Katja Heinemann / Aurora Select

Quiet but tenacious, Suzan Tillotson has carved out a lighting design career spanning more than 20 years. Having worked for several prominent lighting designers, including Howard Brandston and Jerry Kugler, Tillotson realized her dream to lead her own firm when she established Tillotson Design Associates in 2004. With an impressive portfolio that includes such seminal projects as the Seattle Public Library and the New Museum for Contemporary Art in lower Manhattan, Tillotson is mindful of the challenges facing lighting today. It is her early work experience—for engineering firm Levy-Kramer Associates—in a 1980s job market plagued by recession that has provided Tilloston with her most important resource, which she still relies on today: her ability to mix business practicality with design integrity.

What sparked your interest in lighting? My professor at LSU—Andrea Daugherty—and her lighting class. When you render light, you have to think about light, dark, shadow, form, and space. Every project always has some element of lighting.

What's the most important aspect of implementing a design? Priorities change from job to job, but it's always about how to create a beautiful and quality environment within the criteria you are given.

How did your first job impact the way you practice lighting? Raoul Levy was an amazing man. He taught me that first and foremost we serve our clients. You must respect them and your colleagues. In a consulting business, you are only as good as your people.

What is the greatest challenge facing practice today? Quantitative standards are being set by people who do not really understand how lighting is done; they don't understand the tools.

You are teaching a lighting class at Princeton's School of Architecture. How do you convey light to students? We talk about it conceptually. I don't know how you can design architecture without thinking about how light interacts with materials.

Does this approach transfer to your practice? Absolutely. Roles are clearly defined but everybody's involved, pinning things up, sitting back, looking at it. Communication is so important.

Why did you want to establish your own office? I wanted to create an environment where people would want to come to work. A place of respect where we could recognize the beauty of ideas while still paying attention to the bottom line.