On the first official day of summer, New York City’s High Line was transformed into a 16th century-style French labyrinth constructed entirely out of live hedges and an assortment of flowers. Woven into this intricate plant installation was a live “Solar-Do-Nothing-Dance” performance by renowned artist Mafalda Millies, which paid homage to one of the first devices to convert solar energy to electricity in honor of the longest day of the year. This massive undertaking was the brainchild of Lily Kwong, a 29-year-old landscape designer.
Lily got her start as a model —in addition to her impressive professional credentials, she’s also the cousin of Joseph Altuzarra— and from there went on to receive a Bachelor’s degree in Urban Studies at Columbia University, design an eco-friendly capsule collection with Maiyet, and eventually found Lily Kwong Studio, a Brooklyn-based design company that blends landscape with culture and sustainable design.
“There’s so much cross-pollination between industries today, and I love that my non-traditional background gives me a unique approach to landscape work,” says Lily of the intersectionality her work has become known for. “I use landscape and plant life as a vehicle to connect with other art forms, and often draw on my background in fashion for my installations.”
Nowhere is this more evident than in the High Line installation, created in partnership with French elderflower liqueur company St-Germain. In addition to the partnership with Millies, Lily also incorporated the work of fabricators Simone Duff and Jon Can Coskunses into the project, seamlessly blending botany, dance, and fashion all in one. However, despite her multifaceted background, Lily maintains that plants are her true passion.
“Getting my hands in the dirt, exploring organic beauty, and designing in harmony with nature has reconnected me with my creativity and my community,” she says. “Working with plant life has taught me patience, compassion, mindfulness —all those juicy life lessons. At the end of the day what I enjoy most about this field is I know I’m working towards a greater mission of creating a more beautiful, sustainable future.”
We spoke with the designer to get her tips on incorporating plants into our daily lives plus, what went into creating such a large-scale installation.
What was the inspiration behind your recent installation for St-Germain in New York?
My experience is grounded in landscape design, and I was inspired by the remarkable fact that each bottle of St-Germain is made from 1,000 delicate elderflowers, that are hand-picked once a year in Europe. The concept grew out of this idea —in the end, we installed over 13,000 flowers and 200 linear feet of green walls on the High Line.
When St. Germain got in touch, I was doing all this research on mazes —traditional topiary mazes, hedge mazes— for my work as a landscape designer I’m constantly looking for inspiration and ideas. When I found out about the brand’s French roots, I really took inspiration from 16th century traditional mazes, and because of the linear nature of the park, it was kind of a perfect way to play with the existing geometry, and we built on its French roots that way.
How can people translate a large-scale installation like this to their home? Are there any details they can pull out or general rules of thumb they can follow?
We hand-constructed these beautiful flower “curtains” with thousands of flowers for the High Line installation. Two days later, I designed a floral table runner for my friends at Piece & Co., who were celebrating their sustainable collaboration with Banana Republic. I used peonies, ferns, baby's breath, and lilies to create one 20-foot strand similar to our curtains but on a much, much smaller scale. The result was a beautiful floral table runner, which guests plucked blooms from to accessorize their outfits at the end of the night.
People are naturally drawn to nature. My advice is don't overthink it —just bring more green into your home, especially if you live in a city!
What are your biggest tips for floral arrangements? What are the first steps for beginners?
Try taking care of a plant rather than buying a bouquet. It's more sustainable and more fun. My favorite indoor florals are Oxalis, Abutilon, Bromeliads, and Jasmine.
Do you have any summer entertaining tips for decorating with florals to share?
You can use your intuition to arrange florals into a geometric shape, playing with textures and colors. It’s a moving exercise with a beautiful result, and could be a great centerpiece for a garden gathering. For my recent birthday, my best childhood girlfriends created a mandala for me out of wildflowers after a hike to the beach. A mandala is an abstract design, usually circular in form. It’s symbolically powerful: in Tibetan Buddhism, a mandala is an offering of the entire universe.
I believe in the biophilia hypothesis, which suggests humans possess an innate desire to connect with nature. Why do people love flowers? Because it’s in our DNA.
You’re an advocate for sustainable practices in the fashion world and beyond; how can people practice sustainability with their landscaping and plants?
When I am doing a traditional landscape project I always try and use a native planting palette. As designers, we have a responsibility to help restore the ecosystem where we can. Recently I’ve been commissioned to create botanical art installations, in which case I focus on shocking people into re-connecting with the beauty of nature.
I find so many people are landscape blind; we’re so disconnected from nature as a culture that it becomes difficult to see the beauty of a single flower. I like working at a large-scale and confronting people with the natural world or an environmental idea, which I believe can translate into environmental stewardship down the road.
For example, I recently designed and built a 5,000-square-foot interior garden for a pop-up museum in downtown LA, The 14th Factory. The garden is just turf, but the topography is modeled after the landing site of the Apollo 14 mission to the moon. It was my response to the threat of climate change. I wanted to reveal the absurdity of the argument that we can occupy other planets in lieu of saving this beautiful planet we live on today. Most importantly, “Garlands” has provided vital green-space in a neglected part of downtown LA.