Designing Artful Light for the Morgan Library

April 24, 2020

To illuminate its gardens, which will open to the public for the first time next year, the Morgan Library & Museum tapped alumna Linnaea Tillett (Ph.D. '13, Environmental Psychology).

The Morgan Library and Museum and  Linnaea Tillett (inset). Photos courtesy of Tillett
The Morgan Library and Museum and Linnaea Tillett (inset). Photos courtesy of Tillett

Next year, for the first time in its history, the Morgan Library & Museum plans to open its garden to visitors. The opening will be the grand conclusion of a $12.5 million restoration of the nearly century-old National Historic landmark, located just around the corner from The Graduate Center. 

When the gates open, those who visit after dusk — there will be free public admission, as part of the Morgan’s weekly Friday evening program — will experience a setting designed to evoke a mood: one that draws on the interplay between light and darkness, allowing space for mystery and imagination. 

The lighting of the Morgan garden was designed by Linnaea Tillett (Ph.D. ’00, Environmental Psychology), founder and principal of Tillett Lighting Design Associates, a firm renowned for its public and private projects, whose work in New York City includes the gardens of the Battery Bosque, the Boathouse at Brooklyn Bridge Park, the landmarked Friends Meeting House, and the main branch of the Brooklyn Public Library. 


The firm is devoted to the idea, as expressed by Tillett, that light is a link between our worldly and emotional lives, a subtle connection between our inner selves and our surroundings. The eight members of the firm have put this idea into practice, notably in outdoor public spaces in towns and cities like the Menil Collection campus in Houston; the Arts and Transit project at Princeton University, including Maya Lin’s new earthwork; and the Monk’s Garden at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston.

“You want a space to feel somewhat magical,” Tillett says. “With an urban landscape, it’s about making very thoughtful, judicious decisions about what you want to see and how you want it to feel.”

When Tillett enrolled at The Graduate Center, she already had experience working with light — first as a theatrical lighting designer, and later as an interior lighting designer, focusing on fine art collection and working for galleries and museum exhibits. 

During that same early period of her career, she also did volunteer work in some of New York’s underserved neighborhoods. “I was very conscious of how differently all the lighting felt” in those areas, Tillett says. “Whether there was redlining, and therefore super bright, or else plunged in darkness.”

She reached out to the city’s Department of Transportation about working on a project, but she didn’t have any experience working in outdoor, urban environments. (Tillett’s undergraduate degree is in philosophy, from University College London.) A friend told her about the environmental psychology, an interdisciplinary field that examines the relationship between individuals and their surroundings. Tillett applied to The Graduate Center at the age of 37, with a specific goal in mind: “I wanted to wind up in a situation where I could make a contribution outside of the box that I was in.” 

After her enrollment, she approached the Department of Transportation again. This time, she received funding for her proposal, which became her thesis: a six-block public lighting project in East New York. Rather than flood the streets with harsh light, a typical approach in areas perceived as high crime, at Tillett’s direction the DOT installed Central Park-style and other attractive fixtures to illuminate sidewalks and cast soft light on the community center, library, and historic church, while keeping light from spilling over into nearby apartments.

Since that project, completed in 1998, she has worked to make a socially relevant contribution, choosing projects where “there’s an opportunity for imaginative responses.” Her favorite part of a project is going to the site and discovering the life of a place. That means visiting at night. “All of our installation work is at night,” she says. “Our research, a lot of our creative work — it’s on the site, and it has to be at night.” Dawn is also important: in some cities, like New York, she’ll visit a site at 4 a.m., when many people head to work. 

With projects in or around nature, there are ecological concerns. “You can destroy habitats with light,” she says. “You don’t want exhausted fish and disoriented birds.” For a project on Pier 26, where environmental groups are hoping to restore fish populations, the firm worked to keep light off the water. All of their projects involve not only research, but also empathy. “We want to understand the culture, and that includes who’s sleeping on the street, the history of how a place is thought about, if people perceive it as dangerous.”

With the Morgan, Tillett was able to draw on her own impression of the building from her childhood in New York. “I remember the excitement and awe I experienced as a child, but recently it has had a more desolate beauty,” she says. “We wanted it to have a certain poetry.” Because it is a large building in a dense residential community, she didn’t want to make the entire façade bright. “We went the opposite way: bringing a bit of moonlight to the garden. We want it to be an invitation.”

For students considering a Ph.D. in environmental psychology, she advises considering the end goal. “Focusing on what you care about and are passionate about changes the dynamic,” she says. That said, opportunities in the field abound. She sees rapidly expanding interest in health-related and biophilic design. “People are beginning to understand that the environments people work in have a profound effect on their mental health, how health is related to seeing more nature, and how light in offices affects circadian rhythms,” she says. “What the original environmental psychologists did is coming back.”

Lighting design, in particular, draws on so many areas: psychology, design, technology, adherence to and awareness of regulations and codes, and, of course, art. To Tillett, there’s a pleasure in making these disparate fields and skills come together. “Drawing beautiful pictures is easy, in a way,” she says. “But making something that works and lasts — that’s its own art.”