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Space Explorer: Architect Alda Ly's Human-Centered Approach to Design

The New York-based architect is pushing to change the way we think about interiors.


By Heidi Mitchell

As published in GRAY magazine No. 62


A sitting area in a boutique lingerie store.

Architect Alda Ly designed lingerie brand ThirdLove’s first retail location, in Los Angeles. Photographed by Bilyana Dimitrova.



The view from Alda Ly’s current office at 7 World Trade Center is an architect’s fantasy. Through the northwest-facing windows, one can see Heatherwick Studio’s Little Island jutting into the Hudson; farther east lies Herzog & de Meuron’s “Jenga” tower in Tribeca, its balconies protruding this way and that; and farther uptown, the controversial column of Rafael Viñoly’s 432 Park—the tallest residential building in the Western Hemisphere—rises, demonstrating the potential of future urban design. “I worked at [Viñoly’s] firm, helping on the master plan competition for this site, the World Trade Center,” says Ly, who recently rented the space as a temporary office (through June) for her team of 12 and still marvels at the view. “Our design was the runner-up.”



ABOVE, FROM LEFT: Ly has designed a handful of healthcare spaces, including Parsley Health’s New York office (photographed by Reid Rolls) and Liv by Advantia Health, a women’s health clinic in Washington, D.C. (photographed by Zarin Goldberg). Alda Ly, photographed by Christine Han.



That was 15 years, two children, a handful of jobs, and a pandemic ago. Today, the New Zealand–born, Berkeley- and Harvard-trained architect doesn’t have to settle for second place. She’s the head of her own majority-female firm, Alda Ly Architecture, a five-year-old company whose interior architecture is prized by open-minded clients seeking commercial spaces that calm the spirit and unleash creativity. Since working on the first designs for the Wing (the celebrity-backed, women-only coworking collective), Ly has designed six of the brand’s clubs, as well as spaces for integrative medi- cine group Parsley Health, a pop-up concept for e-commerce lingerie brand ThirdLove, and offices for Bloomberg Media and Red Bull.



ABOVE, FROM LEFT: A mothers’ room at HealthQuarters, a recently opened integrative healthcare provider in New York. Ly created a bright and inviting environment throughout the HealthQuarters space, using light-toned materials and a motif of curves. Photographed by Nicole Franzen.


Ly’s approach favors the use of biophilic design, the evidence-based practice of optimizing people’s connection to nature, even in the built environment. “That goes well beyond plants for us,” says 42-year-old Ly. “We use natural textures; we evoke the feeling of a breeze through curtains that move or use a grain of wood that might make you feel like you’re walking through a stand of trees.” Her built worlds consider the worker and the client, which is why, for a new doctor’s office in Washington, D.C. (she has designed a series of healthcare spaces), Ly and her team added skylights and rearranged the circulation to avoid the feeling of being lost in a maze. “The soft wave [shapes], neutral palette, and plant installations relieve stress,” she says of other key details. “At the end of a hallway, we might place something exciting, like a sitting area with a chandelier and windows, to signify the end of a journey.”



“PEOPLE DON’T WANT TO SPEND EIGHT HOURS LOOKING AT WHITE WALLS. THEY ENGAGE WITH DETAILS, NUANCE, LIGHT, AND ULTIMATELY, THEY WANT TO FEEL LIKE THE SPACE THEY OCCUPY COMFORTS THEM.” —Alda Ly, Alda Ly Architecture


Ly’s comfort zone is in small spaces, where she creates big impacts. She’s currently working on a restaurant with a secret theater in Iceland and a Brooklyn café known for its boba teas and Korean shaved- ice desserts. Before sketching any ideas, Ly will interview not only stakeholders and executives, but representatives of all user groups, including potential customers, as well. “Through this process, we reveal pain points that aren’t so obvious, and we find innovative ways to solve for them—for example, the very private double-curtains at ThirdLove, as well as the mirror that only shows you from the waist up,” she says. “People think of interior architecture as one step up from interior decorating, and far below architecture, but the interior space is where real people interact with design.”



When designing healthcare settings, Ly includes places where patients can enjoy a moment of respite, as seen here in the HealthQuarters office. Photographed by Nicole Franzen.




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