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Mike Blea and Breton Lujan of Raw Creative. Photo by Chayce Lanphear.

These 6 Innovators Are Changing Denver’s Aesthetic

What do a real estate developer, museum director, furniture designer, home-tech creator, and the owners of a design/build firm have in common? They're all using design ideas to solve problems and dream big for Denver.

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Mike Blea & Breton Lujan

Co-founders, Raw Creative
About six years ago, Mike Blea and Breton Lujan—who met while attending the graduate architecture program at the University of Colorado Denver—took a flyer on a fresh idea: They would open a one-stop shop that could design a building, construct it, and then fabricate its custom furnishings and interior architectural details. The realized firm, called Raw Creative, is now responsible for some of Denver’s most beautiful commercial spaces, including restaurants Señor Bear and Morin (pictured above).

5280 Home: What makes this concept work so well?
Mike Blea: We’re control freaks—in a good way. We can retain unique design concepts that might intimidate someone else and bring them to life. The lack of familiarity with fabrication can drive some designers not to push the boundaries. We can.
Breton Lujan: So many people have great ideas, but they don’t have the resources to get them done. We use our tools, knowledge, and background and do it. When we meet with [potential clients] at first, they look at our work boots and say, “Where’s the architect?” We’re the architects, but we’re also the guys building. It’s really fun to do it all.

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Give us an example of a time when you applied your problem-solving savvy for a client.
BL: Table 79 in Steamboat. Our budget was really tight, but we wanted to make a big impact by cladding the walls in gray-wash wood. We bought the cheapest plywood at Home Depot and applied a chalk-gray whitewash; it gave the restaurant a unique, Scandinavian feel. We took materials that you wouldn’t expect to be finish materials and manipulated them in our shop to make them look good.
MB: Or Elle.B Salon Central. We were the designer and the builder. To design the hair-cutting stations for each stylist, we had the salon owner pretend to give us haircuts and we observed all of her movements. From that information, we created everything—down to the laser-cut [styling] tool holders.

Apply that creative thinking to our city: If you were in charge of designing all the public buildings in Denver, what would you do?
MB: I’d work toward more intentionality than star power, than making a big splash. There seems to be a push toward making a lot of the larger buildings feel like an attraction rather than connecting to people who live in the neighborhood.
BL: A great example [of good architecture] is the Clyfford Still Museum. It feels really connected to the community. The architects took into account how people would approach and enter and experience it.

What’s next for Raw Creative?
MB: We’ve created a series of concepts for micro-housing. We think these concepts can be influential in helping solve issues of affordability in Denver and mountain towns.
BL: We’re moving into more residential [work], too. We designed a home in Aspen that’s about 1,000 square feet. It’s exciting because we made it modest but really comfortable and sustainable.
MB: The theme here is that architects are problem-solvers. We should be tackling some of these ideas—smart residential design, affordable housing, sustainable building—and we can.

Alex Capecelatro of Josh.ai. Photo by Chayce Lanphear.

Alex Capecelatro

Co-founder and CEO, Josh.ai
In the world of Alexa and Siri, there’s a standout guy named Josh—a digital man of sorts, who uses artificial intelligence software built to understand natural human speech. Integrated into a home-automation system, Josh (who was created in Denver) makes it easier to control the vastly expanding realm of at-home technology. Josh.ai co-founder Alex Capacelatro explains how the home assistant came to be—and why he’s smarter than your average voice-control system.

5280 Home: What makes Josh.ai different?
Alex Capecelatro: When [co-founder Tim Gill and I] started, we felt like there was an opportunity to bring real software and real intelligence to the home to create a super-helpful assistant. Josh can monitor the house to see if anything breaks; he can monitor energy usage to see if you’ve forgotten to turn down the thermostat; he can monitor weather, the sunrise, the sunset. From a voice-control standpoint, Josh can understand natural language and even location. So if you walk into your home gym and say, “Play some music,” Josh knows you don’t mean the same music you want when you’re in the dining room at the end of the day.

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Where does Josh live in a home?
When we started, we were focused on the software, but when you want to give voice commands, you need a hardware product. Ours is Josh Micro. It’s installed in as many rooms as the customer wants, and it’s room-aware, meaning it knows where it is.

And it’s good-looking.
We think so. The hardware performs best when it’s in a clear line of sight, where the audio is uninterrupted. Because a lot of our clients have luxury homes, we thought a lot about [Josh Micro’s] design. It has a beautiful concave shape inspired by Richard Serra sculptures I love. And there’s not a single visible button on it. Around the outside, there’s an LED ring that is invisible when the unit is off. A little rainbow lights up when you speak to show that it’s listening. If you say, “Play the Beatles,” for example, that ring becomes a touch dial. If you say, “Turn on the lights,” it becomes a light dimmer. Plus, Josh Micro does most of the processing locally, without going onto the Cloud—which means we can guarantee privacy to our customers.

In that vein, what’s next for home tech?
We’re seeing a lot of movement toward using technology to improve your health and wellness at home. A house is not super smart when it comes to things like indoor air quality and water quality and how well you’re sleeping. I would love it if we could build products so people could live longer, healthier, better lives because of what we do.

Jonathan Alpert

Partner, Westfield Company
You might not know the name Westfield Company, but you’ve probably heard about the Mission Ballroom, the buzzy new concert hall that the company developed as part of its North Wynkoop project near 42nd Avenue and Brighton Boulevard. The firm is also responsible for creating Stanley Marketplace, the food- and retail-centric reincarnation of the old Stanley Aviation building in Aurora, and S*Park, an innovative condo community in RiNo with an on-site urban farm and greenhouse. Here, Westfield partner Jonathan Alpert breaks down the good, the bad, and the promising about growth and development in Denver.

5280 Home: How does a developer get to create a concert hall?

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Jonathan Alpert of Westfield Company. Photo by Chayce Lanphear.

Jonathan Alpert: [Entertainment company] AEG came to our door. They had been looking for an opportunity to build a prototype venue, and what hooked them—besides the location [which we had already secured]—was the willingness from our side to do it. The Mission Ballroom is part of our North Wynkoop project, which is about 14 acres at the north end of RiNo. It will have an office building with ground-floor retail, and eventually, a [separate] multifamily building and a hotel.

Let’s talk about sustainable development. Everyone professes a love for it, but what does the term even mean?
Sure, it’s become kind of a buzzword. I believe in solar, efficient [building] envelopes, natural light, and natural ventilation, but for me, “sustainability” also means taking into account social impact and economic viability. Our working urban farm at S*Park is an example: It’s expensive to run a farm, but it makes sense from an environmental standpoint and it’s a driver of interest, so it helps the economics of the project overall.

What do you say to people who grumble about Denver’s growth?
I catch myself complaining about the traffic, but then I take a breath and remember: This is how cities thrive. Do I want to be in a city that’s growing, or do I want to be in a city that’s shrinking? People are interested in living here, and that means there will be employment growth; there will be interesting jobs, interesting people. But I’m not naïve enough to believe it doesn’t have an impact on people who have been here a long time and can’t afford to continue to live here. That piece is troubling.

S*Park. Photo by Jess Blackwell, courtesy of Westfield Company.

So what do we do?
We need more tools to get affordable housing built. We need public-private partnerships. We need a separate line for permitting [at the city] for affordable housing; we know we need it, so let’s expedite that process. And a lot of developers are trying to meet the need: Right now, we’re building 14 three-bedroom townhomes in Curtis Park within the affordable housing parameters. I’m excited, but it’s really hard to make those projects work financially, and we need more of them.

What’s your end goal?
For many years, Denver was a stop on the way to the mountains, but now, Denver is the stop. People come here to experience the city, and I want to make sure there’s a place for everyone. When you put down roots and a city becomes your home, you have a different care for it. We want to give people opportunities—and reasons—to stay here and grow.

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Nora Abrams, director of Museum of Contemporary Art Denver. Photo by Chayce Lanphear.

Nora Burnett Abrams

Director, Museum of Contemporary Art Denver

The beloved and adventurous Museum of Contemporary Art Denver—or MCA, as the cool kids call it—has a new (but familiar) leader: Nora Burnett Abrams, PhD, who replaces Adam Lerner after his decade of leadership. Abrams isn’t new to MCA: As a curator, she’s dreamed up some of the museum’s most popular exhibitions, including the 2018 retrospective of artist Tara Donovan’s work. And, as she reveals here, she’s got a lot of dreaming ahead of her.

5280 Home: Tell us, to start, what the director of MCA does.
Nora Burnett Abrams: Each day is quite different from another, which is exciting. I oversee an organization that presents temporary exhibitions and programs for adults and teens throughout the city. We try to advance and play with and stretch and embody the fresh ideas that creatives are wrestling with and working on. We also have a really broad view of art; we celebrate contemporary culture at large with music programs, food programs, lectures, and performances.

You’ve worked in New York City’s most venerated museums: the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Museum of Modern Art. What’s different about working at a museum in Denver?
You can take a lot more risk out here. You don’t have 3 million eyes bearing down on you and waiting for you to trip up. There’s a culture of risk-taking here that dates back to the 19th century. The entrepreneurial spirit that’s alive now is the contemporary version of that [early] pioneering. Artists here are encouraged to push and stretch themselves. In New York, it’s hard to find the spaces and resources [for that kind of exploration] because there’s more competition.

Adam Lerner made a big mark on MCA and Denver. What are you building on, and where will you go?
I’m building on a really strong and critically praised foundation that Adam created. Our commitment to artists from Denver and the region [is important to me]; we have to find more opportunities to support them and keep them here as the city grows and thrives. Our commitment to teen audiences is really important; they’re the future museum-goers. We are free for teens, which is a statement that they’re welcome here and always will be. I’m going to be thinking about our young adult audiences—post-teen but not yet fully independent. I think there’s a gap [between teens and full-fledged adults] that could be ripe for some attention.

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The other thing I’m thinking about is embedding the museum more deeply in the city, occupying other spaces through partnerships with other organizations in Denver, to create more opportunities for our ideas to grow in other areas of the city. Artists and the art they produce deal with so many other topics far beyond aesthetics: the environment or social justice or mental illness. I feel like there are organizations working in some of those spaces that we might collaborate with.

At its best, what should a museum be for a city?
I see us being a place that is both the living room for people who want to come and have a drink and hear some great music, and the place people can come to feel enriched from learning about a new artist or discovering a new body of work. Museums are places of discovery, where curiosity is fueled, where it’s always welcomed.

Richard Shirtcliffe of Noho. Photo by Chayce Lanphear.

Richard Shirtcliffe

Co-CEO, Noho
Could commerce be a solution to eliminating the enormous amounts of plastic debris floating in the world’s oceans? Richard Shirtcliffe thinks so. The New Zealand native is co-CEO of Noho, a Boulder- and New Zealand-based furniture company that launches in January. The venture’s twofold mission: Create good-looking furnishings from materials like sustainable polymer and upcycled plastic removed from the ocean, and design those pieces to support the physiology of the human body.

5280 Home: How did Noho come to be?
Richard Shirtcliffe: The epiphany that started the whole thing came when I was vacationing on a beach in Indonesia. My family was learning to surf, and I was watching the volume of plastic washing in around them. I thought, “I only really know commerce, so I need to find a way to use [that knowledge] to address this problem.” I knew that part of the solution would be creating value from this waste.

Then I was introduced to Formway, a New Zealand company that’s been pioneering dynamic comfort in commercial furniture for companies like Knoll. The question then became: What if we could create chairs that move with the body and support blood flow, and therefore improve cognitive function and overall well-being? And what if the chairs were made from repolymerized plastic? Essentially, we’re setting out to improve the way people sit, live, and care for the world around them.

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A modest aim, there.
[Laughs.] Yes, well, Noho is a word from the native language of New Zealand, Te Reo Māori. It means “to sit, to stay, to dwell, to live.” It’s a lovely word with warmth and deep meaning. And as the name and meaning suggest, we see ourselves as a new-generation furniture business.

Noho’s Move Chair. Photo courtesy of Noho.

Tell us about your first product.

The Move Chair. It flexes and moves with the body, rocks back and forth. It supports the body when you lean back in a relaxed fashion—as you might after a family dinner—and when you lean forward, as you do while you’re working on a laptop or crafting with the children. It comes in two colors—Cloud, which is essentially white, and Iron Sand, which is charcoal—but it can be paired with one of five interchangeable New Zealand–wool toppers, which you swap out in about 20 seconds, in Sunset Orange, Pacific Blue, Earth, Cloud, and Iron Sand.

And more products will be coming soon?
Yes, soon. We want to build a thriving business that improves the world and improves the well-being of individuals within it. You could say that’s a very big mission and a tough one to achieve, and I would say—in line with [Swedish teenage climate activist] Greta Thunberg—that we have to make a start and it’s crucial to make a start on big things. This is a ripple that turns into waves that turn the tide.

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