The landscape artist Lily Kwong grew up in Northern California and went by the nickname Scout. “I had a nature club when I was in first grade,” she told us when we caught up with her in a New York café to discuss her ultra-green thumb. “I was always leading kids into the woods to either forage or gather materials.”
Kwong studied urban planning at Columbia University, and her interest in sustainability grew to include urban green spaces, greenways, and gardens. After designing for LVMH in the Design District in Miami and for The 14th Factory in places like Central West Africa, the Caribbean, and Central America, she now creates both temporary and permanent landscape projects for brands like Maiyet, the Nike Foundation, H&M’s Conscious Collection, and St-Germain. She’s currently working on a three-acre healing-arts retreat center out in Southampton called Shou Sugi Ban House, and was recently accepted into the New Museum’s NEW INC cultural incubator program.
WHITEWALL: What is the starting point for your projects? Is it different for each one?
LILY KWONG: I really changed how I work in the past year, which is exciting and scary. I come from a very academic background, so I tended to operate from my analyzer and really operate from an ego or headspace. In the past year, I’ve really been operating so much more from intuition. I’m trying to pull from my own ideas, but also pull from the creative conscious that is out there to create something totally novel.
WW: You’ve done several installations with brands, but in particular,St-Germain—in Miami, New York, and L.A. Tell us a bit about working with the brand. Why did you connect?
LK: St-Germain was doing an activation on the High Line, and they wanted to visualize the fact that each bottle is made of a thousand elderflowers, all handpicked during this super-ephemeral two-week season. In the end, we installed over thirteen thousand flowers and two hundred linear feet of green walls on the High Line.
It is so refreshing to work with a brand that truly supports creatives. Chloe Lloyd-Jones, the global vice president of St-Germain, trusted me to completely drive the design vision, layer the landscape with performance artists, and donate the florals to a humanitarian nonprofit after the opening. Rather than holding me to stringent brand guidelines, as collaborators they lived up to their brand ethos, which is all about being daring and supporting creative expression.
WW: Is art a point of inspiration for you?
LK: Land art truly connects with me. I’ve done some long stretches on the road in the past year to see specific works, like Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty, Nancy Holt’s Sun Tunnels, the James Turrell Skyspaces Twilight Epiphany and The Color Inside, a stretch in Marfa to see Donald Judd’s work, among others. The Palo Verde trees in the courtyard of Robert Irwin’s new permanent work at Chinati still haunt me. All of these site-specific pieces have deeply informed my work over the past year.
Maya Lin is also a total shero of mine. There are very few women in architecture and landscape architecture, and there are even fewer Asian women, so for me as a young person starting out, that is someone that I really admire. I like to pull a lot of those ideas into the work that I do.
WW: In your work, how do you address climate change and sustainability?
LK: When I am doing a traditional landscape project, I always try and use a native planting palette. As designers, I feel that we have a responsibility to help restore ecosystems where we can. 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.
WW: What are some beginner steps that the average consumer can make to be more sustainable?
LK: Here is a staggering fact: Fashion is the number-two polluting industry in the world after oil. Being more mindful about what you’re putting on your skin, and what brands you are supporting, makes a huge impact in the fight against climate change. Making conscious choices around dressing can actually really move the needle on the fight against climate change.
WW: What is a good starting point for those wanting to be more involved with plants, or the community?
LK: The best thing that you can do is to not be intimidated and remember that you have intuitive knowledge about plants. You are capable of caring for these things. Is there a community garden that you can support and care for that kids have access to? Is there a school garden that’s around? It’s all about reestablishing your connection, or finding something in your backyard, whether it’s a community garden or a school garden. Start small.