blue patterned wallpaper with lots of hidden animals
Incorporating frogs, finches, snakes, meerkats, and other fauna and flora, Los Angeles designer David Wiseman’s Midnight in the Meadow wallpaper from 2023. Photography courtesy of Wiseman Studio.

Architectural Curator Darrin Alfred Reflects on the Natural World

As a young graduate with a bachelor’s in architectural studies from the University of Pittsburgh and a master’s in landscape architecture from the University of Colorado Denver, Darrin Alfred soon discovered professional practice wasn’t for him. “I wanted something I was more passionate about,” he recalls. “So, I got a job as a curatorial associate at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art,” initially working on architecture, design, and digital projects under innovative curator Aaron Betsky. It proved a perfect fit, and he’s been involved with museums ever since. 

In 2007, Alfred joined the Denver Art Museum, where he now heads the architecture and design department. It boasts the museum’s largest collection—more than 18,000 objects dating from the 16th century to the present, including the encyclopedic AIGA design archives—displayed since 2020 in dazzling OMA-renovated galleries in the iconic Martin Building by Gio Ponti. But it’s Studio Libeskind’s titanium-clad Hamilton Building that will host Alfred’s upcoming summer blockbuster, “Biophilia: Nature Reimagined,” a multisensory exhibition comprising more than 70 works, including architectural models and photographs, objects, furniture, fashion, digital installations, and immersive art environments that collectively address the transformative power of nature. 

“The show isn’t about biophilic design, per se,” Alfred is quick to explain. “It’s more about our enduring emotional, psychological, and spiritual connections to the natural world.” Featuring an international roster of designers, architects, and artists—Iris van Herpen, Studio Gang, Zaha Hadid, Joris Laarman, and DRIFT, to name a few—“Biophilia” will be organized around three themes reflecting aspects of nature that most influence our well-being: Natural Analogs: Form and Pattern; Natural Systems: Processes and Phenomena; and Topophilia: People and Place. We spoke to Alfred about the show. 

Headshot of Darrin Alfred
Darrin Alfred, the organizer of the show, and DAM’s curator of architecture and design, backdropped by ceramic reproductions of the faceted glass tiles Gio Ponti originally designed to clad the museum’s Martin Building, which dates to 1971. Photography by Eric Stephenson.

Reflect On Nature With Darrin Alfred

dark lit room with multiple colored lanterns hanging from the ceiling
Meadow, a 2017 site-specific kinetic installation by the Amsterdam-based multidisciplinary studio DRIFT, part of “Biophilia: Nature Reimagined,” an exhibition running May 5 through August 11 at the Denver Art Museum. Photography by Oriol Tarridas/Courtesy of Superblue Miami.

Interior Design: What was the genesis of “Biophilia?” 

Darrin Alfred: With my landscape background, and having lived for 16 years in Colorado, I was interested in the deep connection people here feel for the outdoors. I see it in California, too, but I don’t think we necessarily understand where this passion comes from or why we have an enduring bond with the natural world. I began noticing work that addressed the environment—the greening of design—but also did more than that by exploring how nature affects our physical, emotional, spiritual, and intellectual development, individually and collectively. Around 2016, I pitched the idea of a show underscoring the transformative role in contemporary designers, architects, and artists can play in rekindling this bond. It got pushed aside by other projects, the new galleries, and then COVID, but everything started to solidify about two years ago, and here we are.

ID: How would you characterize these types of work in general?

DA: Works that call us to heighten our senses, to observe the natural world more closely. They offer moments of quiet catharsis that allow us to slow down amidst the hyper-accelerated digital lives we all live today. In looking for works that really do that, we developed three themes or lenses to help bring them into focus. 

white building with different cutouts in the middle of a busy street
Still under construction in downtown Denver, Studio Gang’s Populus hotel, its fluted form and distinctive window patterns evoking a grove of aspen trees. Photography by Studio Gang.

ID: What’s the first theme and what pieces in the show represent it?

DA: Natural Analogs, which relates to the shapes, structures, and geometries found in nature—the spirals, honeycombs, and dendritic patterns that our brains have developed an affinity for. A good example is the Floraform Chandelier by the Palenville, New York, studio Nervous System, which translates the cellular growth patterns of leaves and petals using complex algorithms and 3-D printing to fabricate a nylon hanging light that casts intricate shadows.

ID: What’s the second category?

DA: Natural Systems, which explores nature’s dynamic processes—seasonal and temporal changes such as weather patterns and botanical growth cycles. These works are more immersive and multi-sensory, like Meadow by Amsterdam studio DRIFT; it’s a kinetic sculpture of oversize mechanical silk flowers that mimics the nyctinastic opening and closing of blossoms in a choreographed sequence. Or the international art collective teamLab’s Flowers and People, an interactive digital installation with a meditative soundtrack that presents a year’s worth of computer-generated seasonal flowers blooming and withering over the course of an hour. 

digital screen filled with red and yellow flowers
Flowers and People–A Whole Year per Hour, 2020, art collective teamLab’s interactive digital installation compressing the life cycles of seasonal blossoms into 60 minutes. Photography courtesy of the artist and Pace Gallery.

ID: You’ve dubbed the final theme Topophilia. What’s that?

DA: It delves into the emotional and spiritual connection that humanity has with the physical environment through works that highlight the interplay between people and nature, culture and place. Desert Paper—a collaboration between Aranda\Lasch, which works out of New York and Tucson, Arizona, and Terrol Dew Johnson, an artist, basket weaver, and member of the Tohono O’odham Nation in Southwestern Arizona—is a series of experimental vessels incorporating natural materials Johnson gathered in the Sonoran Desert. Here in downtown Denver, the Populus hotel by Studio Gang takes its name from the Latin for quaking aspen, an instantly recognizable symbol of Colorado. The 13-story scalloped facade evokes a stand of the trees while the distinctive window shapes resemble bark patterns on their trunks. It’s under construction but should open around the same time as the exhibition.

different handcrafted glass vessels inspired by mushrooms against green backdrop
Czech artist David Valner’s Fungus vases and Polypore bowl, 2018-22, handcrafted glass vessels inspired by mushrooms and toadstools. Photography by Tereza Valnerova.
blue patterned wallpaper with lots of hidden animals
Incorporating frogs, finches, snakes, meerkats, and other fauna and flora, Los Angeles designer David Wiseman’s Midnight in the Meadow wallpaper from 2023. Photography courtesy of Wiseman Studio.


reddish sculpture resembling a tree on a rock
Almost 12 feet tall, One-seater Concrete Tree, 2022, a metal-mesh, cork, steel, and concrete sculpture by Netherlands-based Nacho Carbonell, evoking memories of his childhood in Valencia, Spain. Photography by Ronald Smiths/Courtesy of Carpenters Workshop Gallery.
black plate patterned with pinecone-like spirals
Festooned with pineconelike spirals, California-based ceramist Brad Miller’s 13-inch-diameter stoneware plate from 2019-23. Photography by Alex Delapena.
person standing before a screen of long green algae
Comprising countless injected-polyamide modular elements, the weblike Algues screen, a seminal 2004 design for Vitra by French brothers Ronan and Erwan Bouroullec. Photography by Paul Tahon, R. Bouroullec, E. Bouroullec.
hanging chandelier glowing white in a pitch black room
The Floraform Chandelier, 2017, a hanging light made of 3-D printed nylon by Nervous System. Photography courtesy of Nervous System.
model walking down runway with a gossamer web-like gown
Resembling circular leaves floating on water, the hand-pleated organdy Lily dress from New York fashion collective threeASFOUR’s spring/summer 2020 Human Plant collection. Photography by Randy Brooke.
brown basket-like sculpture
A 2022 collaboration between Aranda\Lasch design studio and basket weaver Terrol Dew Johnson, Desert Paper 09, a creosote and jute sculptural vessel incorporating materials from the Sonoran Desert. Photography courtesy of Volume Gallery.
chair-like sculpture made of plant-like printed material
Dutch designer Joris Laarman’s 2014 Microstructures Adaptation Chair (Long Cell) Prototype, a plantlike structure of 3-D printed polyamide and copper. Photography by Joris Laarman.
bronze plant sculpture that seems to be floating
Hand-sculpted in painted cast-cotton paper and patinated steel, lush banana-plant fronds form the 8-foot-tall Nana Lure chandelier, 2021, by Brooklyn, New York, studio Pelle. Photography courtesy of Pelle.

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