Ann Arbor, Michigan, on February 7, 2023, Damian Farrell, born February 14, 1961 in Durban, South Africa, died unexpectedly from natural causes at his Ann Arbor home Fairdene, his beloved wife of 30 years, Katherine, by his side. Damian grew up on his family’s citrus, avocado, and sugar cane farms in KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa, where he kept a pet zebra. As was customary for farming children in remote locations, Damian attended a private boys’ boarding school, 150-year-old Hilton College, from the age of eight. An enthusiastic and avid sportsman, Damian competed in horse jumping, cricket, golf, and rugby. During the hot winter seasons, he joined his family in the Drakensberg mountains, fly fishing and hiking. He flew bush planes with his father, Brian Farrell, awed by stories of Uncle Dustin Farrell, a 19-year-old lieutenant in the South African Air Force who perished in his Spitfire during WWII. Damian also loved to ski. With his mother, Margaret Farrell, he performed onstage in local theatrical productions. Today Hilton College is flying their flag at half-mast in honor of Damian. A South African neighbor, a sugar cane farmer and architect, shared his drawings with Damian. “As a kid, I was fascinated by his drawings,” Damian said. “I would study them for hours. From the age of five, there was never a question that I would become an architect. My school counselors tried to persuade me to at least consider other choices, but I was hooked.” Damian went on to the University of Natal, Durban, graduating in 1985 with a master’s degree in architecture, followed by two years at an architecture firm in Pietermaritzburg. His passion for South African wines inspired him to train as a sommelier. Later, in the U.S., he met monthly with a group of fellow connoisseurs hosting each year on his veranda at Fairdene. In his final year of university, Damian’s design for an international missionary organization won the prestigious Des Baker Award for Design. As a result, Damian met local landscape architect Carl Johnson who, in 1983, brought Damian to the U.S. for a year’s fellowship. Carl introduced Damian to Richard Black of Hobbs+Black Architecture. Black offered Damian a position with the firm. In 1988, Damian relocated to Ann Arbor to work as design lead on a wide variety of projects for H+B and as director of marketing. In 1991, he realized his personal American dream, founding Damian Farrell Design Group. DFDG projects went on to earn accolades and national recognition for Damian’s unique designs, ranging from his renovation of the Ann Arbor Art Center to large homes in Sun Valley built from the beams of antique Vermont barns and homes in Greece and South Africa. While describing himself as a “modernist at heart” Damian possessed a deep knowledge of architectural history, as well as artful garden and community design. Damian’s work was featured in Architectural Digest and numerous regional publications. In 2002, he sold his practice back to H+B, and in 2008 he opened his second company, Damian Farrell Design Group. That same year at a croquet party, Damian invited Katherine on their first date to a fundraiser in the lobby of the Michigan Theater. After a year of courtship, Damian invited Katherine to meet his family in South Africa. On a visit to Hilton College, Damian proposed to Katherine in a garden overlooking the waterfalls and lush green slopes of the Umgeni Valley. On a snowy day in April 1993, Katherine and Damian were married in Ann Arbor. Amaron and Jon led them down the aisle. The new family was joined by Brian Christian Farrell, born in 1994. Along with running their companies, they took long trips with their three children. Each year they drove to the beach in Florida and to Northern Michigan to ski. When Brian was eight months old, they traveled to Damian’s family farms in South Africa. In 1999, the year Damian became a U.S. citizen, the family moved into their dream home Damian designed. “It has,” he said, “a place for everything.” In 2015 Damian was admitted to the American Institute of Architects as a Fellow, a coveted position granted in recognition of outstanding contributions to the profession through design excellence, architectural education, and advancement of the profession. Damian served on the boards of the Huron Valley American Institute of Architects, the Michigan Architectural Foundation, the Michigan chapter of the American Institute of Architects, as well as the Ann Arbor Art Center and Artrain. He was also chairman of the U.S. chapter of the Old Hiltonian Club. Damian is survived by his loving wife, Katherine Hilboldt Farrell (owner, Katherine’s Catering), and their children: Brian (Taylor) Farrell, Amaron (Shannon) Gerken, and Jonathan (Marianne) Curtis. Damian was a devoted grandfather who loved nothing more than to snuggle with his ten grandchildren: Noah, Caden, Isabelle, Christian, Layla, James, Alesia, Patrick, Charles, and Ethan. Damian is also survived by his sister, Shayne Farrell, and nephew, Brian Farrell of Pinetown South Africa, as well as his extended Hilboldt family: James S. Hilboldt, Sr., James S. (Wendy) Hilboldt, Jr., Susanna Hilboldt (Jeff Hockensmith), Thomas (Pum) Hilboldt, and many nephews and nieces. He is predeceased by his parents and Martha Hilboldt.
In lieu of flowers the family requests donations to one of the following organizations important to Damian:
Michigan Architectural Foundation
The Michigan Theater Foundation
Washtenaw Community College Martha Christian Hilboldt Scholarship
Good Shepherd Ministries, P.O. Box 11909, San Bernardino, CA 92423 (please specify Hilton College)
A celebration of Damian’s life was held on Sun., Feb. 12 at 2 p.m. at Washtenaw Community College, Morris J. Lawrence Building.