Color Perceptions: Alda Ly

Architect and principal of her eponymous firm, Alda Ly is a leading light in the design field. Born in New Zealand and raised in Los Angeles, she studied architecture at the University of California, Berkeley, and at the Harvard Graduate School of Design. The following recounts a recent interview of Alda Ly by Tania Chau. Photography by Sean Davidson.

For the last four years Alda Ly and her team (of which, full disclosure, I am a member) have used biophilic principles, deep listening and collaboration with clients to overhaul traditional models and transform how healthcare, commercial and cultural spaces work, look and feel.

In the 15 years since we first met, she has typically preferred monochromatic neutrals, while I have always gravitated towards fun prints and strong colors.

Tania Chau (TC): Color perception as a physical phenomenon is universal but the description and meanings ascribed to colors are arbitrary and cultural. Have you come across a situation where you feel like you’ve interpreted color usage one way and someone else had a different understanding?

Alda Ly (AL): Since you grew up in Asia, red must mean something positive to you, right? It’s lucky, prosperous. Even though my family is Chinese, I grew up mostly here in the U.S. and partially in New Zealand and Australia, so I had a much more American upbringing. So too are my associations with colors; red to me, means stop, danger. Red is hot, spicy. It’s aggressive. I’ve been accustomed to think that way too.

If I entered a completely red room, it would be jarring. I’d probably get very anxious. But what does it mean to you if you enter a red room?

TC: I think about it less as jarring, but it’s very stimulating because I’ve been here long enough to recognize that red signifies danger. At the same time, red does feel like a good, positive color.

Across most cultures, black and white are the first two colors to be described or named, and red is usually the third. I wonder if it’s because there’s a certain prevalence and strength to that color, compared to others.

“There’s a certain strength in owning a color and changing the perception of it. It’s amazing how deeply perceptions can be ingrained in you.”


The Wing LA in West Hollywood, CA. Image courtesy of Alda Ly Architecture.

AL: In our early work with The Wing (coworking spaces), pink was used pretty consistently throughout the spaces that we designed for them. The association with pink has really changed a lot in the last five years.

TC: I think the idea that pink had to be for a certain type of person, like girls, was an idea that people wanted to take back and own. There was a time when people wanted a sense of softness and that shade of pink felt approachable and warm. Whereas the colors we think about as more typically soothing, like greens and blues that you associate with nature, veer more towards cool, that kind of blush pink provided the warmth that people were looking for in spaces.

AL: The Wing was certainly one of the early pioneers in adopting millennial pink. As a women-focused coworking space, to represent who they were as women coming together and growing their businesses, we used pink as something soft and feminine, but also to lay claim to this space that was all theirs.

TC: There’s a certain strength in owning a color and changing the perception of it. It’s amazing how deeply perceptions can be ingrained in you. When my son was in preschool, his favorite color was purple. Some girls told him, when he was three, that purple and pink are for girls. He came home and said he didn’t want to wear his purple sweater anymore, and now his favorite color is green.

“One thing that we tend to do in a lot of the spaces that we design is to think about how spaces transition from one another to direct the experience. In addition to using materials and textures, color is a really useful tool to do that.”

Livia Corona Benjamin, “Silvana’s Sandbox I” (2021); Sea urchin shells and cement mortar on wood panel. Photo by Luis Corzo.

AL: Primary colors, on the other hand, feel non-gendered and very safe, or at least universally accepted in regards to using them sparingly in a space. They were used in Modernism, during the De Stijl movement, Bauhaus, mid-20th century, and more liberally during the Memphis movement in the ’80s.

TC: Blue is also a color that can be subject to stereotyping as well, in terms of gender. But it also has this perception of being calming because it relates to nature. Maybe it comes back to this idea of what your culture has taught you to think about what these colors are associated with.

I’ve come to find that, rather than the primaries, some of the secondary colors seem safe to me. Orange, purple, aqua or even green seem like they are less subject to a specific meaning.

AL: I feel like those colors are much more divisive. I admit to having extremely strong feelings about secondary colors. I absolutely love green. I really dislike most purples and oranges.

One thing that we tend to do in a lot of the spaces that we design is to think about how spaces transition from one another to direct the experience. In addition to using materials and textures, color is a really useful tool to do that. For example, when moving from lighter to darker spaces, there’s a sense of procession towards something more intimate.

TC: If we’re trying to create wayfinding, we can harness color to deliver clear guidance. We could paint one direction turquoise and the other direction purple, and it would be clear that there are two different paths by the contrast, even if one can’t put a name to the colors.

Shifting the color of a space can change the mood that you want to project. We can make a space feel more uplifting and spacious with a white ceiling or more cozy and intimate with a black ceiling.

“We are very intentional in contracting companies run by women or people of color. It’s something that’s really easy to celebrate, but in actuality, it’s really hard to achieve.”

AL: A great example is in some of the women’s healthcare spaces that we’ve designed. Women are coming for a variety of reasons, like a regular checkup, or they’re expecting a baby and each visit is more exciting than the next, or they’re dealing with really hard and sad news, like a miscarriage. Using color in those spaces is a way that we can help people get through those emotional moments.

TC: We would be remiss if we didn’t talk about our work life as people of color. Do you feel that as a designer of color, you’ve approached work differently because of your own cultural experiences versus the work environment you were in?

AL: I’ve worked at lots of types of offices. Right now, we are an office of ten architects and designers. For most of the existence of our studio, we’ve been all women. And the majority of us have been women of color and/or identify as L.G.B.T.Q. We’re lucky to have the makeup that we do. I’ve worked at other firms that are 150 people with two white men at the top and mostly men in the leadership roles trickling down. That’s very common in the architecture industry.

We are very intentional in contracting companies run by women or people of color. It’s something that’s really easy to celebrate, but in actuality, it’s really hard to achieve. It’s taken us years to find women-owned and -led MEP engineering teams because there are just so few of them.

TC: Although we’re only four years apart in age and I went to grad school a few years before you, I’ve been very fortunate in my education and career in interior design, as I haven’t experienced that type of hierarchical, white-male led environment. Several of my teachers and mentors are people of color, specifically women of Asian descent, and that visibility and representation was really important in building my sense of worth in this field, even if I didn’t recognize it at the time. Are there particular challenges you have faced as a designer or firm owner of color?

AL: Unfortunately, there’s no way for me to truly understand the number of opportunities that we’re missing out on. Our firm is sought after in the niches that we currently work in. We’ve been lucky to have great clients that have that same sense of responsibility and equality, who are looking for a design partner that brings empathy to the table. That’s why they come to us, and why they’re open to us recommending a diverse team of consultants.

I think by working on The Wing as our first project, that put us in that mindset of designing spaces for clients and users who may be typically underrepresented. So that led us on this path to work with clients like ThirdLove, Tia and healthynest, one of our newest clients.

This is an excerpt from Issue 01 of TOUT, a print magazine by Dims. launching Spring 2022. Sign up to be notified when it’s available for preorder.