Multidisciplinary Designer My Ly creates for longevity. The depth of understanding that Ly has for the awareness of space, and for the community she designs for, is as genuine as the connection she forges with her clientele. Ly’s recent feature on the Discovery+ show “My Dream Kitchen” came as an opportunity to expand the already impressive repertoire that she’s generated over the span of her career as an artist, architect and interior designer.
Albeit virtually, Ly sat down to chat with District Fray about creating for the built environment, embracing harmony and cohesion in design and incorporating a degree of adaptability into her work.
District Fray: You work across a breadth of design disciplines, where do you see yourself in D.C.’s design community?
My Ly: I’ve been in the District for eight years, I live and work here, and I started my practice about five or six years ago. I have a background of 22 years in architecture interiors, as well as interior design and public arts. In my firm, I work with and collaborate with other folks for the whole process, and that allows me to free up time and work on mixed-use projects, school projects, parks, murals, underpasses — you name it. It’s been a really interesting way to look at the design process and hone in on something that brings a lot of joy to my life.
How would you describe the personal style that you bring into your design work, urban work practice?
ML: If you’re thinking about design on a spectrum of scales, you’re looking at the city scale, the building scale, the interior scale and the place-making scale. It’s really experiential, and it’s art that’s three dimensional that you can walk through, touch and see. It’s not just painting on the wall. The design scale really applies to my design style. It’s a combination of what’s around you — modern technology, conveniences, and bringing in lots of color and vibrancy to have different moods. My design spaces really evoke what you experience in everyday life from a city scale all the way down to an interior scale. It varies, but the short answer is: it’s a combination of transformative, modern, historic vintage and eclectic styles.
In the design-scape right now, we’re seeing a lot of modern styles that integrate hyper-futuristic technology. How does your practice align with this shift?
ML: The technology is off the charts, and it really lends itself to finding innovative products to use, and things that you can imagine, are actually reality right now. Integrating smart lighting, for example, is a cool feature where you can talk to your lights and say ‘50% pink light today in the dining room, and 100% white lighting in the living room.’ These are voice-activated technologies that are really interesting, as well as glass-energy performance and sustainability design. It’s essential that in every building, the building is as smart as the people; the building should be working with you, and not against you.
But, I do like to design for the community. Not everybody is interested in technology, or modern architecture and design. You really have to know your audience, and you really have to understand the trends. You’re designing for something 30 to 50 years from now, so you have to think ahead, and see what is going to be relevant at that time. That being said, modern architecture and design is cutting-edge, and there are so many cool things out there that I love to incorporate into my art as well as urban design-built environments.
What aspects of sustainability most align with you? Sustainability is often understood in the realm of an eco and climate context, but also it can be conceptualized as the functionality of things, and making it work for the people that are going to be interacting with the spaces you design.
ML: Absolutely. So, in sustainability there’s energy, power and water to consider. Beyond the elements, there’s also energy that you can capture and use for technology. If you’re looking at a building that has a skin-tight cladding, and you have a green roof on top with solar panels, why not capture energy from your panels to run and operate your building, as well as feedback into the grid for other people to use it. You have to think about that investment short-term, but in the long-term it really pays for itself and then some. You’ll be saving a lot more by incorporating these elements.
As you know, the climate is changing so much every single day, and every year that you’re building really has to adapt to that and plan for a future. Even if you’re in a flood zone and nothing has happened in 100 years, that could all change. You have to start thinking about building up higher, start thinking about materials, and be proactive in the choices you make about sustainability, not just to better the environment, but to maintain it to still be there in 30 years from now. Don’t just think about short-term, but look at the benefits of actually being sustainable. It’s the same thing as a lifestyle — your design and your architecture should reflect sustainable environmental design as much as possible. This benefits the user, as well as the community as a whole.
What I think is really unique about you as a designer is that while you work in architectural urban spaces, you have this complementary artistic license to make a statement in public spaces with your sculpture work. Can you tell me a bit about this?
ML: My heart is always in art. In high school, I taught art at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. I had a full scholarship to art school, and my mother said ‘you’re not going to make any money, so you’ve got to go to engineering school.’ I went to engineering school, and I transitioned into architecture school, which was a bit of a compromise where I could really focus on the space you experience on a much larger scale, and this turned into urban design.
Now that I can fold it all in, I think it’s important to experience that art. My architecture is sort of blank canvas where it’s like a painting and you start with a certain gesture, and develop for it. Having the space to have public murals, sculptures, and exhibits — that is the essence and the first sketch, if you will, of the architecture. I can really have a bit of fun, and you can see from some of my work that I don’t have one pure style, whether it’s meticulous or geometric, to something that’s more organic and realist — it really depends on the project. I try not to limit myself, and try to explore opportunities as they arise.
In this digital world that we live in, we have access to viewing people’s work at a rate that was unimaginable 10 years ago. Who do you admire in the design world right now?
ML: As far as inspirations, I see it all over the place. There are tons of inspiring local artists that I work with in the DMV, and I use some of their artwork in my interior spaces, just to sort of complete that experience. Andrea Limauro is a great artist who has a technique of meticulously stippling paint, and it becomes a beautiful abstract that is thought provoking and has a point of view. Another cool abstract artist in the area is Hiba Alyawer — she has a distinct style and color palette that is super punchy and bright. She uses a lot of layering techniques so you can touch it, and experience it from day and night — even in the dark you can see shadows and experience it differently.
It really brings it home. For the projects I worked on for Carla Hall’s home, the space was not complete until I set the dining room table and put the art [of the select designers] on the wall, and the carpet below. That stylizing, and that customization, really takes a life of its own at the very end.
When you first began working with Carla, what was the process like? How do you work with clients to infuse your own style with what she was particularly looking for in the space?
ML: You need to understand the existing environment, the wish list and the must-haves. Then, we talked about design styles. It’s a point that’s hard to define for some people, and for Carla, she’s more eclectic, she likes a lot of things, so she’s a maximalist. Matthew [Carla’s husband], he’s more minimalist — he likes modern, sleek, clean. To understand their personalities and to understand how they operate and what they like to have around them, you start to filter and select spaces where they can be themselves and blend those styles together.
What was it like filming on camera for the Discovery+ show “My Dream Kitchen?” I’m sure this added a different element to your design process.
ML: Yes, I usually just like to put my head down and work, so bringing in a camera of course is nerve-racking in the beginning. We were also filming throughout the pandemic, and we were all coming out of isolation. But it was so wonderful, the production team made me feel so comfortable. It was also interesting to see Carla’s world. This is what she does every day, so to get a little view into how she is so vibrant on camera, and she’s just herself, so quick-witted. There’s a lot to learn about this process, and to be part of it was incredible — really a once-in-a-career opportunity.
What projects do you have on the horizon?
ML: Last year, I wrapped up a vision plan with the Capitol Riverfront, and we reimagined all of the spaces underneath the underpass. There were eight to 10 underpasses that were under-utilized and created a barrier. We looked at ways to tackle that and create more pedestrian-friendly, traffic-safe and vibrant cultural arts programming. Sustainability was a really big element to that — we had sustainable planter beds with solar panels and education as well as tons of art work and lighting. Hopefully this will transpire into real projects, and hopefully there’ll be some action there. As well, there are a couple public murals that I’ll be working on soon, and some residential mixed-use projects that are in the pipelines. It’s been a busy year and I’m thankful for that.