How Former Supermodel Lily Kwong Became the Face of a Sustainable Garden Design Renaissance

Lily Kwong and JW Garden Installation at JW Marriott Orlando Bonnet Creek Resort & Spa

Lily Kwong used to walk runways as a model. Now, she is one of the most sought-after landscape designers merging her high fashion sensibility with sustainable, low-impact landscapes.

Lily Kwong stepped off the Paris and New York runways several years ago to launch Studio Lily Kwong, quickly becoming the preeminent name in sustainable landscape garden design.

Kwong has developed gardens for the High Line, Grand Central Station, and the Whitney Museum all in New York as well as a botanical sculpture at Miami’s Faena Hotel for Art Basel and an immersive flower installation at the Houdini Mansion in L.A. Her focus is on transformative urban landscapes that include horticulture, design, education, and visual arts. Her latest effort is a charitable-focused partnership with JW Marriott hotels.

Studio Lily Kwong

A growing sense of responsibility to the environment informs much of Kwong’s work.

“Reconnecting with nature completely transformed my career and, much more profoundly, my life,” she told Harper’s. “When I started working with plants again, my purpose became clear: my gift is alchemizing nature and culture, and bringing the natural world back into urban life.”

Her latest effort is developing garden projects for three JW Marriott hotels—the chain’s latest bid to promote sustainability and biodiversity at its properties.

The Kwong-designed gardens for the Marriott are currently at three locations: JW Marriott Desert Springs Resort & Spa; JW Marriott Orlando Bonnet Creek Resort & Spa; and JW Marriott Essex House New York. Each garden launch is tied to a donation to a local charitable partner selected by Kwong.

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“An herb garden is a beautiful portal to reconnect us back to the land and our senses,” Kwong said in a statement. “Our JW Garden projects were designed to honor traditional kitchen gardens, but Studio Lily Kwong’s artistic approach to plant life adds unique and unexpected dimensions to each project. We are thrilled that JW Marriott guests will not only enjoy our gardens’ beauty, but also their bounty.”

The hotel chain says it’s guided by similar principles, and an aim to cultivate mindfulness “that allows guests to be present in mind, nourished in body and revitalized in spirit.” It’s a philosophy the chain says hearkens back to the days of the hotel’s founder, J. Willard Marriott, who spent time in nature with daily walks. His wife, Alice, like many people of the time, particularly during World War II’s victory garden era, grew much of the fruit, vegetables, and herbs she used in her cooking.

The chain says today many of its hotel locations grow much of their own produce. The new gardens feature a signature herb to be used at each location. Kwong’s gardens are built to be sustainable, which reduces the need for pesticides and fungicides. It’s also designed to conserve water and built with low-emissions materials.

“There is a synergy that exists between JW Marriott’s point of view on well-being and Lily Kwong’s passion for bringing people back to nature,” said Bruce Rohr, Global Brand Leader, JW Marriott. “Our JW Garden program invites guests to enjoy serene spaces and find balance while staying with us – the garden instantly acts as a respite for the mind and spirit and later nourishes the body through its gifts. Lily is further elevating the JW Garden experience and we cannot wait for guests to enjoy her vision.” 

JW Marriott’s gardens

At California’s Desert Springs Resort & Spa, Kwong and her team took inspiration from the diverse desert landscape. The garden is filled with native plants and therapeutic edible herbs. The garden is also designed to deliver respite from the hot desert sun, where temperatures can soar well past 100°F in the summer. The signature herb is sage, which grows in abundance across the region. It also features desert marigold, milkweed, and wildflowers as well as rosemary, prickly pear, and olive trees.

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The Mojave Desert Land Trust, an organization whose mission is to protect the Mojave Desert ecosystem and its scenic and cultural resource values, will receive fourteen growing benches for a shade house, education signage, and support for the growth of 1,200 plants.

In Orlando, rosemary is the featured herb, chosen for its connection to emotion and memory, a choice Kwong made to help guests embed joyful memories. The location is a destination for guests enjoying Disneyworld, among other theme parks in the area. The garden also features a number of edible citruses, as well as culinary herbs including thyme, lavender, chives, oregano, mint, and marjoram.

That location’s charitable partner is the Orlando City Foundation, an organization that brings soccer, urban gardens, and healthy food choice to underserved communities. The donation will help bring gardens to two local schools.

Art Deco is the inspiration behind the garden at New York’s Essex House. There, Kwong built a terrarium that’s both art and indoor garden. It’s located in the hotel’s lobby, but its aim is to make guests feel as if they’re in Central Park. The garden, which also takes cues from renowned landscape architect Frank Law Olmstead, is built into a custom millinery cabinet created by the master fabricator at Līmen Studio using an ancient Japanese Shou Sugi Ban process. It features the signature herb mint as well as other culinary herbs including lavender, thyme, rosemary, chives, marjoram, and oregano.

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The donation for the New York hotel is the city’s GrowNYC Greening program. It’s been supporting community gardens across New York for nearly fifty years. The donation will support the one-acre Teaching Garden located on Governors Island.

JW Marriott and Kwong have also partnered on an Herb Garden Kit developed by Kwong. It features a range of seeds, planters, chef-crafted recipe cards, and a journal in collaboration with poet Mia Moretti.

Kwong says the hope is that the work inspires guests to “go home and grow their very own herb garden.” But the takeaway is even bigger than that.

“Go on hikes, plant a tree in your garden, cook vegetables for dinner, make your own herbal apothecary, give someone you love a plant,” she told Harper’s. “It starts with small gestures—it really is that simple. When you reconnect with plants, you recognize their healing properties. I believe human beings have an innate connection to nature—our bare feet are supposed to know the touch of soil, our lungs the feeling of fresh air. You will remember; your nervous system will calm down. You will start to care. Then you’ll start cultivating more life on all levels: in your little herb garden, in your community, in yourself.”

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