Designer Spotlight: Suzan Tillotson, Tillotson Design Associates, New York City, NY

Designer Spotlight: Suzan Tillotson

By: Ashley Rothey, WE-EF USA Marketing Coordinator

In the industry of lighting design, the face of the designer is rarely identified.  When viewing a project in an architectural magazine, we may know the architect or recognize the final product, but the lighting designer is usually left in the shadows.  The WE-EF USA Blog wants to shine the spotlight on the person who brings architecture to life: The Lighting Designer.

Suzan Tillotson of Tillotson Design Associates in New York strayed from the typical path of an architecture student in order to become a lighting designer.  After 35 years in the industry and numerous awards under her belt, including 2017 LDA’s Lighting Designer of the Year, Suzan is proud of how far the lighting industry has come, yet realizes there is still room for improvement.

I had the pleasure of speaking with Suzan about how far the industry has come, her accomplishments, and what she envisions for the future of lighting design.


AR:  As an undergraduate at Louisiana State University deciding on a career, what lured you into lighting design?

ST:  I was in architecture and I was drafting house plans.  It was just a bit tedious and boring.  I just thought, “There’s got to be something else.”  I found that the interior design department had a program in lighting.  They had four classes, four semesters worth of lighting.  I talked to the interior design department and just thought, “Wow!  I should really switch.


AR:  How has the lighting industry changed since you began your career over 35 years ago?

ST:  The biggest thing for me is that the profession finally has a seat at the table.  By that, I mean that [a lighting designer] was never listed on RFPs when I first started.  A lighting designer wasn’t a required consultant on a job, but now we are.  We are really a vital part of most high-end projects.  It’s a true profession, not just something extra.


AR:  What is the most important tool of the lighting designer?

ST:  There are tools like the computer, software programs, the speed of the computer, but the more important tool for a lighting designer, for any a consultant, is to be a really good listener.  We have to really listen to what clients want and connect the dots for them because very few people understand what lighting does or how it will look.  Listening to what they want and being able to convey the vision of what they’re going to get, that is the hardest thing.


AR:  How has the advancement of lighting technology influenced your designs?

ST:  I think architecture has changed so much just because of the capabilities of software and 3-dimensional design.  Now with virtual reality being part of the mix, if you can envision it in your dreams, you can pretty much have it.  Things we couldn’t do before, we’re now able to do.


AR:  What project has been the most rewarding upon completion?

ST:  It’s difficult to say since all of our jobs are rewarding in some way, but I think one of the most challenging jobs that I’m proudest of was really The Broad.  The reason I say that is because it was a bit terrifying since we were working with a very complex façade that was hard to imagine in all of our 3-D models and AGI studies.  It was hard to know if it was really going to work.  We had to make sure the light level was just perfect, even though it was white because it was really dark downtown.  I was really worried about it being too bright and garish.  I think I’m most proud of that. We did a lot of shenanigans with the fixtures, modifying and shielding this, frosting and louvering that.  In the end, it was a modified standard product and the first LED ingrade lights we ever used.  It was pretty awesome and I’m really happy with it.


AR:  What advancements do you hope to see in the lighting design industry over the next 10 years?

ST:  I’m really hoping that manufacturers will care more about glare and performance, not just efficiency instead or selling LED product.  There need to be a lot more advances made in LED wall washers and just in general.  I think manufacturers need to think a bit more out of the box.  I’m starting to get bored with product that’s coming out because it’s just the same-old, same-old.  There needs to be more embracing of the optics.  Some people are doing it, but not enough.  I’d like to see manufacturers be more responsible about what they’re selling.


AR:  Why have you selected WE-EF for such influential projects, such as The Broad in Los Angeles?

ST:  We started out with metal halide and we looked at a lot of other manufacturer’s fixtures, but the punch we were getting, the way the optics performed for the size of the aperture, the glare control, the distance of the lamp to the lens when we frosted the lens and turned it into a wall washer, it performed better than anything else we tested in our office.  It was really about what worked best.


AR:  What are you looking for from lighting manufacturers when selecting their luminaires for a project?

ST:  I’m looking first and foremost for the appearance in terms of glare, design, and performance.  It’s all one package.  Then I look for reliability.  Has it been used before?  Has it been installed anywhere in the world for more than a year and still functioning?  What is the warranty?  How reliable is the company if something fails?  It’s all of those things.


AR:  What advice do you have for the next generation of lighting designers?

ST:  Enjoy it.  Embrace it.  It is an amazing profession and I’m so thrilled when I see young people choosing lighting design as a profession because it has been so good to me.  For 35 years I have loved my job and I don’t know a lot of people who can say that about their careers.  I would say you’ve chosen a profession that you’re hopefully passionate about.  I think that if you’re passionate about something and you work hard at it, you will be successful.  There’s a lot of opportunity in lighting design for young people and we really need better lighting in the world.