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Suzan Tillotson

Issue 59 Feb / Mar 2011

Pic (c) Ellen Dubin

“Suzan Tillotson is always brilliant and easy to work with. The lighting at our Southampton house had to be recessive, but there was a lot more to it. I design with twilight in mind, to capture that twinkling, magical time between day and night. Suzan

Suzan Tillotson confides to Vilma Barr the three “B’s” behind her top-tier list of client architects: Build trust, Believe in the Big Idea, and Break the Rules

Suzan Tillotson came close to following a career in engineering like her father and brother. Fortunately for Suzan, two icons of the lighting profession, Howard Brandston and Jim Nuckolls, arrived on the scene in time to redirect her ultimate course of study to lighting.

“My father was a civil engineer and we lived all over the world,” recounts Suzan, President of New York City-based Tillotson Design Associates. “With extensive travel, I became very aware of the built environment. During my senior year of high school, we moved to Louisiana.”

“I enrolled in the architecture program at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge,” she indicates. But the first year was boring and tedious to me. I loved math and also took classes in art and graphic design. When Howard Brandston and Jim Nuckolls visited the campus to speak to us about lighting design, their presentation totally sold me on lighting as a viable career. I became fascinated and changed my major to interior design so I could take courses in lighting design,” she recounts.

After obtaining her degree, she worked for Levy-Kramer Associates, an engineering firm in Baton Rouge. “I was in charge of all lighting design for schools, churches, hospitals, parking lots… everything, and worked with the project engineers daily on productivity and liability issues. I could have followed this career path and become an engineer but I enjoy art… I like to paint,” she says. “The natural step for me was to expand my strong interest in lighting design. After five years of working in Louisiana, I decided greater opportunities for creative design existed in New York and I relocated.”

Her association in New York with Brandston, Flack & Kurtz Engineers, and then with lighting designer Jerry Kugler introduced her to problem-solving for complex design criteria. Once she established her own lighting design consultancy in 2004, one of her objectives was to build a practice renowned for its creative approach. “I’ve been fortunate to have working relationships built on foundations of mutual trust with a number of today’s outstanding architects and designers,” Tillotson states. She identifies trust-building as a key element in establishing successful collaborations with the world-class designers who retain her firm’s services. “Architects are aware from the outset that we really care about their project, and they feel comfortable knowing that we thoroughly understand their aesthetic and performance goals. They trust us to integrate the lighting to give dimension and shape the personality of the finished spaces, whether for architectural or decorative purposes,” she explains.

“From the initial meeting, there is fluid communication with clients,” Suzan notes. “They are smart people who listen to our advice to make decisions based on both design and technical information including weighing the advantages of new technologies such as LEDs.”
She observes a trend to think small when it comes to specifying products for minimalist designs that offer energy-efficient consumption, while still providing appropriate and uniform distribution in tighter packages than the past.   

Suzan observes that the practice of architecture has changed dramatically with today’s available software. “Architects employ parametric modeling to give distinctive form to their work. Our job is to integrate lighting design that will appropriately illuminate the complex forms.”

Suzan reports that she and her staff devote a lot of time to the research and conceptual stages of a project. These initial phases lay the groundwork for integrating with and emphasising “the big idea” of the overall architectural design. “The solution we propose has to be strong—not lukewarm—if it is going to come to life as a value-increasing lighting solution for any architectural style.” Recent examples are the elegant, traditional interior of the Harvard Club and the minimalist New Museum of Contemporary Art, both in New York City.

In some regions around the country, Tillotson observes increasing numbers of architects who understand the inherent benefits of retaining a lighting designer on their team from the outset. “Many architects are overwhelmed today with problems related to sustainability, energy use, business development, and firm management,” she points out. She believes that on the East Coast, West Coast and in Texas, more architects appreciate the fact that retaining a lighting professional can increase the visual appeal and improved functionality of the final product. In her opinion, owners too, appreciate the visible difference creative lighting contributes. “Quality lighting that translates into a significant deliverable to the client also contributes to the success ratio of the architectural firm’s own business development,” she observes. 

Fun in this profession, as Suzan sees it, comes from knowing when it is appropriate to break rules. “After over 25 years in this business, one learns, based on technical confidence and experience, to know where the rules can bend so that we can develop solutions that combine both the art and science of lighting design.” According to Suzan, her firm has been successful in working with architects who handle high-profile projects that require complex problem-solving. Such assignments, she relates, motivate her and her staff to analyse a project’s parameters, develop the components and propose solutions that will become an integral part of the architecture of the exterior structure and interior spaces.

“It’s not only what we do with computer tools, it’s how we explain the subtleties of reflections and absorption, sparkle versus glare, gloomy versus dramatic, and the reasons behind intentional darkness,” Suzan says. “Sometimes we have to build a foam core box and peel off the layers of light so the architect and their client will understand it. It’s up to us to demonstrate why the recommended lighting solution is important and emphasise how the solution addresses all of the intended design experiences.

“For example, for New York City’s East River Waterfront we employed indirect lighting. This is the first time the City has utilised this technique for ambient lighting in an exterior application,” she points out. To ensure all agencies felt confident in the outcome, Suzan’s firm created a series of mock-ups and renderings to prepare the city representatives for the illuminated panorama when the lighting is activated.

Energy-efficient fixtures, like LEDs, are being specified or considered for every project and evaluated for their appropriateness with the architect and the client. “An energy-efficient space is not about a specific fixture; it is about smart design,” she emphasises. “The goal is to illuminate spaces for people by utilising less power.”

Suzan puts in long hours working on project design with her staff and communicating with clients. “It doesn’t leave me with a lot of time to search for good people to join the firm,” she says. When she is able to locate a candidate, they are allowed up to a month-long trial period to be evaluated for a position. 
Participating with Suzan in managing the variable workload are principals Mark Kubicki and Ellen Sears, nine designers, and support personnel.

Suzan, an active board member of the International Association of Lighting Designers and a member of the Illuminating Engineering Society, has taught lighting courses at several universities, including Cornell and Princeton, and regularly presents classes for the IES. “It surprises me that even in highly esteemed colleges and universities, lighting design is often relegated to an elective or a single course, often lumped in with acoustics,” she says. “Change in architecture curriculum must be demanded by architects themselves,” she emphasises.

According to Suzan, artists observe their surroundings closely and can become excited by beautiful things they see in the environment. “By drawing and painting, I transfer the experiences of environmental information to my personal data base of visual expressions. Then I can apply them to my practice. For me,” she concludes, “lighting design is the most perfect profession. I never tire of it; it is continuous in its challenges and its rewards.”

Projects that you would like to change:
The only thing that comes to mind are changes to architectural finishes in the design phase or details during the construction phase that we are not aware of. If we know about changes before construction, we can adjust the final lighting specifications.

Projects you dislike:
Obtrusive glare from exterior fixtures, unshielded and glary floodlights on buildings, overpasses; obtrusive wallpacks mounted with little thought to their esthetic effects, trespass and disability glare. More is not necessary useful.

Projects you admire:

The Parthenon. Hagia Sophia mosque in Istanbul. The timeless Seagram Building in New York City, strong and minimal. The magical effect at the Metropolitan Opera House when the chandeliers are slowly raised to the ceiling before a performance.

Lighting hero:
Howard Brandston, one of the reasons I am in the lighting design profession. Lighting designers Claude Engle and Speirs + Major, Danish environmental artist Olafur Eliasson, light artist James Turell, and sculptor Tara Donovan.

Notable projects:

School of American Ballet, New York, Diller Scofido + Renfro: Linear ribbons of light illuminate stacking dance studioes, with the new upper studio floated within the original double-height volume. The view into the space is controlled by a translucent glass wall with a four-foot band of electrified glass that changes to clear when switched on.

Seattle Central Public Library, Office for Metropolitan Architecture/LMN: Designed by Rem Koolhaas and Joshua Prince-Ramus, the 412,000-sq ft, 11-story library received a LEED Silver certification, achieving just under 1.5 watts per square foot. The lighting program included the exterior, all reading rooms, stack areas, and the 250-seat auditorium. Stack areas have luminous ceilings to create bright, shadowless, and light-filled spaces.

New Museum of Contemporary Art, New York by SANAA/Gensler: This seven-story museum in Manhattan’s Bowery has an expanded aluminum mesh skin. Shifting setbacks on each floor provide skylights to blend natural and artificial light in the galleries. Custom-designed plug-in fluorescent track fixtures allow for a combination of diffuse fluorescent and halogen point source lighting. Gallery volumes are primarily illuminated with high colour rendering T5 fluorescent lamps with UV sleeves, while 100W PAR lamps provide low light levels and allow for inexpensive dimming for media exhibits.

Current projects
Lincoln Center, New York City, North and South Plazas and Restaurant, Diller Scofidio + Renfro/FX Fowle/ Beyer Blinder Bell: The lighting design for the Lincoln Center North Plaza includes varied sources selected for ease of maintenance. The lighting ranges from high-efficacy ceramic metal halide, to linear submersible LED feature lighting, as well as quartz halogen for the illumination of sculptures

East River Waterfront, New York City, SHoP Architects:Featuring the structure of the FDR Drive along the lower New York City waterfront, the lighting provides a unique nighttime experience. The site stretches along the East River from the Battery Maritime Building includeing both the Brooklyn and Manhattan Bridges. Nighttime lighting defines the area with illumination levels that encourage pedestrian use and impart a feeling of safety without detracting from the water views.

Lotte Tower, Seoul, South Korea, Kohn Pedersen Fox Associates and Lotte Moolsan Group: Inspired by traditional Korean art forms in the design of the various interior program spaces, the sleek tapered form of the 123-story tower will stand out from the city’s rocky mountainous topography. 

Millstein Hall at Cornell University, Ithaca, NY, OMA: The design constitutes a reinterpretation of the modernist ‘box’ providing a connection between two existing Cornell Architecture Department buildings and housing multi-disciplinary studio space, seminar rooms, exhibition space, computer labs and an auditorium.


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