The Media Helping Curator Darrin Alfred Make Connections Between Art and Life
Darrin Alfred, the curator of architecture and design at the Denver Art Museum (DAM), has wrangled subjects as mesmerizingly niche as 1960s Bay Area psychedelic rock posters and high-fashion fabrics by textile designer Jacqueline Groag into inventive yet approachable shows. “One of the things I try to accomplish anytime we present design is to make it as accessible as possible,” says Alfred, who joined the institution in 2007. “We’re not just speaking to a design or architecture community. We want to remind the general public that they’re designers themselves—that they design their lives on a day-to-day basis.”
These days, Alfred is pursuing this mission on a new-and-improved platform. Working with architect Shohei Shigematsu of OMA, he recently oversaw the expansion of DAM’s architecture and design galleries from a narrow hallway into a spacious, 11,000-square-foot space inside the museum’s newly restored and expanded North Building, originally completed in 1971 and designed by Italian architect Gio Ponti. The wing-spreading move is part of a massive effort to rearrange DAM’s collection—in which the design department boasts the largest number of objects—in ways that engage and resonate with 21st-century audiences. Alfred has anointed the updated galleries with “Gio Ponti: Designer of a Thousand Talents” (on view through Dec. 2022), an exhibition featuring the iconoclastic modernist’s graphics and smaller objects, from geometric flatware to aerodynamic armchairs. The presentation simultaneously connects to the surrounding building while reminding viewers that we cradle design as we butter our morning toast.
Alfred is currently in the process of pulling together a show exploring biophilia—specifically, how contemporary architects, designers, and artists are reemphasizing the emotional-psychological bond between humans and the natural world. As he looks ahead to DAM’s future—one filled with exhibitions that affirm design’s egalitarian and wildly nuanced components—Alfred constantly consumes podcasts, books, and other media that inform his multifaceted work and help him refuel. He tells us about some of them here.
How do you start your mornings?
I like to take my time in the morning. I usually wake up and read The New York Times’s The Morning newsletter, to find out what’s going on in the world. Then it usually involves making coffee and turning on music, which is a huge part of my life—there’s always something on in the background at home—and maybe doing some sketching. It’s usually on the instrumental side, like Khruangbin or Surprise Chef. I’ve also been listening to a Magdalena Bay album called Mercurial World. It’s very synth-pop.
Daily go-to reads?
Well, yes. Later in the morning, I get my daily horoscope reading. I use this app called Co–Star—a very personalized astrology app. It goes deeper than most, based on all the different facets of my sign; it also compares my reading to those of my friends on the app.
We collect magazines at the museum—in particular, American magazines—so it’s a bit of an obsession of mine. I have a ton of subscriptions for work, but the one I probably spend the most time with is the Italian design publication Domus, because it covers all of the design practices, from architecture to furniture to environmental design. Interestingly, it was also founded by Gio Ponti.
I’m also really drawn to some newer magazines, for not only their content but also their unique graphic design. There’s one called Emergence Magazine, an online publication that also has an annual print edition. It focuses on ecology and culture. David Abram is a contributor. He’s a cultural ecologist and philosopher and the founder of the Alliance for Wild Ethics. Overall, it really connects with the biophilia research I’ve been doing. Another that’s relatively new and also beautifully designed is Citizen, which documents Black life and culture. The New Era has been on my rotation, too. It’s such a beautifully crafted print publication focusing on Scandinavian interiors, design, and art. [Editor’s note: Hanna Nova Beatrice, founder and editor-in-chief of The New Era, spoke with us about her media diet last year.]
Any favorite podcasts?
I listen to The Daily from The New York Times most days. And if there’s another that I return to regularly, it’s Sound & Vision, which consists of conversations that the host has with artists and musicians about their creative process. My brother, Brian Alfred, is the one conducting the interviews. The more you listen, the more you see connections between how artists of different mediums work—and end up making connections to your own life, too.
What books are you reading?
Right now, I’m reading Baseline Shift: Untold Stories of Women in Graphic Design History. It collects a number of essays, primarily written by women, about women in the graphic design field. There’s a very enlightening text by Linda M. Waggoner about the work of a Native American Ho-Chunk artist named Angel De Cora. She was perhaps best known for the lettering in The Indians’ Book, a 1907 compilation of art and stories from different tribal nations. De Cora created the title pages for each nation, including decorative lettering inspired by their specific artistic practices. The DAM has a rather significant Indigenous Arts of North America collection, so to be able to draw connections between De Cora’s design practice and work across museum collections was really interesting to me.
I also recently finished historian Nicholas Syrett’s An Open Secret, a family story about the relationship between Robert and John Gregg Allerton. They were companions for about four decades, starting in the early 1920s. In the 1960s, Allerton, who was in his nineties by then, adopted Gregg. It’s a fascinating story that places Robert and John within their queer companions, exploring the history of queer culture and the idea of adoption as a way to legalize queer relationships at the time.
Favorite TV shows?
I’m all over the map, but one I finished recently is Wild Wild Country, a docuseries about [Bhagwan Shree] Rajneesh, an Indian guru who built his idea of a utopian community in the Oregon wilderness. It ends up chronicling the conflict that arises between Rajneesh’s growing community, and the Oregon town that existed there before—along with the U.S. government’s case against the organization. It’s just such an interesting look at the separation between church and state in this country.
What are you watching or reading for fun?
I recently had some dental work done, and while I was recovering I was looking for something easy to watch and started Emily in Paris. I absolutely love it. It’s so fun and uplifting, and given that I haven’t been able to travel as much because of the pandemic, it’s been nice to drop into Paris through the show.
Any guilty pleasures?
This isn’t necessarily a guilty pleasure, but I love seeing music live—and it’s been so rare these last two years. As things have started opening up, the shows I’ve seen were really powerful—the connection between the performer and the audience was stronger than I’ve ever experienced. Right after we finished the museum renovation, I celebrated by going to the Outside Lands festival in San Francisco with friends. I also saw Khruangbin at Red Rocks, which is such a remarkable venue. Next on the list are STRFKR, Washed Out, Regime, and the Primavera Sound festival in Barcelona this June. I’ve been buying tickets for so many shows; I can’t wait to experience that energy again. It feels really unique to this period of time.