all of these tricks and skills to make the impossible tangible.”

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