Ly invoked worlds repeatedly in our conversation, alluding to alternate realms of pleasure and play that exist just on the other side of routine life. The desire “to break the process and the expectations” that separate the two sides is an operating principle of a.p. bio, the design studio Ly, 44, founded in 2015. (The name, a lo-fi abbreviation of “Advanced Placement biology,” is a slightly nerdy play on the classroom study of reproduction, flowers being the sex organs of plants.) Around the same time, she took up photography so she could showcase her work and quickly honed a distinct visual aesthetic using continuous light, to frequently ethereal effect. Today, many of Ly’s clients — among them Comme Si, Vintner’s Daughter and Muri Lelu — seek her out not only for her traditional arrangements but for her ability to style and photograph floral tableaux that might incorporate silk socks, a bar of soap or a cannabis-infused serum and reframe them as objects of beauty.
At a time when so many floral designs seem guided by a rustic “woke up like this” aesthetic, Ly’s bouquets stand out for their unabashedly stylized vibrancy and sparse use of greens, as with a bridal bouquet she recently created for a wedding at Long Island’s Parrish Art Museum featuring lavender sweet pea, clematis, peach garden roses, coral charm peonies and orange cosmos. “I wanted it to feel like little butterflies flying around the sweet pea,” said Ly. A narrative instinct animates most of her work. “She has a lot of drama within each arrangement and within each of her still lifes,” said Devon Grimes, one of Ly’s longtime assistant designers. “Even with the pastel colors, even when she doesn’t use a super dark or deep color. Each flower is like a character.”
Much of the delight to be found in scrolling through Ly’s Instagram, where she has amassed a devoted following, comes from her tendency to anthropomorphize her materials, endowing them with humor, self-regard and a healthy dose of amorous spunk. In a still life she styled and shot for the wine company Rotari, anemones and California garden roses — a favorite of hers, along with peonies — cluster around a bottle of brut on a mirrored tabletop. A bloom nuzzles the bottle’s neck like a lover, and a coupe glass filled with prosecco waits to be tasted. Next to the glass, what at first appears to be a flower turns out to be a ripe pomegranate, smashed open to reveal purple-red seeds that mimic the wine’s effervescence. Suddenly, a pomegranate seems like the obvious offspring of a rose and a grape in lust.
Though Ly finds beauty in daily life, her sensibility isn’t beholden to strict ideas of naturalism, tending instead toward whimsy, even the surreal. (She counts both the work of the German Neo-Expressionist choreographer Pina Bausch and the raunchily absurd Japanese comedy “Tampopo” as touchstones.) She traces her resistance to literalism to childhood. Born in Saigon, she escaped Vietnam by boat with her parents in the 1980s, theirs one family of many who left the country following the end of the Vietnam War. Before settling in Minnesota, they spent a year in a refugee camp in Indonesia. “I think that was a crazy pivotal visual time,” said Ly. She remembers trying to catch dragonflies and putting a towel on her head, pretending she was a princess with long hair. “My memory of it is not the starkness of our living conditions but more of the natural world and how magical it was — in my imagination it was very transformed.” Implicit in her creativity, she says, is “a really strong sense of survival, and not a very practical sense of survival, but a survival, I think, probably of the spirit.”
If there’s a strange coherence to Ly’s arrangements, the same could be said of her own trajectory. Ly received her master’s in acting from New York University and spent part of her twenties pursuing a performance career in Los Angeles. In 2005, a job at a Quaker intentional community drew her back to New York, and she began moonlighting as a florist to get out of the house. Ly taught herself how to make floral arrangements, her signature style evolving over time, but credits the sense of levity she brings to work with the close-knit team of a.p. bio to her ensemble training as an actress. She frequently wrangles staff members to perform in video shorts that might have them, say, parading in slow motion, with scraps of tulle billowing, across the studio’s rooftop to INXS’s “Never Tear Us Apart.” Occasionally the impetus 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 I get to film doing ridiculous things,” Ly said with a smile.
For the moment, however, floral design remains the heart of her practice. When we first spoke, she was preparing for several shoots and in the thick of a backlogged wedding season, as couples thwarted by Covid-19 tried to take advantage of loosened restrictions. She was also excited to continue designing for TV and film productions. This vein of collaboration has seen her create arrangements for Apple TV’s “Dickinson,” HBO’s “The Undoing” and Steven Spielberg’s reimagining of “West Side Story.” Despite their beauty, flowers are surprisingly hard 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. Merely keeping flowers alive requires an inordinate amount of attention and care. Before I left her studio, she wrapped some of the garden roses in tissue paper for me to take home, tying them together with a wide gingham ribbon and giving instructions on how to prolong their shelf life. On my way out, I noticed a tiny watermelon sitting in a scallop-edged bowl alongside tape, markers and shears. “Is the watermelon a prop?” I asked. “Yes,” Ly said with a laugh. “But we also got that to eat.”