A/D/O by MINI | Lily Kwong’s Floral Fantasies

Journal

Environmental/Landscape

Lily Kwong’s Floral Fantasies

Designer Lily Kwong harnesses the beauty of botany to create thought-provoking installations in urban and industrial settings.

Images of Grand Central Station’s iconic, chaotic halls filled by serene mossy hills are surreal. Using 8,000 square feet of moss and grasses, Studio Lily Kwong transformed the hectic space into a dreamy landscape. In the few years since that project, the studio has continued to use plants as its medium to communicate and to advocate a closer proximity to flora. Founded by Lily Kwong, the studio has developed a unique niche, creating lush green refuges in arenas where they would otherwise be absent. Leaving room for exploration and discovery, Studio Lily Kwong is a reflection of her curiosity and passion for connecting people back to nature.

Kwong began designing gardens and yards for anyone who would let her, but her first installation at The 14th Street Factory in Los Angeles allowed her to showcase and discover the potential of her botanical work. She created a lush and fantastical landscape in the middle of the 5,000-square-foot warehouse next to the Cone Crater, one of the geological landing sites for Apollo 14. Light flowed in through holes drilled in the ceiling, shining the words “And it’s been a long way but we are here” – astronaut Alan Shepard’s first words on the moon – onto the floor. The enchanting impossibility of this industrial space filled with plants hit a strong note with audiences and drew in crowds of 100,000 people.

Now a multi-pronged business, Studio Lily Kwong undertakes both landscape maintenance and botanical installations. Made up of a small team of plant lovers, the studio includes her right hand Rebecca Chasin, and art director (Kwong’s cousin) Ruby Cottle. Kwong describes the studio as functioning like a collective. The team works with partners like DBOX for branding and strategy, as well as artists including musicians Gary Gunn and Aya Rodriguez-Izumi. Together they create multidimensional experiences such as the Summer in Winter installation, where Gunn’s soundtrack played inside an oasis of 37 plant species from seven continents in the heart of New York City. Plants have proven benefits to mental and physical health, and the piece functioned as a sort of plant therapy for surviving winter in the harsh city.

When plants are the medium, design translates to care and attention. “There is a language of plants and there is a language of flowers and we're in constant dialogue with that when we're designing,” Kwong told The Journal. As someone who never formally studied landscape architecture or design, this intuitive creation is key. Her studio is mindful of its impact on an ecological, emotional, and spatial level. In both the team’s permanent and short-term projects, each plant is specifically chosen not only for its physical beauty but to reflect cultural meanings and emphasize its role in larger ecosystems.

Not quite a white-box art studio, or a landscape design firm, Studio Lily Kwong is creating a new type of agile practice that is as comfortable at art fairs and in commercial spaces as it is on rooftop gardens and in backyards. During last year’s Art Basel in Miami, the team installed over 600 orchids to create an outdoor sequence of circular living gates. Titled Moongates, the installation explored Kwong’s heritage by reinterpreting the Chinese architectural doorways that signify good fortune, rebirth, and renewal. While not necessarily visible, each orchid chosen was associated with a traditional meaning such as friendship. The work was not just beautiful, it went far beyond aesthetics and was defined by richly layered research.

This attention is also evident in the team’s project for the Shou Sugi Ban Retreat Center on Long Island, in which the studio completed sunshade studies, soil tests, and studied indigenous and native plant material to develop something that would grow and evolve over the next 10-20 years. Planning growth is like imagining a possible future, and reflects the hopes of what the space will become. In shorter projects, like the studio’s installation for Glossier in Seattle, the team told a narrative through plants that have been used for beauty over time. The history of species like heather or phlox, which were both traditionally used for skin conditions, has been mostly forgotten. The piece won the studio an Arch Marathon award for its ability to “create a world in another world.”  

“I do feel very strongly that, on my best days, I'm a messenger,” said Kwong who not only creates public facing work, but shares her research through exuberant fact-filled Instagram posts. “I feel a responsibility to share as much information as possible, especially of plants in nature,” she explained. “They are magical and there's so many remarkable properties. Since people are so disconnected from nature, they don't know or understand these properties.” Although many people do not see or know the differences among the rich diversity of species of flora, Kwong acknowledged that most people have an innate connection to plants.

In urban spaces made of hard, lifeless materials – where even sunlight is blocked by high-rises – a thriving greenspace is something city dwellers crave. Over the next few months, Studio Lily Kwong is developing a range of projects that include a large-scale botanical art piece in celebration of Mother's Day. Commissioned by the 5th Avenue Business Improvement District in NYC, the installation will open on May 1, 2020, beside the Apple Store on the corner of 59th Street and 5th Avenue. It is sure to stand in a provocative juxtaposition to the minimalist glass cube. The studio is also designing interior and exterior landscapes for NeueHouse coworking spaces across multiple locations, including New York, Bradbury, and Hollywood. 

As her studio continues to evolve, Kwong is posing the question to herself: “how do we actually uplift our community and environment and make it the most resilient and harmonious that we can?” While she has a few projects in development, they will have to remain a surprise for now. They will certainly delight, educate, and above all, serve the communities in which they are grown.