Lighting “The World of D.D. and Leslie Tillett”

My parents were the designers Leslie and D.D. Tillett, and I am very proud to say a show of their work opened this week at the Museum of City of New York. I was thrilled to be asked to design the lighting for the exhibition and to share for a moment how the everyday experience of growing up in the House of Tillett shaped my lighting design sensibility.

I grew up in New York City in a four-floor carriage house on the Upper East Side. The top two floors we considered ‘home,’ while the first floor was a showroom for the sale of custom, richly-colored, hand-printed textiles. The work of printing these fabrics was done on the second ‘print floor’ and the entire house, residence and showroom, was perfumed with the smell of paint. Each color had a distinct scent.

When I came home from school, I entered through the showroom door alongside a large, carriage-sized window and walked across the dark slate floor to the door leading to the stairway up to the living quarters.  There were the most beautiful sheer curtains across the front window that let in a cool, diffused light from the street while in in the center and at the back of the showroom, 1950s-style industrial spotlights cast a warm, raking light across the fabrics.

I would see my parents, who would smile and wave, standing with their clients at the back of the showroom looking down at fabrics on a table or holding up a fabric to a warm, raking light for their clients to see.  If I lingered, almost invariably, I would see my parents and their clients walk slowly from the warm, raking light towards the cool, diffused light of the window at the front of the showroom where they would hold the fabric up again and stare at its changed coloration.

Occasionally, especially with their Greek clients who were accustomed to bright sunlight, they would push the curtain aside for a third kind of lighting effect.  The bold, clear colors of the fabric would transform under different lighting conditions, the sense of texture would shift, different angles and different degrees of warmth or coolness brought out different dimensions of the fabric.

Walking by, I knew whether the fabric under consideration was chintz, canvas, or silk. I could tell this from the reflectiveness, transparency, or opacity of the material. I could see the chintz glittering, the silk with its almost metallic glow. Canvas was matte and heavier and I could almost tell its ‘weight’ from the way it diffused, transmitted or blocked the light. What I was learning was that, on the one hand, light gives material its particular character, but, on the other, material gives light its character.  That the properties that we typically ascribed to light itself, its shimmer, sparkle, gleam or glow are properties that materials lend to light.  

What I was absorbing during this period of growing up, albeit unconsciously, was that there was no “right” light and that I could design without some absolute standard of correctness. I knew that when I designed with light, it was how the materials on the ground, the walls or the furniture intersected with light that mattered as much as the light source itself.

"When Design Burst From Cloth: D.D. and Leslie Tillett’s Influential Designs" Christopher Petkanas in the New York Times, October 12, 2012.