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

I grew up in New York City, in a town house. It was a home, but it was also a place for production of custom textiles. My parents were the designers Leslie and D.D. Tillett, and I’m very proud to say a show opened this week about their work, at the Museum of City of New York. I was brought in to design the lighting for the exhibition. Let me tell you, anything designed in incandescent light will look better in incandescent light - for instance richly colored hand printed fabrics and drawings from the 1950s and 60s. Throughout this exhibit, 12 volt AR111 incandescents are in place.

Growing up in this house of textiles, I learned a lot about the quality of materials fused to the lighting experience. I would come home from school every day through the showroom, and I would see my parents, standing with their clients at the back of the showroom looking at a range of fabrics.

The showroom had the most extraordinary sheer curtains across the front window, which gave you this very diffused, cool light all across the room. The fixtures were essentially spotlights, and would cast a warm, raking light across the fabrics. When I would come home from school and I would walk in and my parents were with clients, I was able to, without ever being able to tell you what the name of the fabrics was, tell whether it was chintz or a canvas or a silk, because I could tell it from the reflections of the materials. I could see the chintz glittering. I could see the silk with its almost metallic glow. I could see that the canvas was matte and heavier and diffused. I could also see what the weight of it was, even if I couldn’t tell you what the weight of it was, because I could see how it diffused light or how it transmitted light or whether it was totally opaque.

So I had this sense of the quality of materials, fused to the lighting experience. Perhaps more formative, in terms of my own development, was that clients of my parents would stand at the back of the showroom and they would hold the fabric up to this light and they would look at it. My parents were known for doing very strong, clear colors and quite bold patterns. People would hold it up under this raking light and they would look at it and they would do this slow progress where they would walk down to the window and they would hold it at the window. Perhaps they would push the curtain aside, for direct sunlight.

What I learned from that has informed every piece of work I’ve ever done: not only is it lighting that gives materials character, but materials give light its character. They’re not separate. We live in reflected light and the light we see is the light of the materials around us. Whether it’s a dark stone floor or white wall or a piece of fabric, that’s what informs what light is in the most essential way.

So - if you could be simple about this as a rule - there is no such thing as “the right light” to see something in. There’s not even such a thing as the right bulb. There are some bulbs that match beautifully with some fabrics, and there are other kinds of fabrics that match most beautifully with daylight. But there is no rule for the right light or the right bulb.

The Design Observer published a lovely feature about the show, "Reintroducing the Tilletts"

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