"Successful lighting design for public spaces responds to the total experience of nighttime activity as it occurs in a particular context," says architectural LD Linnaea Tillett, whose New York City-based firm, Linnaea Tillett Design Inc., concentrates on lighting for public spaces. "Spaces differ, techniques for light change, instruments vary, but users of public spaces need to see, they want spaces to have visual quality, and they want to feel safe whether they live in downtown Cleveland or in East New York."
Tillett's interest in public and environmental lighting leads her to work on projects such as a downtown park in Grand Rapids, MI, where she is collaborating with architect Maya Lin (who designed the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington, DC) and landscape architect Nicholas Quennell of the New York City firm Quennell Rothschild. Tillett is using glass endpoint fiber-optic lighting to create a night sky scene under the ice in a skating rink. "It is very precise, not so much a pretty picture of the constellations but more the sky as you would see it in a planetarium. It will be a great teaching tool for kids." The project is scheduled to open in 2001.
"I came to lighting through theatre," says Tillett, whose undergraduate degree is in philosophy. Daughter of an American mother and an English father, she went to both high school and college in London. Upon her return to the United States, she took a job with a summer theatre company, the Lexington Conservatory Theatre (now the LORT Albany Repertory Company) in upstate New York.
Tillett also studied lighting with the late Arden Fingerhut and considers her to have been "an amazing teacher and a brilliant designer. Fingerhut insisted you design from the text. I learned from her the importance of being passionate about whatever you light, and she taught me the techniques for expressing that passion in color, angle, and composition."
But Tillett's life in the theatre was to be rather short-lived. "I found it wasn't theatre qua theatre, but lighting itself I was interested in. And I'm not really an opening night kind of person. I am more interested in the unpredictable ways that humans act, rather than the repetition of theatre."
By the late 1970s she had moved on to architectural lighting, working for Brian Thompson on residential projects, clubs, museums, and display windows. She opened her own firm in 1987 and concentrated on residential as well as gallery work. "I was looking for other ways to use light," Tillett notes. "In theatre you are creating a fantasy. I like to see what I can make possible for people that is interesting and intriguing."
Tillett also teaches at Manhattan's Parsons School of Design in the department of architecture, which has a new one-year master of arts degree in lighting design. "It is the only one like it in the country," she says, describing the intensive three-semester, studio-based program directed by Robert Prouse and created to make lighting design more accessible to working professionals in related fields.
She has taught at Parsons for 15 years, starting in the continuing education department. A few years ago, she decided to continue her own education and enrolled in the PhD program in environmental psychology at City University of New York (CUNY). "This was the perfect place for me to study how lighting effects human behavior." This spring, she is preparing to defend her thesis on the role of public lighting in supporting neighborhood development.
One of Tillett's prime concerns is city living, which includes appropriate street lighting, what she calls pedestrian-friendly. She points out that what's good for cars is not good for pedestrians, as it is not focused where they need it, which is on the sidewalk. "There are intelligent, cost-effective lighting solutions that can change the experience of the urban dweller.
"Light helps people do things," Tillett continues. "It extends the range of activities at night and provides possibilities." Another of her current projects is a study for walkways that will cross the FDR Drive to an East River esplanade in Manhattan. A few years ago she went to Paris, with LD Leni Schwendinger, to examine how the French were handling light in this kind of cityscape. "They put a lot of emphasis on how they approach light in their cities. French lighting designers, while sensitive to built environments that are hundreds of years old, are supported to be experimental in their lighting treatments.
"Light is a very human science that allows us to create an environment where people can do what they want to do. The lighting makes a statement about which buildings are important or how we use interior spaces. I'm attracted to the transition between light and dark," Tillett says.
"There has been a great deal of important work being done to exploit light's capacity to entertain, sell, delight, delineate, and celebrate," she continues. "What I'm interested in is exploring lighting design's potential to improve the quality of life and the visual quality of the environment for lots of different kinds of communities."
What also attracts Tillett is the very nature of light itself. "It is a hard science with very fixed rules. What you see is light, which is electrical current and the movement of particles, but it has a very sensual dynamic to it. Light obeys certain laws, yet it translates into something that is very ethereal and magical."