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Credit: Christine Han Photography
Class of 2020

Class of 2020: How Architect Alda Ly is Using Biophilic Design and Whimsy to Reimagine Retail, Healthcare, and Co-Working Spaces

published Oct 17, 2019
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Who: Alda Ly, a New York-based architect and designer
Nominated by: Laura Schocker, Editor in Chief of Apartment Therapy
Where to follow her: Instagram

Apartment Therapy’s Class of 2020 Design Changemakers is a specially-selected group of the 20 people in the design world everyone should know about by next year. We asked experts (and you!) to tell us who they think should be included—see the rest of the nominees here.

Why Alda is part of the Class of 2020: “Alda Ly is the creative brains behind some of the best-designed spaces around NYC from the past couple of years. The first time I walked into the Bulletin flagship, it felt like as much of an experiential destination as it was a store. The thoughtful, modular design all came together to make a statement—this is what the future of retail looks like. Ly has a knack for helping online-first businesses figure out what their IRL experiences should feel like; she also worked on Rent the Runway’s first retail spaces. I was surprised (but perhaps shouldn’t have been) to learn that Ly was also a partner in designing The Wing coworking locations around the country, as well. Full of Instagram bait (which, yes, I’ve taken), The Wing has not only redefined what coworking spaces can look like, but its style influence (from millennial pink and jewel-toned velvets to brass accents and modern terrazzo) is undeniable. Ly, who is the sole principal of Alda Ly Architecture and Design, brings a combination of innovation and functionality to her projects that have helped to shape larger design conversations over the past year.” —Laura Schocker, Editor in Chief of Apartment Therapy

Credit: Reid Rolls

When Alda Ly left the Bay Area to try out New York after graduating from UC Berkeley with a degree in architecture, she told everyone she’d be back in a year. Spoiler alert: she stayed in New York. “I told my parents, ‘I’m not coming back,'” she says. “I think they finally gave up convincing me otherwise.”

Since making the city her home in 2002, Ly has worked at architecture and design firms large and small and gotten her master’s in architecture from Harvard. She was about to start her own firm when little company called The Wing asked her to design their East Coast and California locations in 2017. After that, Alda Ly Architecture hit the ground running, and has now grown to seven people, with a slew of impressive clients under her belt, including the likes of Rent The Runway, Parsley Health, and ThirdLove.

Many of her projects carry a common thread: they often involve working with female-run or female-led teams, creating spaces that are woman-focused. “For us, woman-focused spaces doesn’t mean making everything pink,” she says. “It’s about thinking about the way that you circulate through the space, how you sit at a chair, or how safe you feel, and so many other factors.” This, of course, isn’t to say she’s not interested in designing other kinds of spaces. “It’s just an example of how we’re paying attention to a specific type of user and designing for them,” she says. “I feel like we’re leading, in that respect, and I’m really proud of that.”

Credit: Bilyana Dimitrova

When looking at Ly’s designs, it’s impossible to ignore a certain air of whimsy. Whether it’s a custom penny-tile pattern in a bathroom that reads “Serving Looks” or a bra display that doubles as a work of art, all of her signature minimalist-meets-playful designs are filled with thoughtful, intentional details. The spaces she creates are not only the stuff of social media fodder (surely every location of The Wing is among the most photographed places on Instagram), but are designed with that aforementioned comfort in mind, down to the tiniest of details. We chatted with Ly to get the lowdown on biophilic design, where she gets her inspiration, and where she sees the design world heading in 2020.

Apartment Therapy: What do you remember as being design inspirations growing up? What is your inspiration now?

Alda Ly: I grew up in the suburbs of LA, in the South Bay area, and there was really not much going on in the way of aesthetic inspiration. But when I was young my dad was a contractor, building kitchen cabinetry. He always had an interest in building things and so as I child I would follow him along to job sites, which was interesting. He also had a hobby of going to open houses, just to look around at different properties and the way places were built. I think a lot of my interest in design came from just being around him and being influenced by his passion for design and building. 

In terms of my inspiration now, I get a lot of inspiration from my staff, to be honest. Everyone is so interesting, and I get excited when they get excited—I’m hiring people with real passion, talent, and interests, so it’s easy to get inspired by them.

Credit: Reid Rolls

AT: Is there a specific piece or design of yours that you think is particularly indicative of who you are or what you’re trying to do?

AL: My favorite project we’ve done has been Parsley Health because it was a project where we actually thought very deeply about how spaces affect the human body, which I find very important, and is a big part of how we design. That was our first foray into design considerations that a lot of people are talking about now—like biophilic design—but we’re trying to do it in a very different way that doesn’t look biophilic. We try to do it in a way that makes you feel at home, safe and comfortable.

AT: What three words would you use to describe your work or style?

AL: Responsive, thoughtful, and playful. Responsive because we are really great at listening to our clients and understanding what their needs are. Thoughtful because we love to really reflect on about how spaces make you feel psychologically and how colors, materials, and spaces physically, emotionally and mentally affect you. And then playful because we are like to insert a little fun and whimsy into our work.

Credit: Tory Williams

AT: What makes you feel at home in your own space?

AL: I think the orientation, and how things are laid out in my home is important—I’ve moved my living room around probably 10 times in the last two years. It just depends on how I feel and what the light is doing based on the season—my orientation to the windows and the light that I’m seeing all affect me. It’s not just about the furniture, but also about making sure that where I’m sitting in a space is relative to how I’m feeling. 

AT: Any big plans for 2020 or beyond you can share with us?

AL: We’re starting to do a lot of work in health and wellness, especially for women, which is big for us, and something we’re really excited about.  In March, I’m having my second baby, and I think for me my personal and professional life have been quite tied since starting the firm—it’s all connected!  Having my first baby affected the way we worked as a team, and my team is wonderful, so I think this baby will be an exciting new era for us.

AT: Where do you see the design world going in 2020?

AL: Firstly I’d say coalescing of uses—when you come to some retail spaces now, it’s not just retail, it’s a place where you can just sit and relax or do 30 minutes of work or buy a matcha or meditate or anything. And we, as designers, need to meet that higher standard and expectation of what people want in public spaces and public interior spaces especially. Next, I’d say boldness. It seems as though we are moving towards a boldness in design, and making everything bigger and stronger, with bolder colors and textures, which is exciting.

“We, as designers, need to meet that higher standard and expectation of what people want in public spaces and public interior spaces especially.”

Alda Ly