Speirs + Major has built its reputation on architectural lighting. Through such acclaimed projects as the Gherkin, the Dome, the Burj Al Arab and the interior of St Paul’s, the practice has become known as one of the best in the business while doing more to raise awareness of lighting design than anybody else.
But now the world’s leading lighting design practice is in the midst of a transformation. From focusing on architectural work, Speirs + Major is repositioning itself as a practice that works with light across a range of disciplines, from city masterplans to product design.
‘You could say we’ve become a multi-disciplinary practice that focuses primarily on light,’ says director Mark Major. ‘Our specialism is design problem-solving, coming up with pluralist solutions to things, the sort of solutions that culturally touch a large number of areas within the international marketplace.
‘We’ve done projects in architecture and environment, strategy and branding, and product and innovation, working across many different disciplines in many different areas. Some clients come to us because of our awareness of how light impacts on identity and brand.
‘Some come to us because we have very precise technical and aesthetic knowledge in terms of individual products and their place within the marketplace. And there’s our more traditional work, which is designing lighting that relates to building interiors and exteriors and also the way that they fit into the wider context of the city.
‘Among our clients, the boundaries are getting increasingly blurred, and we’re able to provide a much more comprehensive and knowledgeable service that goes way beyond the normal perception of what an architectural lighting designer might be about.’
Major points to the practice’s lighting of Heathrow Terminal 5 as the best example of how a cross-discipline, broad-based approach works on the ground. ‘Terminal 5 has a bus station, a car park, hotels, all the passenger areas, a very high retail content, lounges, walkways and the experience of actually getting on the aircraft. We’ve worked in all those environments. Someone that understands the entire experience from getting out of your car in a car park all the way to what it’s like to sit in your seat in the aeroplane has a lot of knowledge.’
Speirs + Major director Keith Bradshaw says the change in the practice is based around ensuring the broadest possible approach to light, whether the project is at the big or the small end. ‘On our more strategic work, we’re looking at light in a much more holistic way, looking at all the different elements of light within the city or group of buildings, and how it helps in a much broader sense than a particular project or installation.
‘At the other end, at the micro scale, we’ve always worked on products and innovation, working with manufacturers to make bespoke items for projects, but we’re also now being commissioned by manufacturers to create standalone products.
‘These different disciplines are all in the same room together still, and what’s great is they all feed off one another. That kind of mixing and matching of scales and influence is something that’s streaming through the work all the time.’
The transformation at Speirs + Major has extended to its definition of itself. Rather than going by the label of lighting designers, the practice has long described itself as ‘lighting architects’, reflecting a belief that it doesn’t just provide an add-on to buildings but is in fact building with light.
That treasured definition has now been retired and replaced with the description ‘designers working with light’. It’s a phrase Mark Major believes better conveys the cross-discipline, cross-boundary, cross-fertilising, shifting nature of lighting design – and Speirs + Major’s approach.
‘Lighting is one of those non-geographic, non-physical-based design activities, a bit like sound, that means that you don’t stay within precise boundaries,’ he says. ‘You cross boundaries the whole time. That’s one of the things I love about my job.’
Branding with light
As an example of how lighting can be used to build a brand, Speirs + Major director Keith Bradshaw points to a recent project for BBC Scotland on the banks of the Clyde in Glasgow.
‘That job was all about how the BBC building and the BBC image would be perceived at night,’ he says. ‘It wasn’t about lighting their building. It was about telling their story.
‘It’s a glass building, and we worked closely with the interior designers to make walls of certain colour and light different spaces in different ways, so at night it’s like breaking open the box, almost like turning the TV on. You begin to reveal the activity that’s happening inside, the workings of a TV studio.
‘That was a very important brand statement. The lit image of something is very much an expression of what the brand’s all about.’