Doan Ly

I was hooked on Doan’s work immediately upon discovering her Instagram account many years ago. It wasn’t just the pretty blooms that got my attention, but more so her refreshing point of view. Clearly this floral designer knew a thing or two about photography, light, and colors. I recently had the chance to meet and work with her on an editorial shoot and somehow coerced her into being my first conversation subject for Aperçu. We later sat down at her floral studio in Brooklyn and chatted for well over three hours over a bottle of bubbles and several blocks of cheese. Born in Vietnam, Doan immigrated to Minnesota as a refugee, went to Stanford for her undergraduate, then NYU for acting, and had a number of previous lives/jobs before she founded her floral design business, a.p. bio.

Below are excerpts from our conversation, edited for brevity.

On how she ended up working in flowers: I was just always really really obsessed with flowers. I didn’t think it was a profession people could have – I didn’t know that was something people could work with and make money on. I’m still curious how people make money [laughs] doing it.

I went to college in Northern California. That’s when I first was like, “Oh having this even one little stem in your space makes such a huge difference.” So it was really important to me to have a plant or a flower, even if you can’t afford a lot. Just one thing. If you can pick it, even better. It wasn’t a decision to be a florist, it was just how I lived.

On living in LA working as an actress and waitress: It got to be oppressive after a while. All the sun. And I’m a bad driver. Mainly I’m a bad parker. It was so stressful. I could never parallel park – it got to be a joke with my friends. They would come out and park for me. And there was no GPS at the time. So I had a Thomas Guide and was trying to learn lines while on the way to auditions.

I wanted to come back to NY but I didn’t have a job or an apartment or moving expenses. I think at the time that I called out to the universe for help I was in a very very very short skirt and waitressing at The Standard and I was like, “I can’t do this anymore. I wanna move back to NY! Please help me find a job and housing and moving expenses.” And then it was like [claps hands] “OK Girl you got this.” I landed a job being a managing director at an international community on 15th between 2nd and 3rd. It’s still there. With no experience, somehow our energy was right and I was hired. So it was a huge trial by fire. And a huge learning experience. And I worked 24/7.

On her work ethic: I think it’s a survival instinct. My parents aren’t wealthy. My dad worked in a factory when we got here. So it was just survival, like if I don’t make this happen, then there’s nothing. I don’t know how to work smart. I can only work hard. And working so hard is what got me to flowers. Because I can’t shut it off. I can’t not work. So I got another job that forced me to leave the house on the weekend [in flowers].

On the name a.p. bio: I wish I had a great story. It was just an excruciating year of hating every name I could think of. a.p. bio – It’s complicated. I think of it as “the flowers are kind of the sex organs of the plant” and in my mind (in the photoshoot in my mind), it’s steamy and sexy with lots of skin and human, and it’s about the take on the word “Advanced Placement” – it’s kinky. We’re pros, we’re not amateurs. And the kinkiness of placement and positioning and biology and reproduction and sex; that’s what I had in mind. It’s really esoteric. It’s not actualized in what people experience when they approach the brand, so it may need some tweaking.

On scaling the business: I know none of that. I have no business plan. My website isn’t done yet. I’m just flying by the seat of my pants. And I keep thinking maybe I’m still a few months short of my three year mark, and people say “after three years…” and I’m like, “What? What happens after three years? Will I finally be more efficient and have it down?”

On a bad work-related accident: I carried a huge bin of bouquets with six glass vases and I was walking down and missed a step. And I remember falling and just could not believe that I was falling. Like, oh this is baddddd. It seemed to be lasting forever. Everything was in slow motion. And finally I hit bottom and I see someone running in right away. Apparently I had screamed so loud someone outside had also heard and came in. But I survived. I’m lucky I didn’t cut my fucking eye or break my neck. I think the plastic cut me in the face and not the glass. Though I wish I had broken an arm and not scarred my face. I was depressed about it for so long.

There’s something weird about that experience. In a weird perverse way… somehow the journey became an interior journey, and the idea of being an artist emerged. I think there was something about the experience where it was about the work and not about me. I was more aware of my external self as being part of a presentation. People can see that there’s something – there’s a visual manifestation of it on my face. I lost whatever vanity and gained spunk. I gained character. Against my will. I just want smooth cheek again! But then I got character. I think clients respond to character.

On creating for yourself and photography: The fulfillment you get when you’re able to create something you’re proud of is so rewarding. And I rarely experience that in acting. So many elements have to be aligned for a project to be fulfilling. But the self-control that I feel when I create my own images – and I think that’s very different from doing a wedding or doing flowers – is why I like to come back [from a wedding] to document it in my own way, getting to art direct all the details of the image, getting to explore my own personal take. It’s my play time, my creative time, and it’s really fun.

Wedding work, which I’m primarily in right now, has to sort of adhere to some kind of traditional look. But what interests me visually is not that. So for myself, I get to create a different world. And that’s like the treat. “My wife, my mistress.” And through that, I keep growing and growing and learning new things and training my eye better. And I think people have noticed that a little bit.

On trying to please everyone: Oh that’s like assured mediocrity.

On the future: With this phase doing flowers, I feel very compartmentalized. Life in acting was a very verbal, physical, personal experience. Another life, another person altogether. And this is a very impersonal and nonverbal thing that’s exterior of myself. In terms of the art of it, it gives me a lot less anxiety. But sometimes I feel like what I’m doing now is academic, like solving a puzzle or doing math. It’s rewarding to solve a puzzle, for sure, but it doesn’t touch the core of my heart. What I connect to and what touches me, what cracks me open, is not flowers, or a photo that I take. It’s not so much the day to day of studio life right now. What moves me is still poetry. It’s stories, it’s connecting to people. So I think this is one phase to something else, which I don’t know yet. But I’m learning something that’s very valuable and I don’t know where it’s going to take me. The next phase will incorporate language and storytelling back into the process.

On shedding the need for validation: [In acting], I felt like I needed approval from other people. I needed people to like me, to accept me, and to pick me in order for me to do work. It felt very disempowering. With photography or with what I do as a subset of floral design, it’s me being able to create work on my own and to explore and to learn and to try and to fail, and to be able to present it on my own terms. And the way I approach it – which I found takes away the crazy anxiety I had with putting myself out there that was related to acting – is that I tell myself that it’s just an exercise. It’s like a daily practice, meditation. Just put it out there and see and challenge yourself each day. It helps to be accountable. It helps to present it. That’s why Instagram to me is a great part of the exercise. Because I actually put it out there, it’s not just in my head. Sometimes people like it, and sometimes they don’t. And that’s also part of the learning process. It’s to not be attached to validation. Which is very difficult because you want to be liked. Everyone wants to be liked.

But the medium is very limited, in terms of the audience, and what people want. So you have to put that in perspective. I know what people like. They like to see a lot of flowers fill up the frame. And what I like and what I’m trying to learn is completely different. And sometimes it aligns with what people like, but sometimes it’s just what I have to work with that day and what I can discover in that day, and to me that’s more exciting. And if they like that, that’s thrilling. If they don’t, it’s disappointing, but you have to keep pushing the boundaries and challenging yourself.

When I started, I was just thinking about paying the bills. I didn’t realize I would love exploring the light and exploring the way I can see differently what I see every day. And how I can have my own perspective that’s different from what someone else sees when they look at a flower. I didn’t at all expect that that would be a component of starting my own business. And I find that is so much more fulfilling and amazing than I could have envisioned for myself. I am learning to have my own creative voice, which is such a blessing, it’s so great.