Speirs Major

21st August 2023

In a special round-table discussion, arc caught up with the senior design team at Speirs Major to discuss how the practice has grown over the past 30 years, and where it sees itself going in the future.

Speirs Major is a lighting design studio that needs little to no introduction. With an expansive back catalogue of awe-inspiring, award-winning projects to its name, the practice is one of the most highly regarded and well-renowned design studios in the lighting sphere.

Established in 1993 by Mark Major and Jonathan Speirs, originally under the name Speirs and Major Associates, the studio works across the full gamut of architectural lighting design, with projects across the world spanning infrastructure, heritage, hospitality, public realm, retail, cultural and places of worship, to name but a few.

Both Speirs and Major originally trained in architecture before making the switch to lighting design, and this background meant that they shared a belief that lighting should be an integral part of the architectural design process, rather than a secondary addition. As a result, the studio used the term “Light Architecture” to describe its work – an expression that it believes “underscores our ethos, rooted in a fascination with light, form, space and time”. With this in mind, Speirs Major describes its approach to lighting design as “progressively and responsibly using light to improve the experience of the built environment, promote wellbeing, and generate a unique sense of place”.

The company rebranded to Speirs + Major in 2010, shortly after Keith Bradshaw was appointed as Principal, but in 2012, Jonathan Speirs sadly passed away at the age of 54 after a two-year battle with cancer. Speirs had led the design for a number of the firm’s most high-profile projects to that point, including the IALD Radiance Award-winning lighting for the Sheikh Zayed Bin Sultan Al Nahyan Mosque – the Grand Mosque, in Abu Dhabi, UAE, and is widely remembered as a pioneer in the lighting design profession.

After the passing of Speirs, the company continued under the tutelage of Major and Bradshaw, adding yet more award-winning projects to its repertoire, until another rebrand in 2020 that reflected the studio’s evolution from an atelier practice to a broader organisation, headed by several Partners. Now operating under the name Speirs Major, the company is led by Major and Bradshaw as Senior Partners, alongside Clementine Fletcher-Smith and Carrie Donahue Bremner as Partners, and Associate Partners Benz Roos, Philip Rose, Iain Ruxton, and Hiro Toyoda, who leads its Tokyo office.

As the company now looks to the future under this new, democratic leadership group, arc editor Matt Waring led a round-table discussion between the Senior Partners, Partners and Associate Partners to learn more about how the firm has changed over the past 30 years, and where it will go in the future.

What immediately becomes evident is that each of the Partners in the discussion has been with the company for a long time – from Ruxton and Rose’s more than 25 years, to Toyoda having been part of the team for 12 years – the first eight of which in London, before moving to Tokyo four years ago. But within this, there is a longevity that has, in some instances, seen people join the company as juniors fresh from university, and rise through the ranks to the positions that they are in today.

This is something that Fletcher-Smith – one of the self-confessed ‘lifers’ – believes stems from the overriding culture of the company: “I think it’s that we never stop being ambitious,” she says. “It’s not like you get more senior and things become easier, it’s always a challenge, but in a stimulating way. We push ourselves really hard to do something different and think about projects differently. We work on such a diverse range of projects that you never get bored because you’re not only doing one type. There’s always something that continues to challenge you creatively. That’s certainly what has kept me through the years.

“I imagine other people might have considered wanting to work elsewhere, but we have such an amazing thing where we are. As you become more senior, the opportunity to have more of a say in the direction that we go collectively, makes it worth it, because you can help to steer the ship.”

Rose, another lifer who has been with Speirs Major for the past 25 years agreed that the variety of work plays a key role: “We’re not just restricted to one sector or another, and that keeps it fresh, keeps it interesting, and keeps us creative,” he says.

“It’s also a challenge, in a way, because designing a product is really different to creating a masterplan,” Roos continues. “They have very different needs, but at the same time, it keeps us fresh because we are still focusing on light as the main target.

“Another thing that I think is interesting is that we’ve never stopped exploring new ways of delivering our designs. We’re always trying to gauge new technologies and pick up on how the latest technology keeps improving outside of our industry.”

Major and Bradshaw have been keen to facilitate the culture of promotion from within and rising through the ranks, particularly over the past 10 years as the studio shifted from a singular, atelier approach to the team effort of today. Bradshaw explains: “The practice has changed hugely in the last 10 years, and what we’re determined to make happen with everybody else is that we remain fit for purpose.

“One thing that the practice has never shied away from is having a good look at itself; we’ve never sat back, and that requires a certain energy. We recognise what it is to support a very talented senior group of people to fulfil their career ambitions, and ultimately if they’re succeeding, the practice will succeed.

“Lighting design practices used to be ateliers – a lot of them still are – but we’ve gone through a really interesting phase where we’ve matured from that into much more of a team effort now. I liken it to going from being a singles sport to a team sport – we are genuinely a team now, in that if you take one of those pieces out, it doesn’t work as well.”

“Like all good design companies, we’ve been through several evolutions where I wouldn’t necessarily say we’ve reinvented ourselves, but there are recognisable periods of change within our history,” Major adds. “One of those moments of change to the paradigm was when Jonathan retired and then passed away. For Keith and I, that was a very profound moment where we certainly got together, and the practice evolved into a new form.

“More recently, it’s built upon that and evolved again.”

Iain Ruxton has been present for every evolution of the practice, and he feels that each iteration resulted from “adapting according to what was needed at the time”.

“We’ve adapted in terms of not just the type of projects and the scale of projects – that’s certainly been significant in some of our changes – but also the way that lighting technologies have changed, and design and construction have changed, the way that buildings are procured, how things have changed commercially, the way all these things are done, we’ve had to respond to that as we go along.

“We’ve been pretty good at it, to be fair. Many of these things are not just about us deciding what we need to do; it’s all these external pressures that we have zero control over – they have been a big part of how and why we’ve changed.”

Adding to Ruxton’s comment, Carrie Donahue Bremner believes that whatever the adaptation within the practice, creativity has always been at the forefront of the change. She says: “For me, it has fundamentally always been about creativity. Whether this has been taking a step back and asking how we should address things, or opening this up to a wider conversation through the different pools of knowledge in the office so that we can throw ideas around and talk about how we think as a group, it would work, based on some really solid foundations with Mark and Jonathan originally, and then Keith building on that. But at every point, it has always come back to creativity – even if it’s the most mundane thing, it’s just taking that tiny bit of pause and finding a creative approach to those pressures that has made us stronger and allowed us to adapt.”

“Like any creative personal group, you get better by working through things,” Bradshaw continues. “We’ve never stopped, and if we’ve ever felt that we haven’t pushed ourselves, there’s been a collective feeling that it’s not good enough, and we need to do more. Anyone’s work that you are going to respect over a long period of time isn’t just a few freak successes.

“In many ways, whether you’re a recording artist or a visual artist, you begin to worry that it will not be as good as that moment you were most known for. So, we carry with us the burden of success to some extent, but we are also confident about is that if we worry about things enough and think about things enough, we will find what makes it a relevant solution.”

This process of “over-thinking” extends to the way that the practice prepares for projects, taking a broader, macro approach when entering discussions with the client. Toyoda explains: “When we get appointed, it might sound silly, but we often don’t really think about lighting in the first instance. We take not just one step, but 10 steps back to look at what the job is about. Many of the early presentations and conversations that we have with the client have very little to do with light – we talk about people and experience and what the job could be. That helps our clients realise the project’s potential and establish ambitions for what it could be. We don’t have a design template because it’s all contextual. Like architecture, working with light is totally contextual, so understanding the context, not only the geographical context but understanding the people and the culture, and ultimately the users, is fundamentally important.”

“The architectural approach, right from the outset, was very much one based on what architects refer to as genius loci,” Major adds. “In other words, we look at each individual project entirely separately, coming at it with completely fresh eyes. Even if you’ve worked on something similar before, you have to mentally set that aside and draw upon your experience as you go through the project. It’s been one of the founding principles of the practice and how we have worked from the outset. It’s why we’ve never done rollouts.”

Bradshaw continues: “You might think that there’s something commercially naïve about that, but it’s because we constantly try to stay excited by the work. I wouldn’t say that we are post-lighting, but the reason why we delve into the fundamentals of what a project is about at night and stop using the word ‘light’ is because you can then have a much more profound conversation with the client that they weren’t expecting to have. We try to open up the possibility of enriching the project by understanding where it is, what it is for, and what it willbe for in the future. Those conversations can lead to a much more dynamic expression of what we might do in response.”

“Part of it is that we’re good at questioning other people, whether it’s the client or the architect or whoever,” Ruxton adds. “Not in a bad way, but we’re quite good at being disruptive in the design team, shaking things up and looking at things more deeply. Sometimes people aren’t receptive, but other times we’ve made some significant inputs to projects that were not directly down to lighting, just by turning up with a different way of thinking.”

“It’s understanding the nature of each individual project,” Rose continues. “There have been occasions where we have actually talked ourselves out of projects because having considered it fully, ultimately, we felt it was not the right thing to do.”

Fletcher-Smith comments: “The initial research phase is so interesting for all of us. Exploring a new avenue or discovering something new about an industry or a type of building or area gives you a greater affinity with the project and the confidence that you’re doing something with value; it isn’t superficial; it has meaning. This understanding is something we can hold on to for the entire duration of the project, which in some cases is many years. It helps guide us as the project evolves, and difficult decisions need to be made because we continually come back to the project’s essence and try to remain true to that.”

“And of course, It needs to be done but it still needs to look and feel brilliant as well,” Bradshaw adds. “It’s a very fine line, but we still live and work in the visual arts, and there’s still an excitement and joy in light. We have to be mindful that we are trying to fulfil lots of things. Success means something quite different now from what it used to.

“When we talk about projects, people’s experience is fundamental. Of course, the images still look great, and we still get James [Newton, photographer] to take amazing pictures, but what I always think is great is when you look at the people that are there and what they are doing, you can see they’re having this wonderful, passive experience. It isn’t just about whether a detail is quite right, it’s whether the space feels good.”

While the idea of treating each individual project as its own separate entity may seem like a challenge, the team explains that it is possible to use previous experiences as a guide to try something new, or bring something new to a different sector.

Fletcher-Smith says: “You learn what the basis of the needs of a project might be, but then you focus your energy on the bits that could be unique or different. It’s a valuable experience you don’t entirely disregard, but rather look at what you could do that is different.”

“The variety of projects that we work on means that they actually inform each other,” Rose adds. “For instance, you might be working on a heritage project alongside a large airport, and you might be inspired to use one or two details from the heritage project in the airport – that crossover of thought is really important.”

Donahue Bremner comments: “One of the things that means it is never the same is the palette of what we work with. It’s not just light, and it’s not just the details. If we dig into the archives, we might see that we have used the same type of detail dozens of times, but with each project, the result is influenced by the team, the aesthetics, the history, the research, and then the way the light works differently with the different materials. It’s not just one thing; we’re not just working with light and dark; we’re working with a whole series of other, ephemeral ideas.”

“It has to do with self-discipline as well,” Roos adds. “It is much more straightforward to do a rollout if you have a pile of details, and using those would make life easier, faster, more efficient. But we’ve never gone down that ‘efficient’ route because of the philosophy of the practice. We know that as soon as you remove the creativity, you lose that naïve approach to the world where the magic lies. But it’s a constant battle, and we naturally question ourselves all the time.”

Looking to the future, both of the lighting design profession, and of Speirs Major as a practice, the team agrees that there are many areas in which it could, and will, change.

In keeping with the studio’s recent restructuring, Roos believes that the world of design will move to a more democratic setup. “It’s a very interesting time to be a designer, because if you look broadly, not just at lighting, and not just us at Speirs Major, I think design is shifting away from the idea of central egos, the world of star architects and atelier super designers, to a world where design is more democratised, and influenced by different factors, by collectives, by groups that draw from an incredible range of factors.

“Each of us needs to listen, to set our own ego aside – it sounds easy, but it is not always easy, I can admit – but it has to happen because the world is different. I think the star architect is on a path to extinction; it will be replaced by something else.”

As for design as a whole, there are several different areas in which Speirs Major expects change. Roos continues: “We need to keep developing research because the design world is changing so much. At the moment, it is all about circularity and being better for the planet, and light is at the centre of that.

“For us, we have to look at what we can do that makes a difference, what makes an impact, and balance that. We still have a huge creative input to make a space that everybody can enjoy because there’s absolutely no point in making spaces that nobody enjoys, but we have to think about how you do that in a more progressive way.”

Major adds: “What we find challenging at the moment is the amount of complexity and contradiction in the world in which we’re living and working. We’ve got a long history of working with urban lighting and challenging lighting standards, driving lighting levels and therefore energy and light pollution down, and working hard to talk about retaining dark spaces – things that aren’t always popular when you talk about other conflicting issues such as safety and security.

“But the other part of what we do is about creating joy, magic, and something special. We don’t want our clients to say, ‘All the boxes have been fantastically ticked, but actually, it’s a miserable experience you’ve created after dark’. Even if they check all the necessary and fundamental boxes, a lot of lighting schemes can end up less than they should be. So, that aesthetic side of our work is something that we are trying to continue to explore.

“Basically, we’re asking, ‘Can we have our cake and eat it in a world facing climate change?’ That’s what keeps us buzzing at the moment, and the fact that we don’t have all the answers is exciting in a way, and we are constantly seeking to find those answers on every project.”

“You can boil it down simplistically to ‘do good’, don’t just minimise harm,” says Fletcher-Smith. “We ask ourselves, can we contribute something good rather than just preventing damage? That comes into light and health a lot, certainly in the biological side of things – the increased awareness of circadian rhythms. But what about bringing joy? What psychological impact will you have on people, and how can we contribute to that so that there is an overriding good to our projects?”

“The issue is evidence,” adds Bradshaw. “We live in an age where evidence or data seems required to prove everything. But what is the evidence of joy on a scale of one to 10? It’s so subjective. But if we keep that in the vocabulary as we go, we’re not scared to say, ‘We did everything that we were meant to do, but look what we got for it’. That’s where we’ve always demonstrated the few extra things that we’ve done to bring a bit more life to it. For me, that way that we communicate and collaborate has always been super important.”

Roos continues: “It’s a very exciting time to be a designer, because we know that in five years, the world of design will be very different, but we do not know how. That goes for all design professions, which is exciting because we don’t know where we will end up being. It’s an outstanding, hugely complicated puzzle.”

“We must remember that we work for humans; humans are our clients – they’re the population of the spaces that we work within,” adds Bradshaw. “And humans are very complicated moving targets. They change, they evolve, and they find pleasure in changes. The more that we can remain empathetic as designers, it will lead to an appropriate result. We’ve always been good at collaborating, understanding, and looking deeply into things; the more we continue to do that, we will stay relevant to what people want and then write that large into what a public space needs to be or what a developer wants their building to look like.”

“Once upon a time, there was an original question of what are we going to be, and if you synthesise all of that together, the answer is we don’t know,” comments Ruxton. “But the point is what we will do is we will keep on listening, keep on looking, and keep on being open. As Benz says, things will be very different in five years; we know what many of the important challenges are now in sustainability and circularity, AI, and various technological things. We know what’s going on at the moment, but whatever is going on in five years, we’ll be ready for it. We’ll be open to it as soon as we see it peeking over the horizon, we’ll work to get our heads around it. We’ll continue to be open and flexible and hungry for knowledge, and able to respond appropriately.”

For Toyoda though, as he looks to the future, there is another important, but equally difficult, question to ask. “There are a lot of questions that we need to ask ourselves, but the most important one will always be ‘why’,” he says. “What we do can often become a bit distracting to the process, but the fundamental question is why we do what we do. If we can answer that question confidently, then regardless of where the solution comes from – our creativity or AI or wherever we know that we are doing the right thing. It’s not just about finding the best way to make a project look good or any other conflicting issues we must address. By asking why, then we can make a judgement as to how far we want to go with a certain idea. It’s an essential part of the process.”

While ‘why’ may seem on the surface to be an introspective, philosophical question, Bradshaw says that over the past few years, particularly in the depths of the Covid lockdowns, it became necessary for the practice to assess its position, look at the work that it is doing, and prepare for the future.

“Why has been a question that has always been a part of the practice. We know how; if you’ve been doing it for as long as we have, it isn’t that complicated,” he explains. “Being a lighting designer isn’t like being a furniture designer, or even being an architect or a landscape architect, in that the ego doesn’t exist in the same way.

“If you look at our projects over time, if you’ve got an expert eye, you could recognise not necessarily a house style, because you can’t have a house style when you work on all these different things, but there’s definitely an attitude to projects.

“I enjoy looking through our old projects because it focuses my mind, and you boil down to the essence of what we are as a practice. This phase is something that we have been thinking about this phase for a long time, but there was a lot of deep thought over that two-year lockdown period where we were working out if there was such a thing left as lighting design. What is it that we are excited about?

“Like most traumas, it gave us a great sense of renewal, to ask what we are going to do with this new lease of life, this new opportunity.”

So where does Speirs Major go from here? What does the future look like for the practice? As Roos and Ruxton speculate, nobody knows what the lighting design world will look like in five years. However, you can be sure that Speirs Major, under its new, democratic stewardship, will still be at the top of its game, continuing to produce outstanding works of lighting design that will delight and inspire, as it has done for the last 30 years.