Without Precedent: Alda Ly on Starting a Firm, Becoming a Mom, and Doing What's Never Been Done
By Julia Gamolina
Alda Ly is a New Zealand-born, California-raised, NYC-based architect and designer, and the founder and principal of Alda Ly Architecture & Design. She has led projects ranging from new start-up workspaces in industrial buildings to high-end fashion showrooms, bringing a minimalist, playful style to her work while championing a collaborative approach that channels her clients’ own creativity.
Previously, Alda has worked at award-winning architecture firms in New York City, Boston and London, including Rafael Viñoly Architects, HWKN & Leong Leong. She was also an early co-founder of the Cooper Hewitt National Design Award winning MASS Design Group. Additionally, Alda is a co-founder of Designers Assembly, an organization that empowers young design professionals in the architecture industry to be motivated, entrepreneurial, and business savvy.
Alda received her professional architecture degree from Harvard University and her undergraduate architecture degree from UC Berkeley. In her conversation with Julia Gamolina, Alda talks about her approach to design, launching her own firm, and becoming a new mom, advising young architects to pursue the career that they couldn’t imagine living without.
JG: How did your interest in architecture develop?
AL: My dad was always interested in architecture, as well as real estate and construction. He was a kitchen cabinet builder, so being around him made me want to work with buildings and design - when I was a kid, we always looked at houses and would go to open houses on the weekends. He’s also a natural problem solver, and I take after him in that way.
You first studied architecture at Berkeley. What did you learn there?
At Berkeley, we always received fantastical studio prompts to design something that’s never been done before, and I’m really lucky to be able to do that in my work now. The clients I currently work with are mostly entrepreneurs and startups, like The Wing, with ideas that have never been tested and for which there is no spatial precedent. My work now really is like studio was back then, and the process of thinking outside the box to come up with new programming and new ways of living applies to me today.
You worked for four years before getting your Masters. What did those years teach you?
I worked at a variety of firms, small and large, and across a wide range of projects. I loved all of it, so the experiences confirmed for me that I was doing the right thing by pursuing architecture, and got me ready to ‘double down’.
How did your time at the Harvard GSD inform your career?
With my undergrad, I learned the basics. With my graduate degree at Harvard, I was able to hone in on more of my interests, and be challenged and stretched in my thinking. The GSD is not for the faint of heart! Having said that, what I’m most grateful for coming out of the GSD are the people I’ve met who are now not only each doing amazing things in the city, but are also my very closest friends.
What did you do right after Harvard?
I graduated Harvard at the height of the recession but luckily got a job offer from a previous boss. We worked on a lot of interior retail and commercial spaces, and this is where I gained my experience in project management. Because the firm was small and the scale of the work was really digestible, I was able to do everything, from start to finish, and was mostly working on projects by myself.
Next, I moved to Hollwich Kushner (HWKN). At the time, they had about fifteen people and were just starting to build out several interior spaces. Because I had experience with management, I led teams to complete those projects, building my experience in leadership, a totally different capacity of work. At Hollwich Kushner was where I found what I enjoyed the most – leading teams, mentoring designers, and ensuring that everyone was inspired and engaged.
You then moved to Leong Leong and this is where you first started to work with The Wing - how did that develop into your long term collaboration with this client?
At Leong Leong, I started by overseeing several projects, one of which was the very first location of The Wing as it was starting construction documents.
Shortly after I started my own firm, working with a variety of smaller clients, I got a call from the Wing, asking if I’d be interested in designing their new Soho location. I of course jumped at the chance to work with them again, and we’ve been working together ever since.
Why did you want to start your own firm?
I craved having full creative control over projects and knew I felt comfortable with some of the other challenges that came with running a firm, like managing teams and engaging meaningfully with clients. All in all, I felt ready and wanted to see if I could do it.
How were the early days when you had just gone off on your own?
The early days were really difficult. At first, I was the only one doing all the work and knew I needed to find someone to help. I hired a wonderful designer, Mark Hernandez, and we hustled as much as we could. The two of us designed and produced all of the drawings for The Wing’s second location in SoHo, and then started the design for their Dumbo and D.C. locations. We worked hard and fast, knowing that that was what we had to do because our resources were limited and we were a brand new start-up - no eight hour days then!
Talk to me about designing a space with such a new vision and program – The Wing didn’t necessarily have any precedents and the way you guys hybridized various programs and then made them super specific has produced such unique and interesting spaces.
We got lucky that the Wing co-founders were really open-minded and trusted us to help them define what their space could be. Even having Flatiron built, the challenges for the rest of the spaces were enormous. SoHo was three times as large and we had to come up with a lot of new program. We worked closely with The Wing’s team to dream up what an ideal work space would be, basically for someone like me! That made it much easier to do because I knew what I would need and want in a work and community space - as a woman, as a business owner, and, eventually, as a new mom.
Perfect segue to my next question – your son Simon is two months old, and you were pregnant and on maternity leave while still hustling. Talk to me about keeping a new firm going at this time.
I’ll be honest – the experience was very hard. About halfway through my pregnancy, I had to decide if I was going to ramp up or ramp down the company. At that point, we were only a team of three, myself included. If I were to ramp up, I was scared about being on leave while having several projects running full-speed. If I were to ramp down, I was scared of losing momentum with my design capacity and client relationships. As I was contemplating these two options, I ended up signing on an additional client which required me to hire another person, so this answered my question for me [laughs]. Once I realized I was ramping up, I went for it, hustling to get a couple more projects and hiring further as quickly as I could. That single decision has set the pace for my firm to this day.
How did you prepare for your leave after having ramped up?
I was still working late almost every night to prepare and was climbing scaffolding and going to new client meetings at 40 weeks. However, my anxiety about my maternity leave actually pushed me to have a lot of things set up way in advance! Looking back, I was really prepared -I had staff that I trusted and that trusted me, and I had everything in place. Delivering a week and a half late also allowed me to squeeze in a lot of extra work [laughs]. A few weeks after Simon was born, I realized that everything was running smoothly without me. Knowing that I have a firm and a team that can run without me was a huge breakthrough for me. I was really proud - the firm was my second baby!
How soon after Simon was born did you come back to work?
I got the advice to take as much time as possible for myself and for Simon, but I found that I was really bored while he was sleeping [laughs]! After two weeks, I slowly started to take calls, answer emails, speak with my staff, and think about design. I did that while he slept, and it actually made me feel more energized. I also took lots of calls while secretly breastfeeding or pumping! The mute button is indispensable.
At first, I felt guilty working, but looking back, I didn’t need to feel that way because working makes me really happy. Two weeks after Simon was born, I did a competition [laughs]. I partnered with an interior design firm, and we actually got the project! The point is that I realized that I needed to work – the work gave me a different kind of satisfaction while I was home with Simon.
For a lot of people this doesn’t make sense and, to be clear, I do not think new moms should rush back. But if you’re a business owner, and a workaholic like me, the work can both be a necessity and a welcome distraction at the same time. I love what I do, I love to work, and of course I also love my time with Simon. I realized that these things don’t have to be mutually exclusive – it’s really hard, but it’s possible to do both, especially since newborns sleep a lot.
Where are you in your career today?
Right now I’m back at the office full-time, and trying to figure out and establish how much I can realistically work every day. I definitely can’t work to the same capacity that I did before, so I've slowed down a bit and got some help too.
We’re also still a small firm, but grew really quickly in just six months, so I’m focusing on creating the firm culture. This part is challenging but also really fun – I get to ask myself how to maintain a culture that reflects who I am.
Who are you [laughs]? What is the culture and the value system you’re trying to establish?
What I believe most and what I’m trying to establish is that my staff should enjoy the work, continue to learn and develop skills, and feel like they’re working with nice people - no brilliant jerks over here. These three basic things are the most important to me because that’s what will keep everyone excited and motivated to work, and to work as a team. I also have a team that's really diverse and frankly, I love that.
Looking back broadly now, what have been some of the biggest challenges in your career so far?
Figuring out how to do it on my own - I’m a new mom, I’m running a firm, and I don't have a business partner. I don’t know that many women who are running their own architecture firms by themselves.
Another challenge has always been to step out of my comfort zone and take risks. I don’t think of myself as a risk-taker per se, so I had to push myself each time. Before going to graduate school, I was gainfully employed, but I decided to take a leap of faith and study further. Before starting my firm, I turned down an opportunity to lead a new company that was owned by someone else, which would have been a much safer choice. Finally before having my baby, I decided (with much anxiety) to work to ramp up the business instead of winding it down.
What has been the biggest lesson you’ve learned?
I've learned that having your own firm affords you a lot of creative freedom, but that this comes with the responsibility of running a business - a huge skill set in and of itself. You can’t have one without the other, and to run a firm well you have to be good at both.
What has been your general approach to your career?
It's been important for me to feel like I am always challenged and learning. Whenever I got to a point where I felt too comfortable, I always knew it was time to move on to the next thing. I was never afraid to keep moving, and that’s also how you gain the most varied experiences, widen your network, and grow.
What advice would you give to those wanting to start a firm?
To work as though you already have your own firm while you still work for others. Your reputation and your work ethic will follow you everywhere you go and will determine the network you have and the collaborators, consultants, clients, and mentors who want to work with you, so always work as though it’s yours already and be the best that you can be.
What advice do you have for young architects?
I get asked this by students and my answer is a little bit of tough love – only pursue architecture if you truly love it and there’s nothing else in the world you'd want to do. If that’s the case, you will be happy, and if not, there are so many things you can do around architecture that could also make you happy and would be a lot easier.
Last question on advice – what advice do you have for new moms who want to work?
Having a baby will create boundaries for you - for example, I have to leave work at 6 every day now. Try to use those boundaries to focus on what’s important, instead of trying to jam everything you did before into less time. Having that boundary has actually been really great because I am now prioritizing the things that only I can do, as a firm principal, like business development, high level design, and coaching. I have to trust my staff to do everything else. This has really changed my outlook on my role in the company and it’s good for me, good for my staff, and good for Simon. The shift in my role is an evolution that was unexpected but has made everything so much better and is all because of him.
Finally, what have been the biggest highlights?
The best moments have been coming to The Wing opening parties for their new spaces, and seeing so many people happy and delighting in the space, even lining up along a whole block waiting to get in. Bringing people that kind of joy through my work is by far the biggest highlight.