Lighting Designer Suzan Tillotson on the Challenges of LEDs, Urban Lighting, and More

Metropolis sat down with the lighting expert and founder of her eponymous, award-winning New York lighting consultancy to discuss the state of lighting design.
Suzan Tillotson lighting design profile

Tillotson examines a lighting prototype in her New York studio. On the shelves beside her are models of the facade of the Broad museum in Los Angeles, for which her firm designed the lighting, and the numerous awards she has won over the years. Courtesy Daniel Dorsa

Suzan Tillotson, thought leader and founder of the lighting design firm Tillotson Design Associates, talks to Metropolis about collaborating with architects, the pitfalls of LEDs, and persuading municipalities and the public to demand more sensible lighting schemes.

Avinash Rajagopal: You work with so many different architecture firms. Can you talk about what you bring to their projects?

Suzan Tillotson: We do work with some of the best architects in the world; it’s sort of daunting. They come to us with their vision, their projects. What we do, first off, is listen. We try to get to the essence of the architecture. What’s the real story?

Because the budgets are so challenging, maybe you can’t use the most expensive fixture, or it becomes a fluorescent strip light in the end. But there’s still that premise, the goal, the strong idea, of what the architects are trying to do. We try to be the police for that—we are the lighting police—and really try to hold on to the spirit.

The hardest part of lighting is predicting it. What’s “sparkle” to you might be “glare” to me. And like a painting, it’s not done until it’s done. That’s why it’s good to have long relationships with architects: because there’s a trust that’s built, and they know that we care. It’s a huge responsibility, and we know the architects are extremely dedicated to their work. It’s our job to make it what they envision, not what we envision.

Suzan Tillotson lighting design profile

For the Bloomberg headquarters in London, Tillotson Design Associates found an unusual solution to lighting the exterior of the building: “There’s a lot of interior lighting at the sill of the windows that is actually designed specially to light the facade,” Tillotson says. Courtesy Aaron Hargreaves / Foster + Partners

AR: Tell us about your work on the recently opened Bloomberg headquarters in London, which was designed by Foster + Partners.

ST: That project was extremely unique in terms of the public realm. If you go to London, you see these beautiful heritage buildings with ugly streetlights mounted to them. The design of this building was so beautiful, the materials were so gorgeous, and we did not want that. That became one of our main goals.

We wanted to be a good neighbor, be soft and not brightly lit or too showy. We wanted to create some sort of iconic image and let the building light itself. The interior lighting is designed to light the facade.

It’s in a very congested area, the financial district in London, and they had really high light levels for the center of the street that they had to maintain. A lot higher than New York. I’d say four times higher.

London’s no different from any major city in the U.S., and we often come up against the city agency, the department of transportation, like we did in L.A. with the Broad museum. Sometimes it will be one person saying that they want this much light. It’s not on paper anywhere and they just write it in by hand, and you have to go by it as if it’s gospel. It’s awful, even though you know intuitively that it’s way too bright, the context of the neighborhood tells you it’s too bright.

In my opinion, you can have a beautiful public space outside at night—Lincoln Center is one example—and the lighting levels don’t have to be high. Outdoor spaces are no different from indoor spaces: You need variety, you need a definition of the perimeter, you need some sort of unique identity to make it feel like home.

Suzan Tillotson lighting design profile

Also at the Bloomberg headquarters: Tillotson’s office integrated lighting into the underside of the bronze hypotrochoid stepped ramp at the heart of the office. The project was completed late last year. Courtesy Nigel Young / Foster + Partners

AR: Are those high levels because of concerns about safety? Do you have to tell cities, “Hey, more light doesn’t mean safer”?

ST: Exactly. We learned from an East River waterfront project that, actually, the standards that New York City had for waterfront parks were just way too high—ten times too high—so you couldn’t even appreciate the waterfront. Our mockups with SHoP Architects proved that the lower light levels along the water allow you to appreciate the water. I’m pretty sure the city changed their standards from 2 foot-candles to 0.2 foot-candles because of that project. The more sensitive developers and owners are looking hard at what makes a public space feel good. It’s not about light levels at all; it’s about the quality of the light.

My job is to furnish light at night: I am extending the day and trying to create space after sunset. It’s kind of a contradiction, so I am trying to do it responsibly.

You need less, not more, just because we have LEDs. These lights are being shipped by manufacturers that don’t care about glare, don’t necessarily care about optics. The life of these things is long, so we are going to be stuck as citizens of the world with these bright, glaring lights for 15 years. I see it as a big crisis.

AR: In general, how do you feel about the use of LEDs now?

ST: We’ve been using them for a long time because we never shy away from being the first. But it has not been without a lot of bumps. Fifteen years is a long time to test a system, but most LEDs have barely been around for 15 years.

Our biggest issue has been the change in the technology. We will spec a light, it will go through design for a year, sometimes two years, and then take three years to build the project. By the time you install that, it’s already obsolete, in terms of the lumens per watt. We will find that what has been shipped could be way brighter than the test we did here in the office—or the color will be completely different across batches from different companies. It’s been really hard to do what I think is our signature work: beautiful, homogenous, uniform lighting.

That’s been our biggest struggle—how to get good, high-quality, reliable LED systems with the longevity they promise that still look good. It’s a tremendous battle.

Suzan Tillotson lighting design profile

At Tillotson’s studio, a whole room is devoted to testing different lighting products. “We spend so much more of our time now than five years ago checking fixtures and keeping prototypes, because we’ve had issues,” she says, pointing specifically to the continued unreliability of LEDs over long periods of time. Courtesy Daniel Dorsa

AR: LEDs have also led to a lot of experimentation on digitizing lighting and connecting it to automated systems. Your work at [ad agency] R/GA a couple of years ago was groundbreaking in this regard. How is this idea of changeable light and digitized light developing?

ST: What I’m most excited about, and I don’t know if we’ll get there—R/GA was close, Ketra is doing exciting things that are close—but I would love for lights to automatically respond to the sky. I’d like to see more of that, more healthy lighting in interiors that changes with the sky.

On the street level, what’s super exciting—and where Europe, I think, is ahead of us—is that the lights do the same thing. Say you have a big football stadium, and the game is over, and people are walking away out to the parking lots, and there are a lot of homes in the neighborhood as well. That stadium lighting shuts down, hopefully, at 11 p.m. so people can sleep. You can have a gradation of the street lighting as well, so the low-level residential areas amp up slowly during ball time, so then there’s not such a contrast, and the residential area doesn’t feel pitch-black when the stadium is on. It prolongs the lamp life for sources; it makes everything healthier for everyone.

Suzan Tillotson lighting design profile

Working with the architecture firm OMA, Tillotson designed lighting for three buildings in Miami’s Faena District—an arts center, a retail bazaar, and a parking garage (seen here).” Courtesy Iwan Baan

AR: So much of what you have talked about speaks to a tension or misunderstanding between natural lighting and artificial systems. How can we get to a more harmonious place?

ST: This has been our battle. The IALD [International Association of Lighting Designers] works hard on it, the IES [Illuminating Engineering Society] works hard at this, but we are few in numbers. Even with your magazine, we are preaching to the choir, because everyone reading Metropolis is going to care about these issues and be somewhat aware.

It’s the general public [we need to reach], the people that go to Home Depot or Lowe’s and replace the lights in their home with LEDs. They are all too bright or they will be too blue, or they will be six different colors. Now it’s so cheap to get all these little lights for your driveway. You didn’t need them before, you never had them, but now you can have them, and they last forever, so we just have all this extra light that we didn’t need and doesn’t even look good. I don’t know the answer. We’re trying our best to make hours in the day to speak, go to conferences, educate as much as we can. It’s not just an issue for us; it’s for the whole world. We have a lot of smart people in America who are recognizing it—architects, master planners, landscape architects. They are getting out there and hiring lighting designers, and slowly but surely, change is happening.

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Categories: Design, Lighting