Ly invoked worlds several times in our conversation, alluding to alternate areas of fun and play that exist just across from routine life. The desire to “break the process and the expectations” that separate the two parties is a principle of operation of a biography, the creation studio Ly, 44 years old, founded in 2015. (The name, a lo-fi abbreviation of “Advanced Placement Biology,” is a slightly cheesy game about studying reproduction in the classroom, with flowers being the sex organs of plants.) Around the same time , she embarked on photography. so she can showcase her work and quickly refine a distinct visual aesthetic using continuous light, with an often ethereal effect. Today, many Ly customers – among them As if, Winegrower’s daughter and Muri Lelu – seek her not only for her traditional arrangements, but for her ability to stylize and photograph floral paintings that could incorporate silk socks, bar soap or cannabis infused serum and reframe them like objects of beauty.
In an age where so many floral designs seem to be guided by a rustic ‘woke up like this’ aesthetic, Ly’s bouquets stand out for their unabashed vibrancy and sparse use of greens, as with a bridal bouquet she recently created. for a wedding on Long Island. Parrish Art Museum featuring lavender, sweet peas, clematis, peach garden roses, coral peonies and orange cosmos. “I wanted it to look like little butterflies flying around the sweet pea,” Ly said. A narrative instinct drives most of his work. “She has a lot of drama in every arrangement and in every one of her still lifes,” said Devon Grimes, one of Ly’s longtime assistant designers. “Even with pastel colors, even when she isn’t using a super dark or deep color. Each flower is like a character.
Much of the fun to find scrolling Ly’s Instagram, where she amassed a devoted following, comes from her tendency to anthropomorphize her materials, endowing them with humor, self-esteem and a good dose of spunk in love. In a still life she styled and photographed for the Rotari wine company, anemones and Californian garden roses – one of her favorites, along with peonies – cluster around a bottle of brut on a mirrored table. A flower nestles in the neck of the bottle like a lover, and a cut glass filled with prosecco waits to be tasted. Next to the glass, what initially appears to be a flower turns out to be a ripe pomegranate, shattered to reveal crimson-red seeds that mimic the effervescence of wine. Suddenly, a pomegranate seems to be the obvious offspring of a lustful rose and grape.
Although Ly finds beauty in everyday life, her sensitivity is not subject to strict ideas of naturalism, tending rather towards fantasy, even surrealism. (She counts both the work of German neo-expressionist choreographer Pina Bausch and the scorching and absurd Japanese comedy “Tampopo” as touchstones.) She traces her resistance to childhood literalism. Born in Saigon, she fled Vietnam by boat with her parents in the 1980s, one of many families who left the country after the end of the Vietnam War. Before settling in Minnesota, they spent a year in a refugee camp in Indonesia. “I think it was a pivotal and crazy visual period,” Ly said. She remembers trying to catch dragonflies and putting a towel over her head, pretending to be a princess with long hair. “My memory is not the harshness of our living conditions but rather the natural world and how magical it was – in my imagination it was very transformed.” Implicit in her creativity, she says, is “a very strong sense of survival, and not a very practical sense of survival, but survival, I think, probably of the spirit.”
If there is a strange coherence in Ly’s arrangements, the same could be said of his own trajectory. Ly received her MA in Performance from New York University and spent part of her twenties pursuing a career as an actress in Los Angeles. In 2005, a job in an intentional Quaker community brought her back to New York City, and she began moonlighting as a florist out of the house. Ly has learned to make flower arrangements herself, her signature style evolving over time, but attributes the sense of lightness she brings to working with the close-knit team of ap bio to her overall training in as an actress. She often asks staff members to star in video shorts that might have them, say, scroll in slow motion, with puffy pieces of tulle, on the studio roof for INXS’s “Never Tear Us Apart”. Sometimes the impulse is a commissioned project; usually it’s just for fun. “Sometimes I think I just have a flower business so that I can have assistants that I can film doing silly things,” Ly said with a smile.
For now, however, floral design remains the core of his practice. When we first spoke, she was preparing for multiple shoots and in the midst of a late wedding season, as couples thwarted by Covid-19 tried to take advantage of the relaxed restrictions. She was also excited to continue designing for television and film productions. This collaborative vein led her to create arrangements for Apple TV’s “Dickinson”, HBO’s “The Undoing” and Steven Spielberg’s reimagining of “West Side Story”. Despite their beauty, the flowers are surprisingly difficult to translate on camera, and Ly’s photographic understanding of dimension serves her well on set.
That’s all to say: Doan Ly is very busy. Just keeping flowers alive requires inordinate care and attention. Before leaving her studio, she wrapped some of the garden roses in tissue paper for me to take home, tying them with a large gingham ribbon and giving instructions on how to extend their shelf life. As I walked out I noticed a small watermelon sitting in a scalloped-rimmed bowl next to tape, markers, and scissors. “Is the watermelon an accessory?” ” I asked. “Yes,” Ly said laughing. “But we also have this to eat.”