How a Former Model Became the Darling of Landscape Architecture

Lily Kwong at the LA debut of Maison St-Germain. Lena Nicholson

You’ve probably heard of Lily Kwong before. She’s a former model and current landscape architect, infusing installations all over the world (most recently in New York and L.A.) with her signature aesthetic. She’s collaborated with brands ranging from H&M to Maiyet, and her cousin is Joseph Altuzarra. Earlier this summer, she designed an incredible floral installation on the High Line in partnership with St-Germain, and in August, she filled L.A.’s Houdini Mansion with another stunning installation of landscape art, again in collaboration with St-Germain. The collaboration (one of her largest projects to date) made perfect sense for Kwong, since every bottle of St-Germain contains over 1,000 delicate elderflowers, handpicked once a year.

“We brought thousands of blooms to the Houdini mansion which is a really special site in L.A.,” she told Observer. “I’ve really been interested in ways to activate and layer a landscape and bring it alive with performance, art, dance.”

Lily Kwong working on her St-Germain commission at Houdini’s L.A. mansion. Liza Voloshin

Kwong, who is constantly traveling the world for both work and fun, just returned from an extensive research trip out West. “I went to all these national parks because it’s wild flower season and I took so many great photos for my records,” she explains. “It’s so exciting. I’ve been in an airstream for the past week and a half!”

Here, model-turned-landscape designer talks about her favorite plants, the best city to travel to and the intersection of politics and landscape architecture.

When did you first become interested in nature?

I was so lucky. I grew up in Marin County, which is north of San Francisco. My first memory is playing capture the flag in the Redwood forest as a kindergartener. I started this nature club when I was in first grade. I had this gang of messy, dirt-under-the-fingernails girls who would gather plant-based things to make bread and soap. It was from an early age, since we grew up surrounded by it.

I was always in the forest and always in trees, and my parents, when they couldn’t find me—because I was reading in a tree—started calling me Scout. My dad is a writer and he would tell me these “Scout and about” stories about a little girl named Scout who traveled all around the world in all these jungles and forests. That was a gift too, because it gave me a little bit of sense of self, before I could develop one on my own.

Is there a particular flower you love working with the most?

I really fell in love with plants in Miami; my first job out of college working in urban planning was with the project director of the LVHM Design District. I just fell in love with tropical plants. I think they have so much character and personality. So many of them look like Dr. Seuss characters. I love palms, cycads, monstera, rhododendrons and really juicy big-leaf tropical plants. That’s where my passion for plants really reignited.

Lily Kwong working on her St-Germain commission at Houdini’s L.A. mansion. Liza Voloshin

What’s the plant situation like in your apartment?

I actually just got a bunch of pots to replant my plant babies. I’m so excited. That’s my project for tomorrow. I live with the artist and painter Kate Greer and we actually live in Keith Haring’s old apartment on the Lower East Side. I recently moved into her painting studio just three months ago, and she let me bring all my plant babies with me. It’s funny, I’ve had them for three years and you create this relationship with them because you’re watering them and keeping them alive every week. I had a big studio Bushwick and had over 100 plants at one time, but that’s not for Manhattan living.

What plant would you never work with? 

I try and stay away from plants that don’t add a lot of ecological value—that don’t support the native fauna in the area. For example, Ficus. Ficus is something that’s really common and a lot of people use it for hedges, especially in hotter places. I think there are other plants that are usually native to the area that provide great screening. These more common things in the trade that are marketed as the only solution, I try to come up with more creative solutions than that.

Have you ever worked with really rare plants?

My first job out of school was working for landscape design firm that specialized in working in really remote, really logistically challenged areas. I was working in Central West Africa, Mexico, Montenegro, Bahamas. That was really exciting because the company would gather a lot of species found in the wild. You’d see really rare species deep in the jungle, and it’s almost like a botanical garden. Cycads capture my imagination—they have the reputation of being living fossils because they were the dominant plants during the Mesozoic age of the dinosaurs, and are pictured in ancient murals. My favorite are Ceratozamia, a genus of New World cycads coming from the Greek ceras, meaning horn. I love their beautiful sculptural form.

How do politics and social responsibility play into your work as a landscape designer?

I think advocating for green space in urban areas feels innately political, especially right now, as there’s less investment and care for environmental responsibility. To provide vital green space for communities, especially parks, provides such value for underserved communities. There are better health outcomes, there’s more of a sense of belonging, it increases real estate values. There’s so many important values that city dwellers get from urban green spaces.

You previously worked in fashion, and you still collaborate with a lot of fashion brands in your current role. What similarities are there between fashion and working as a landscape designer?

I was living in Joseph’s studio when he launched Altuzarra, and he would draw his collections. It was so much about texture, proportion, color, composition and that’s certainly the same process I use to evaluate and develop my landscape designs. I think my favorite fashion brands and pieces are really ones that consider and are tailored to a real woman—the real human body.

The materials, touch, feel and energy—I think about all the time when I’m designing and I’ll just sit and watch how people move through a space. It’s about really creating a design for a real human. How does someone want to move around their garden, or how does someone want to move through the High Line? We walked through the High Line a bunch of times to figure out what the right rhythm was for these green wall mazes. I think designers, both in planning and in fashion, that prioritize a real life over ego or design ideas, are the ones that really resonate.

Lily Kwong at the LA debut of Maison St-Germain. Liza Voloshin

You’ve also mentioned your love of plant-based eating and wellness. What’s your experience like with that?

That’s something I gravitated to when I moved to New York. I think I was so used to being in nature that I would go on hikes after school. Then I couldn’t do that anymore in New York. So, for me, a place to escape and reconnect with nature became with plants and going to yoga. That created the same feeling you get from nature. Professionally, I’m getting to work on plant-based and wellness projects as well. I just got appointed to design a three-acre retreat center in Southampton that will be next to the Parrish Art Museum. It’s nice to be able to merge those personal interests that I have with clients that have that value at the core of their mission.

How does your sense of personal style compare to your aesthetic as a designer?

I’m very influenced by minimal art and sophisticated ideas. I think about this quote sometimes, “Think long, write short.” But I sub in “design” for “write.” Really simple solutions can provide a huge about of value, just like a really simple clothing choice can provide a lot of character and sophistication, or joy.

What are a few things you always have with you in your purse?

I always have a notebook. I often have my iPad which is great for marking up plans and designing things. I always have my SkinCeutical sunscreen, SPF 50 sunscreen.

I’ve been taking landscape drawing classes at the New York Botanical Garden, which I recommend to any New Yorker. The classes are phenomenal. I’ve been taking classes there for the last couple of years.

What’s your favorite city to work in and your favorite city to travel to?

My favorite city in the whole wide world to travel to is Lisbon. I think there’s a lot of great design happening in Lisbon right now. I’ve been going there for a long time. It reminds me a lot of San Francisco. There is just really exciting things happening with the government subsidizing and encouraging more businesses to come and invest. I just spent some time working there. It’s breathtakingly beautifully.

My favorite city to work in is Miami and New York. Because I think Miami, botanically, I can really express. I’ve lived in New York for a decade now. I worked in fashion earlier in my career and have great relationships with incredible talent across so many industries. Now getting to work with plants, I get to collaborate in all these nontraditional ways like we did with St-Germain at our New York event.

The article was published first in TheObserver.