Michael Grubb

With a big year on the horizon for Michael Grubb Studio, arc sits down with its founder to talk about how he became one of the hottest names in the UK lighting design community, and what the future has in store for the Bournemouth-based firm.

When the Covid-19 pandemic and ensuing lockdowns first hit back in 2020, many of us were understandably quite panicked, taking to social media to remind the world that yes, we are still here. 

However, for Michael Grubb and his self-titled studio, he went in the opposite direction, using the enforced pause to look inward and reflect on his position in the lighting design world.

“I got a bit bored with throwback projects,” he told arc. “I get why people did it, but we went the opposite way and instead took a step back to reflect on who we are, who we want to be, what we represent, what our ethos should be moving forward.”

During this period of reflection, Michael Grubb Studio has undergone a rebrand and, as we start to cautiously move into a post-pandemic world, Grubb is looking ahead to what he called “Michael Grubb Studio Part 2”.

The rebrand comes just nine years after the formation of the Bournemouth-based practice, during which it has become one of the most sought-after lighting design firms in the country.

Grubb formed his eponymous studio in January 2013, shortly after working as Learning Legacy Ambassador for Lighting at London 2012 and winning the Lighting Designer of the Year award. His journey into lighting though, began back in the mid 1990s where, like many designers in his generation, he “fell into lighting design”.

“I studied Industrial Design and Product Design at Arts University Bournemouth and Three-Dimensional Design at the University of Plymouth, and I liked lighting as a thing, and I appreciated the mood and ambience that came with it,” he said. “It wasn’t alien to me, but my understanding was very surface level as a graduate. But through work experience I found it interesting and exciting.”

Graduating in 1998, Grubb considers himself “very lucky” that he entered the working world just as the country was gearing towards the new Millennium. Moving from the South Coast to London, he joined Sutton Vane Associates, where he gained access to a number of exciting projects. “There were all of these Millennium projects – the famous ones like the Dome and the London Eye, but there were also museums and national theatres, popping up everywhere. Over a very short period, I got access to a lot of them at a very junior level, and I loved it; I realised then just how important lighting design was, and how varied it was.

“It was like falling in love with someone; it wasn’t love at first sight, even though it’s more romantic to say that. I fell in love with it deeply over a period of months. When I was training, I never really knew where I would fit. I never felt that I wanted to be an architect or an interior designer, even product design even though that’s what I trained in. What lighting design does is it covers everything.”

Grubb worked at Sutton Vane Associates for 14 years, rising through the ranks to the position of Director, before leaving at the end of 2012 and returning to his hometown of Bournemouth. “When I left, I didn’t really know what I was going to do,” he said. “I got some extremely well-paid offers to work with some manufacturers, but by having these offers, it made it clear to me that I didn’t want to do that, and what was left was ‘you’re going to have to do it on your own’.

“I took six weeks over Christmas to think things through, but once I knew I was going to do it, I got really excited, and my brain was working in overdrive. I was also very nervous – I had one kid back then, a mortgage, a family, and people kept saying to me ‘you’ll never do it in Bournemouth, you’ll never succeed outside of London or a major city’.

“But it was an extremely liberating thing. It’s like having a blank canvas – you don’t know what the name of your business is going to be, what your logo is going to look like, your website, you haven’t even thought about projects yet – it was a very exciting period.”

To that end, Grubb explained that he never intended to name the new studio after himself, as the goal was never for it to be a solo project. “I didn’t want the company to be Michael Grubb anything,” he said. “I was adamant that it would be called something else. I spent two weeks getting hardly any sleep, thinking of every possible name I could come up with which had either already gone; was unbelievably cheesy and clichéd; or so vague and pointless that it was pretentious.

“But then someone in the industry said to me ‘you’d be an idiot if you don’t use your name, because you’ve just won Lighting Designer of the Year, and everyone knows who you are. Start with your name and by all means change it in the future if that’s what you want to do’.

“In a weird way, I didn’t feel the pressure at the beginning because I never necessarily saw it as being me. I had no intention of being a one-man band. I started from day one with a collective team mentality not as an individual – my mindset was quite blinkered on being a team from the outset. 

“And that happened very quickly as well: within six weeks to three months, it was quite surprising what contracts and what clients we had. That’s when I realised more than anything, people work with people, rather than companies or names or logos, and I hadn’t really appreciated that until I started up – I thought much more that I was starting again, but I wasn’t.”

With such a keen focus on the studio being a collective, he has always sought to surround himself with a strong team of designers, something that he feels is “absolutely critical”. “I’m at peace with this now, but my name is a brand, and the problem we have is that sometimes people do assume that it’s just me, so it’s really important that I have a strong team around me to be able to say it’s not about me,” he said.

“A few times people have said to me ‘what you need is another you’, and I always say that’s the last thing I need. What I need is people that challenge me, are happy to disagree with me, there’s no point in getting ‘yes’ men or women who just nod. Diversity in thinking and skillsets and talent is really important. It’s like a football team – there’s no point in having the best 11 goalkeepers, you need to have diversity and balance.”

Grubb’s mindset of the wider collective is something that isn’t limited to his own company either, as he added that from the offset Michael Grubb Studio always recognised the community feel of the lighting design industry. “One of the things that I definitely bought into was the idea of being positive and embracing other people’s work. I don’t allow anyone in the office to say ‘competitors’, they’re ‘friends of the industry’. 

“Generally, I get on really well with all of the other consultants, so at events like 

[d]arc night, we’ll chat to everyone; at awards parties, I’ll congratulate the winners afterwards, and it’s all genuine. That genuine community spirit is something that I want to embrace, and then that creates positivity internally as well.”

On a stylistic level though, Grubb hoped from the beginning that he could tap into what he identified as a gap in the lighting design market to create something more unique and standalone. “At the time, everyone was quite rigid in terms of how they worked, on the one hand you had the engineering-minded designers, and then the architectural lighting designers; and on the other hand, you had the light artists. I wanted to position ourselves between architectural lighting and light artists; we’re not saying we’re light artists, we are architectural – but there’s a creative, theatrical, bold, statement area that I didn’t think was being exploited but more importantly, fell where I thought I was as a designer at the time.

“We wanted to create technically sound, but really subjective lighting design. Our approach was ‘as long as we think it looks cool, it’s done’. That was enough of a starting point to know where we were going. Even when we did the logo, everyone else’s was black and white and we had a big, colourful logo, so it was a statement of intent – we’re going to be different and we’re confident in being different.”

That being said, Grubb doesn’t feel that he has a particular ‘signature style’, at least, not intentionally. “Two or three times when I’ve done talks and we’ve had a Q&A at the end, people have asked ‘you do a lot of bold, wow, impact projects and you don’t mind using colour, is that deliberate?’ I always said no, but the fact that I keep getting asked about it, maybe it subconsciously is.

“People say that lighting design should be effortless, that you walk into a space and feel the warmth, and while I buy into that, to some extent I do want people to walk into a room and think ‘look at this restaurant, it’s really warm, really cosy, and wow the lighting is cool’. I want that end bit where people notice the lighting.

“When we get hired, clients are looking for a bit of bang, something that is not too subtle. The bigger you get, you can’t always be like that, but you’ve only got to go on our portfolio page to know that there’s quite a lot of intensity there at times – that’s what people wanted, they wanted a creative statement with light.”

This approach has seen Grubb and his studio work across a wide range of projects, from public realm and exterior lighting to retail, museums, and visitor experiences. “I would say that we’re quite diverse,” Grubb said. “I quite like new challenges. For example, when we got involved with Lush it wasn’t retail that appealed to me, it was their brief, approach, what they were trying to do and untangling problems for them, creating our own creative brief that they then bought into, and then pushing them in the right direction.”

With a diverse portfolio of work, Grubb feels that there isn’t one particular “landmark” project that helped put the studio on the map, but rather a consistent collection of projects “that all happened at the right time”.

“You’re only as good as your last project,” he said. “If you look back six or seven years ago, I’m still very proud of what we did, but if you’re still openly promoting them, I feel like you’re living off past glories.

“We’ve won a lot of awards for Bath Abbey recently and I’m really proud of that. We’ve had moments when we worked on the Olympic Park, the project with Lush, developing the design language for the Guinness Storehouse – these are all quite different, but the key thing for us is that we’re staying relevant across different sectors and different disciplines; we’re always thinking differently and moving forward.”

One area in particular where Grubb has been relatively forward-thinking has been his longstanding push towards sustainability and the circular economy – something that the lighting industry at large is now much more committed to. Not long after the formation of Michael Grubb Studio, Grubb established Re-Lit, an initiative that works with manufacturers to take superseded, damaged, or ex-demo lighting products, recycle and reuse them.

Grubb explained that the formation of Re-Lit wasn’t a preconceived, conscious idea from the start, but something that evolved over time. “A lot of ideas come to us through conversations,” he said. “If you have conversations, over days, months, years, things will bubble to the surface.

“Re-Lit started as a conversation in the pub between Stuart [Alexander, Associate at Michael Grubb Studio] and I. The whole idea came from the number of samples that we had knocking around, and in the LED world, just how much waste there was when we only had them on for 20 seconds and they last for 20 years, but when we tried to return them, the companies had already made better, newer products. We thought that was a big waste, but maybe we could turn it into a charity.

“These things evolve naturally, and when we worked with Lush, they came to us with a completely different set of problems; they were telling us about their green credentials, and we happened to be doing Re-Lit at the same time, so we merged some of that together. It wasn’t called the circular economy at the time, but that’s what we were doing. We looked at how we could get products maintained through multiple stores over 20 years, even to the point of designing the packaging and how it would be stored. We went through the whole process before this idea of the circular economy was widely discussed.”

Although Michael Grubb Studio was relatively ahead of the curve when it came to thinking about the circular economy in the lighting industry, Grubb said that he feels “slightly awkward” when people tell him that he was at the forefront of the movement. “We weren’t pioneering anything; we were just naturally doing it on commercial projects. There were better, more impressive people than us doing it, but people realised that we were doing it and brought us into the conversation. We were more than happy to contribute, and still are, but to say that we drove the industry with it would be very misleading, and makes me feel like we would be getting more credit than we probably deserve.”

Looking ahead, Grubb believes that the circular economy and “second-hand lighting industry” will continue to gain steam, although he doesn’t believe it’ll be the next big revolution.

“It’s a bit like Back to the Future 2, isn’t it? You can predict the future and you’ll get some things right but most things wrong. It depends how far into the future you’re trying to predict,” he said.

“I think what is going to happen now though, where we used to have massive moments like the advent of LED, now there’s going to be lots of little things that shift the way we think. I think education and training needs to change, and it will. The lighting design community is becoming more diverse, there’s more studios and practices than ever before, and everyone is going to find their way of carving themselves into the market.”

As for his own studio, Grubb revealed that he has big plans for 2022. “I’m never a believer in standing still, because eventually you’re going to get caught out,” he said. “There’s an energy in doing new things and being positive and exciting.

“The biggest thing we’re going to do in 2022 is start a London studio. This isn’t a reaction to being in Bournemouth, but a positive step as we’re looking to expand the Michael Grubb Studio brand long-term, globally.”

Alongside a rebrand for the studio, Grubb also added that in 2022 he is looking “to push the team as individuals in the collective to give them the recognition and acknowledgement and support that they deserve”, while also offering more in the way of education and training.

“I’m creating an entire training matrix that then creates a roadmap for each individual designer in the team,” he added. “The roadmap is about career progression, but also based on skills, knowledge, creativity and being clear in terms of what the stages are and how you get there.

“I’ve also registered Michael Grubb Academy, as I believe that there should be some kind of apprentice scheme in place for lighting designers. I’m trying to create a system internally to then be able to open it up externally. I’ve also been in discussions with the ILP among others, as it doesn’t have to be a Michael Grubb thing – I don’t see it as a commercial idea, but a gap in the industry.”

Continuing with the recurring theme of spotting gaps in the market, Grubb also revealed that he plans to publish a book this year, entitled Stories with Light. “There are a lot of technical books on the science of light, and a massive range of books in terms of inspiration, but what I realised was that there are all these stories about light that sit in the middle, and that’s what I wanted to explore.

“There are musings, stories, some that are quite bizarre, touching, random, there are sorts of weird characters – it’s a bit like being around a campfire and swapping tales of lighting.”

With all of this going on, Grubb sees 2022 as the beginning of a new phase for Michael Grubb Studio, and hopes that he can continue to build a brand, and a culture, that people will want to work with.

“We talk about the Great Resignation – I think as human beings, not just lighting designers, everyone has now got strong ideas of who they want to work for, why they want to work for them. I want to create an ethos where we appeal not just to clients, but lighting designers, to be part of something. That’s what people want now – people want a purpose and to feel like they’re part of a movement that they believe in.”

www.michaelgrubbstudio.com