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Volume 2, Issue 2
Meet Linnaea Tillett, PhD,
CEO of Tillett Lighting
Design Associates
Make every light count. This was a lesson Linnaea Tillett learned when she was completing her thesis for a PhD in Environmental Psychology. A long-time volunteer in NYC, Tillett was struck by the fact that the lighting in underserved communities was more like something you’d see in high-security areas, not in a livable community. Working with NYC’s Pedestrian Projects Department, Tillett’s thesis would become a four-year project to improve one community by improving its street and underpass lighting and the lighting of the facades flanking the street.
Linnaea Tillett, PhD, CEO of Tillett Lighting Design Associates
Caption: : Linnaea Tillett uses the principles of environmental psychology to forge a highly acclaimed approach to lighting: imaginative, public-spirited, ecology-sensitive, and technically innovative.
Her budget was small, and it was that reality that taught Tillett an important principle in lighting design. “Every light had to do something because I didn’t have the freedom or budget for anything else,” she explains. “What was I trying to achieve with every light? What did it need to do? I had to think carefully about every aspect of the lighting design. That training has affected everything I have done.”
Tillett spent four years on her thesis, including a year researching what the community wanted and needed. The project helped Tillett learn to evaluate and think about lighting for a community that was going to use it, whose activities would be affected by it. The project merged the symbolic, emotional, qualitative, and aesthetic value of lighting as well as its functional elements.
Merging those aspects of lighting for a community is not so different from lighting outdoor public spaces, be they parks, campuses, or waterfronts; they are all places people use at night. Most recently, the COVID-19 pandemic has made people’s needs and the way public spaces are used grow and change. Tillett believes this trend will “go on steroids” as the social and psychological value of park spaces grows. “Social dynamics are changing how public space is used. Today, Central Park is a gym…literally,” she says. Designing for flexibility and multiple moods is necessary to meet the particular needs of evolving parks. “Lighting in shared public spaces will still be a mark of urbanity and give people a sense of place and wayfinding. But lights also have to be able to adjust to different physical and social conditions. Parks increasingly need to be more economically self-sustaining, with cafes, beer gardens, and other revenue streams. Lighting affects all of this. Light fixtures are much more than something you just place.”
These issues can’t be solved by throwing a lot of equipment into the design, explains Tillett. “People are concerned about cost. Lights have to do more and more, but the budgets don’t necessarily grow in tandem. “The lessons my thesis taught me are more applicable now than they ever were.”
Tillett Lighting Design's point of view is that outdoor spaces are used by complex human beings who have complex needs and associations between them. Public spaces are a significant part of community-based experiences. “We approach design from a client-centric and ecology-centric perspective. We ask who will be using the space? Who does the client want to be using it? We begin here and then we can better address what people want and need. Humans aren’t static. Things will change. We need to build in this idea of species-centric design. We don’t want to be invasive. If one light can work, why put in four?” Make every light count.
“Our lighting designs toggle between poetic and functional. When clients come to us, they don’t come to us for drama. They come for subtlety, for aesthetics that are lowkey and enchanting. We don’t draw attention to the lighting, but we support people in their desire to enjoy the evening.”
When asked what the role of outdoor lighting is, Tillett answers that it is a “facilitator of activities and moods. Mood is really important to us. In environmental psychology, we talk about the mood of the environment. The landscape architect sets the mood of the space. We think about that in terms of the nighttime experience of the place, the mood at night.”
Mood is affected by more than the landscape design and day and night. “Seasons create moods and have a mood. Summer in the park is a different experience from the rest of the year, for example. There are moods of the time−sometimes more festive, sometimes more subtle. Lighting also needs to address cultural differences of regions and countries.”
Tillett’s experiences and her firm’s point of view are being realized in a first-ever project for Tillett Lighting Design: designing an outdoor fixture for public space in collaboration with Landscape Forms. “Outdoor fixtures must provide visual comfort, with the right optics that can be adjusted to light properly. Fixtures succeed when they don’t obstruct people from doing what they need to do. At night, you need light to use the space; it’s a critical component. People want to be out in public space and feel safe. A fixture that facilitates those activities is a fixture that is successful. Ultimately, successful lighting fits comfortably in the landscape and allows people to use public space.”