Tips, Plus an Inside Look into Landscape Design via Lily Kwong

Model turned landscape designer, Lily Kwong, has been busy beautifying spaces all over the country (most recently working with St-Germain turning NYC’s The High Line and LA’s Houdini Estate into a floral wonderland). She has been creating works of art and transforming areas utilizing thousands of blooms and greenery and it’s here she finds her happy place. With such a dramatic transfer of career and finding success in such different worlds of creativity, we were eager to pick this floral architect’s brain to get the low-down on her new career as well as get some tips from the expert on how you can transfer her grand designs for your own at-home soiree’s.

Have you always been intrigued by landscape design? Where did your love for this world stem from? What inspires you?

Definitely. Reconnecting with plants and nature has cracked open my life. Getting my hands in the dirt, exploring organic beauty, and designing in harmony with nature has reconnected me with my creativity and my community. Working with plant life has taught me patience, compassion, mindfulness – all those juicy life lessons. It satisfies all the dimensions of my personality: I get to do research, draw, travel, get cerebral, get physical, be outside, be chained to a computer, work with big teams, collaborate with other artists. 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.

Land Art truly connects with me. I’ve done some long stretches on the road in the past year to see specific works: Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty, Nancy Holt’s Sun Tunnels, the Turrell skyspaces “Twilight Epiphany” and “The Color Inside” in Texas, a stretch in Marfa to see Donald Judd’s work, among others.

What was the moment you realized you wanted to turn a different direction in your career?

I graduated with a degree in Urban Studies from Columbia University, and my first job out of school in 2012 was working as a Project Director for an urban design firm based in Miami. I was supposed to be writing research documents, overseeing operations and managing Clients. Instead I kept gravitating towards the horticulturalists and botanists the firm collaborated with, and was constantly sneaking out of the office to visit nurseries and Fairchild Botanical Garden. As soon as I reconnected with plants, I reconnected with myself. Being outside, getting in the dirt, and designing in harmony with nature completely unleashed my creativity. I knew I had found my path.

What was your first project?

In 2015, I spearheaded a project with American Forests’ reforestation program and sustainable brand, Amour Vert, to plant 100,000 trees across North America.

What are some tips you can give to people to create a special event in or outside their own homes.

  1. Organize a dinner with a purpose! I love building community with old and new friends – over a home-cooked meal, organize a volunteer contingent for the Lower Eastside Girls Club or a non-profit in your neighborhood or host an event that raises money for Planned Parenthood or Emily’s List.
  2. No garden soiree is complete without a simple and refreshing cocktail in hand. Personally, I love the signature – St-Germain Cocktail – made with St-Germain elderflower liqueur, Champagne, and sparkling water over ice with a lemon twist. They have a beautiful carafe that can serve up to six people at a time, and can double as a floral vase.
  3. I designed a floral runner to celebrate the Piece & Co. X Banana Republic dinner at Public Hotels just days after breaking down the High Line installation. The 20+ feet of florals were composed of peonies, roses, ferns, lilies and baby’s breath. People are used to bouquets as table centerpieces, but a floral wreath adds a visual interest and magic to a table setting. I collaborated with Botanica Inc. on all the florals for my recent installations.

Lily in front of the step and repeat at the St-Germain event on The High Line in NYC.

Do you have a favorite project you’ve worked on? If so, why?

Maison St-Germain is at the top of the list. The High Line has always deeply inspired me – it was a big part of why I wanted to study urban planning in the first place. I used the existing industrial architecture of the space to inform the layout of our labyrinth, which worked perfectly with the linear form of the High Line. I drew from St-Germain’s French roots and designed my interpretation of a 16th-century topiary maze. The snaking white line of flowers that ran through the maze was inspired by the Land Art I’ve seen in the past year, and visualizes the breathtaking fact that each bottle of St-Germain consists of 1,000 delicate elderflowers, that are handpicked once a year in Europe.

For the LA debut, which took place on Aug 2nd at the Houdini Estate in the Hollywood Hills, we created a “Light Maison”. We constructed a 2,500 square foot house made out of neon lights on the main lawn in a traditional chateau style as a nod to St-Germain’s French roots. I was inspired by the Calder show currently at the Whitney Museum, and I’ve collaborated with renowned florist Jeff Leatham to install hanging orchids that capture the feeling of the sculptor’s famous mobiles. It’s all very exciting.

 

You’ve done so many impressive events. What have you learned from them and what do you look to accomplish in your future of landscape designing?

As designers I feel that we have a responsibility to help restore 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. In my work 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 the 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.

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.

 

What aspects from your modeling career do you feel you’ve taken from and applied to within this new career (if any)?

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. In this case, for Maison St-Germain’s NYC debut, I saw an opportunity to layer the maze with dance and performance. I partnered with artistic director Mafalda Millies, whose piece I fell in love with at Mana Contemporary this Winter. Based on my planting palette, she developed custom, hand-made costumes with fabricators Simone Duff and Jon Can Coskunses. The-Solar-Do-Nothing-Dance featured choreography by Nathan Mitchell, who most recently creative directed film projects and installations for McQ and appeared in Frank Ocean’s video for Nikes. In honor of the fact the Maison St-Germain debut took place on the summer solstice, we based the performance on an Eames invention that was one of the first devices to convert solar energy to electricity. 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.

 

 

About the Author

Jillian Magenheim is the Editorial Director and Director of Partnerships for OliviaPalermo.com. She is also a digital media consultant for various fashion and beauty brands. You can follow her thoughts on Twitter @Magenhaz and on Instagram @jillianrose_m