In Conversation with Doan Ly
The innovative floral designer and photographer shares how florals endlessly inspire her art and how her inner voice (and a bit of stubbornness) led her to follow a unique creative journey.
I first became aware of Doan Ly’s stunning photography and floral design work via Instagram and instantly fell in love. Her aesthetic is simultaneously modern and romantic which reminded me of Vintner’s Daughter’s own Old World meets cutting-edge technology skincare. With her unique eye for capturing and elevating the world of botanicals to high art, I knew it was only a matter of time before we collaborated. I am beyond grateful that she brought her astute eye to the design of our 2021 Limited Edition Active Botanical Serum. Recently named as a talent shaping the design world by The New York Times Style Magazine, her work borrows from the elements of fine art such as abstract forms, texture, light and hue to create the images and arrangements out of her New York-based a.p. bio studio founded in 2015.
As you will learn from our conversation below, Ly seeks to articulate joy and wonder from her floral subjects and harnesses her performance background to infuse drama and movement into her bespoke floral work and imaginative imagery.
I hope you enjoy our chat as much as I did.
Our Limited Edition bottle is so beautiful. What was the inspiration for the design?
I really thought about how to translate my visual world, my photography, into this beautiful line drawing. I also thought about what flowers really speak to the shapes and can be communicated in that way. I realized the more graphic, flat flowers versus the really textured small ones would probably read better on the bottle. I was thinking about it in terms of the translation in the design process. As far as the florals that ended up being in there, they’re all my superstar flowers anyway like the peonies and the anthuriums. And I think there was a reference for the magnolia as well. All flowers that I love and that I love to photograph. That’s a very central part of my visual world.
Tell us about your visual world. What are you trying to capture when you create your images?
It depends and it changes. But I think in the end it is usually about this sense of joy and wonder and rapture, if you will.
I always say with Vintner's Daughter, we're trying to create a sense of joy, confidence and gratitude. As different as our individual work seems on the surface, they resonate so clearly with one another.
And there’s the reason why we are working together.
Have you felt that your work has always been accepted and valued?
No. When I first started, I think I was an outlier in the way I presented myself. I didn't purposely set out to choose on a conscious level to say, “This is my aesthetic. This is who I am.” I just was learning, and I was responding to what was yummy, and what was satisfying, and what really taught me something. I think that it’s when I feel moments teach me something, I’m drawn to them, and I explore them. I keep chasing after them. When I’m learning something new about seeing, or being or looking. So when I first started, I was in a context of wedding design and there was a certain aesthetic for that. And the more I tried to figure out who I was, I kept veering off to a different style than what was popular, and what was trendy at that time. I felt like I was an outlier. As I’ve continued to grow, I haven’t necessarily chosen one path, one strong direction in wedding design, or the other. It’s just this process of listening to my own inner voice that leads me to something that is a unique path. And fortunately, it took people a while to understand, “Is she a photographer or is she a floral designer? What is she really?” Now, I feel like people are into it. They’re embracing this interdisciplinary practice that I have now. And it’s so fun. I do straddle a lot of different worlds and I get to meet so many people and collaborate in so many different ways. And I feel very stimulated and rewarded.
How do you maintain the conviction to be doing things your own way, doing things differently, and continuing to follow that intuition?
On a pragmatic level, I am adaptive. So, I’m able to respond. I’m a bit of a chameleon, so I can design very well in different scenarios. But I think about presenting my own personal work. That’s such a good question. Just stubbornness. I wish I had a really eloquent answer for that, but I think there’s something in me that’s really stubborn that says, “No, this speaks to me.”
Originally you were an actor. How did you transition to the world of florals and photography?
My journey has been very nonlinear. It’s been little loops and circles and slips and slides. But somehow all connected—one thing catapulting me to the next. I look back and I feel, “Oh, there is this little constellation. There’s a web that has connected everything.” For a recent project, I did a photo shoot for a brand. And they wanted me to do a video.And it was a big ask. And I got the voiceover, I cast, I did all these things. It was really fun, and the script was fun. The Creative Director told me, "The script is a bit of a comedic script. So maybe we can incorporate some foibles, something that goes wrong in here." And once she gave me that freedom, I was able to think of all sorts of action. I was the director, photographer, I cast my assistants, and I had people I know come in. And they’re all incredibly photogenic people. Lucky for me that I know them, and they were kind enough to come in for a song. But it turned out so fun and worked out well. It brought me so much joy. My Assistant Director said, “You love this more than anything don’t you?” And I said, "I actually really do." So it came full circle.
You obviously give a lot to your work. How do you recharge?
I love to travel. There’s big recharges and smaller mini-recharges. I will work months on end with no break. And that’s how it is right now. It won't be forever, hopefully. But having a stroll through some park, or being able to sit down in the sun, or having a quick museum visit. Art recharges me. So being in a space where I can just let my mind soar, and rest on some incredible ancestor is a really quick recharge for me. And then if I have the time, travel is so amazing. And food, if I'm able to just go out and have a nice meal that is also a good recharge.
Where is the next place you want to go?
I’ve been itching to go back to Iceland. I don’t think I can go back until this summer. Summer in Iceland is so amazing. You are on another planet. It’s just mind-blowing. So Iceland and every chance I get, I go to Italy.
Has your definition of beauty changed over time? If so, how?
For sure my definition of beauty has changed. And I think when we’re young we’re just trying to figure out how to come to ourselves. And it’s so easy to be swayed by this constant input from the outside world of just impossible beauty standards. We all think about this. We wish we could go back to our younger selves, and be like, “You have nothing to worry about. You are perfect and gorgeous.”
I straddle a lot of different worlds and I get to meet so many people and collaborate in so many different ways. I feel very stimulated and rewarded.
And by the way, we’re going to say that about our current selves in ten years. So we’re perfect and gorgeous this second, too!
Exactly. But it takes a while to be comfortable, and to notice that beauty is so much more than the surface, obviously. And I think, as I was speaking, that was referring to my own sense of how I view myself. But in others, I think it has always been what has drawn me to people is a sense of kindness, of imagination, and play, and creativity and confidence. Those are all attractive traits. I’m drawn to that like a moth. And I find that in human form, they make someone incredibly stunning and gorgeous in whatever shape.
Do you have any beauty rituals that you swear by?
I think having some kind of physical practice, like being connected to your body, has always helped me feel grounded and connected to my inner sense of beauty. Throughout the pandemic, I ran. I’m a terrible runner. I hate running. And I’m not a fast runner. Then I just took away that burden of thinking, “Oh, I need to.” I’m not going to run the marathon. That’s not the point. The point is just to have something I commit to. And it became my form of meditation. I run very, very slowly, and I do it every day. And it makes me feel great, I’m always glad I did it. Likewise with yoga and really just anything that allows you to be in my body.
What is something people would be surprised to learn about you?
That I have very, very bad vision.
What would be your dream holiday destination?
Tonnara di Scopello, in Sicily. It used to be where they fished tuna, and it was a tunary. Now it’s turned into a museum and a little hotel. It’s beautiful. It’s old school, they didn’t want to mess it up by renovating. You feel like you’ve stepped into a movie from the 1950s in Italy. My dream is to go back.
What is something that you are coveting right now? It could be anything from a ring, to a food, to simply a moment in time.
Right now I am coveting Izabel Lam cutlery. I’ve been on the hunt for a while, and it is impossible to find as it is very rare. I feel like they were from the Eighties. This almost surreal line. They're kind of squiggly. I want to get my hands on a full set, and I can’t find it anywhere. One day it'll pop up into Ebay, and find more. She also makes one called Seahorse.
What is your favorite nonprofit or charity organization?
I really love the work of Doctors Without Borders. And Futures Without Violence, which a portion of purchases from Limited Edition Active Botanical Serum is going to support. I want to work with an organization that would help refugees, being a former refugee myself. I loved that you already had an existing relationship with them.
If you could have anyone's singing voice, whose would it be?
Whitney Houston. I want to have that power. I feel like almost any singer’s voice will make me feel like I am superhuman. And so with people who can, I feel like they have an extra arm. That's so amazing. That’s another thing I'd covet.
Related Reading: In Conversation With Julia Coney