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For most working professionals, jobs are sources of stress that throw us off balance. But on the other hand, there are people like Lily Kwong, whose work builds roots, literally grounding her into who she is.
Founder of a next-generation Landscape Studio, Lily Kwong has the privilege to get her hands in the soil and work with plants in the midst of New York City’s concrete. Before launching Studio Lily Kwong, the designer built her creative roots in fashion, contemporary art, and photography. But for Lily, all design has the same motive: influencing the way people relate and feel within a space or a piece of clothing.
Lily grew up in Marin County, surrounded by the Redwood trees of California, and has been living in New York for eleven years. While working as a project director for a traditional landscape design firm in Miami, she fell in love with tropical plants. Enough time spent with botanists and horticulturists will do that to you. When Lily moved back to New York a few years ago, she brought with her a mission and commitment to this city: to reconnect its people to plants and nature.
“We have lost this enormous deep and life-giving connection to the natural world,” she says. “So much of our urban problems and anxieties, loneliness fears, can be quelled from more time spent in nature with plants. Reconnecting to nature reconnects us to ourselves and to our communities. So much healing can happen when we do that.”
Lily is definitely not your average Urban Planner, and Studio Lily Kwong is not your average landscape design studio, either. Half of her business is working on traditional landscape projects, and the other half is dedicated to site-specific botanical installations that merge the boundaries between landscape, art, design, activations, performance, urban planning, photography, fashion, wellness, and activism.
“It’s a unique city to work in,” she says. “There’s so much to do here because there is so much energy here. New York is a kinetic melting pot of creative energy.”
Lily wants to make this city greener and also develop communities. “Urban parks not only are beautiful, but they also have better health outcomes for those neighborhoods; they provide people more opportunities to become more human by connecting together in these spaces.”
Lily currently has a pop up floral shop at the Whitney Museum of American Art, a very unique project based on the Grant Wood exhibition. Taking inspiration from one of his paintings called Spring Turning, Lily’s team crafted sculptural bouquets into a tableau which acts as an interpretation of Wood’s work. “What I loved about that project is that it brought so many of my friends together and it felt like a celebration. It was around Mother’s day, so it was a celebration of femininity, community, strength and artistry.”
In addition to the pop-up, which is on through the end of May, Lily is working on eight other active projects, one of them being her first large-scale commercial landscape in Southampton called Shou Sugi Ban House—a 13 room spa destination focused on healing arts: yoga, meditation, and other healing practices.
Lily feels that her work chose her. “When I moved to Miami, I had been [living] in New York for six years, and I thought I was an anxious person, that would get stressed out easily, and overall had low energy,” she tells. “But once I was there, my body came alive as soon as I started working with plants, and I felt this incredible energy when I put my hands in the dirt. My work came out and bit me and chose me. It became a very clear mission to me. The anxiety and stress dropped.”
And studies back Lily’s assertion. She cites the Japanese government-encouraged practice of “Forest Bathing,” which basically entails people walking into a forest for a little nature-cleanse, just focusing breathing and being present. Lily explains, “Studies have found that up to three days after that, people have up to a 50% boost in cancer fighting cells, immunity gets better, there is a reduction in heart attacks, and all this just from being present in nature.”
Lily has found her calling in nature. Projects like her upcoming collaboration with the High Line are the reason why she started studying Urban Planning in the first place. Debuting on June 14th, the collaboration on the High Line Hat Party involves a large-scale botanical installation on a quarter-mile stretch, and is set to raise funds for the park and bring together people and artists from many different capacities.
“My work has been able to root me so much,” Lily says. “I want to scale the experience of reconnecting with nature and plants to as many people as possible. I think that is the way we will come together as a species and save our beautiful planet.”
Head of Video: Tina Rosh DP: Paul Terrie