As Coloradans, we’re well aware of the positive impact that nature has on mood and well-being. It’s the reason so many of us, if given the choice, would rather sweat it out on a hiking trail than a treadmill, or why we’re willing to sit in hours of I-70 traffic for powder turns.

“Over the past 30 years, there’s been a lot of scientific research that shows there are physical, mental, and emotional benefits in this connection that we have with nature,” says Darrin Alfred, curator of architecture and design at Denver Art Museum (DAM).

Alfred organized the museum’s newest exhibition, Biophilia: Nature Reimagined, which opened on May 5 and showcases more than 80 works that explore the power of the outdoors. Visitors can view and interact with pieces including an armchair covered in more than 30,000 laser-cut pink polyester petals to resemble a hydrangea flower, a 3D-printed nylon chandelier whose pattern mimics leaf veins, and a series of 15 clay discs glazed in hues that match the shade of the sea in precise locations around the globe (i.e. Pacific Ocean; Valparaiso, Chile).

The new DAM exhibition isn’t the only place design-loving Denverites have heard the term “biophilia” recently. Coined in the 1980s by American biologist and author Edward O. Wilson, biophilia is his theory that humans are deeply intertwined with the natural world. Today, the concept has been used to describe the design schemes of some of the most eye-catching developments going up in Denver. The in-progress Populus hotel near Civic Center Park incorporates fenestrations inspired by Colorado’s aspen trees, while the recently opened One River North apartment building boasts a slot-canyonlike facade.

“[Biophilic design] is something that I think is growing in popularity and is becoming much more widely known,” Alfred says. “There’s been a slow progression and understanding of the impact [of exposure to nature] and how it can be utilized in everyday environments—the architecture we occupy, the homes we live in, and the offices we work out of.”

To dive deeper into the meaning of biophilia and how it appears in built environments, we asked four Denver design experts to share their thoughts on the trend and how they incorporate it into their own work.

Editor’s note: The following conversations have been edited for length and clarity.

Rebecca Bakke, owner of Bloom & Flourish

an office break room with lots of plants
An office plant installation by Bloom & Flourish. Photo by Nathan Hindman

Biophilia is having a moment right now, and it is great to see this healthful trend coming to the forefront of the architecture and design worlds. But those of us in the green and design industries have seen the evidence for the benefits of biophilic design building over many years. Humans are hardwired to respond to nature in a positive way. As a species, we have spent 95 percent of our evolutionary history in rural, natural settings, and now most of us reside in an urban environment—of course we yearn for nature at the deepest level.

Kristen Thomas, founder and owner of Studio Thomas

kitchen and dining space with natural wood cabinets and white barrel chairs
A Studio Thomas kitchen designed with natural materials. Photo by Pete Eklund

In every project, we prioritize natural materials, maximize natural light, and select soothing neutral tones for an overall sense of well-being. We consider all five senses in each space and use a formula of layers including wood for warmth; natural stone to ground a space; plants and indoor trees to add life; plaster and grasscloth for wall texture; and recommend natural fibers like wool, linen, and mohair for upholstery and window treatments. Though some may call it a trend, we’ve always been inspired by the beauty and timelessness of nature.

Nicholas Fiore, owner and principal architect of Flower Architecture

I am not sure that I subscribe to the theory of biophilic design as I have seen it described. For example, I’ve seen it stated that “biophilic design recognizes that our species has evolved for more than 99 percent of its history in adaptive response to the natural world and not to human created or artificial forces.” For this to be true, it must hold that humanity is not a part of the natural world. I reject this idea that humans are not natural beings. Biophilic design as a design trend has many traits that I admire and seek out in my own work—connection to nature, inspiration from the natural world—but I do not believe that a tree-shaped building is inherently more natural than an orthogonal one.

For me, [the designs of] Charles Heartling, a local architectural legend, are great examples of how architecture can mimic and draw direct inspiration from nature. Buildings laid out as leaves after a fall rain…structures that recall stone outcroppings. Are Heartlings’ projects biophilic where (insert traditional architect’s name here) are not? Are the Greek temples artificial constructs? The pyramids? Beaver dams?

Angela Harris, founder and CEO of  TRIO Design

apartment complex front desk with a branchlike laser-cut metal screen
At Montane Apartments in Parker, TRIO Design outfitted the front desk with a laser-cut metal screen in a branchlike pattern. Photo courtesy of TRIO Design

Biophilia is so much more than putting plants in a space. It is an integrated approach to architecture and interior design that connects people more closely with our origins, with nature…. Our goal is to create spaces that enhance emotional and physical well-being by fostering a connection with the natural world. Mental health is a critical issue, and it is our responsibility as co-creators of the built environment to help make a transformative impact in homes and communities to better the lives of everyone.