“Design and creative thinking are fundamental to what gets us out of bed in the morning, what drives us to work stupid hours and sit on planes going to far distant lands. It is about creativity and the idea.”
It would take an entire book, and then some, to describe the achievements of architect and lighting designer Jonathan Speirs, which of late include the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Royal Incorporation of Architects in Scotland, the association's highest honor, and an honorary membership from the IALD. Speirs began practicing lighting design in the United Kingdom in the early 1980s, when there were only a few such consultancies.
Fast-forward almost 30 years: Speirs and colleagues Mark Major and Keith Bradshaw have grown Speirs + Major into one of the most highly respected global lighting firms. Among the firm's many accolades: an unprecedented three consecutive IALD Radiance Awards. But no matter all the accolades, only one word is needed to describe this great and humble talent: gentleman.
What still fascinates you about light?
It's physiological and psychological effects. It doesn't surprise me that it has such a massive impact on our well-being and our lives. From a lighting design and architecture perspective, it's the huge opportunity and variety of application of how you can illuminate spaces.
For a long time the firm used the term "lighting architect." What does that mean in terms of how architecture and lighting coordinate as disciplines?
Early on, it was trying to find a way to describe who we were and what we did. Now we use the phrase "designers working with light," It's a much better representation of all of the types of work the firm is doing.
How do you start the design process?
We're always interested in how light can make a difference. Sometimes it can make a difference by being overt, other times it can make a difference by being completely subliminal. But ultimately it's about having a solid idea and concept, so that when a client, an architect, or another member of the design team questions it, you have the answer.
How did the exhibit and book Made of Light come about?
The Royal Institute of British Architects wanted to have a retrospective of our work, but Mark and I declined; we didn't think at that stage we had a body of work that was worthy of it. But then we started to think about what kind of an exhibit would we be interested in seeing. The more we thought about it, we wondered what would interest an architect or the general public if they went to see an exhibition on light. From there, the whole thing evolved into an educational project, including our book, a small website, and of course the touring exhibition, where we could talk about how we think about light and the important elements of architecture.
Where do you see the practice of lighting heading?
I think we're going to see more specialization within the realm of lighting design-daylighting, theatrical projects, restaurants, etc. The evolution of companies will start to fragment that way, and that's not a bad thing.
And there's enough work to support that level of detail and focus?
The world is getting bigger, well, actually it's getting smaller because it's easier to get to far-flung distant places now than it ever used to be. But because now there are clients in far-flung places, they feel they want to have great lighting design.
In terms of supporting and growing the lighting design profession, are there enough programs specific to the teaching of light?
I learned about lighting by doing it, making mistakes, learning from those mistakes, applying it, coming up with an idea, seeing an idea realized and learning from that, going around looking at other projects, [and] learning from those projects. We can teach people in-house the technicalities of light, but the most important thing is creativity. I think until schools start to really address that issue-and I think some of them are trying, don't get me wrong-in terms of trying to encourage the students to have a mind and [to] truly think about things in a creative manner, we will not push the boundaries of what our profession can deliver to the built form. I think we need more schools to do that. Obviously with the worldwide recession that we're all suffering at the moment, the biggest problem is that there are not enough jobs out there. So for architects, never mind lighting designers, that is going to take a number of years to balance out again.
I worry about not just the lighting design profession. I worry about the architecture profession and the number of architects that are being spat out from the schools of architecture every year, most of whom will not have a hope in hell of getting a job because there are currently no jobs to be had. But aside from the current situation, I think what needs to happen is there needs to be more schools with great teachers. It all comes back to how good are the teachers, how inspiring are the teachers?
How do you maintain a balance between having your design talents and skills recognized within the context of a project and seeing the work of a high-profile architect through to completion?
The most important thing for us when you work with some of the better-known architects is: Will it be a collaborative process? We genuinely believe that we bring something to the table every single time. At the end of the day, we love what we do and we want to have enjoyment in the process. The more we work with a well-known architect (or a less-well-known), the more they trust us. We find that in many cases when we're sitting at the table with the architect-early on, when it's a relatively blank piece of paper-that we're not treated as lighting designers. We're treated as designers and, therefore, they have an opinion on light, we have an opinion on architecture, materials, surfaces, moving through spaces, and how and what you see and experience. All of those things.
The architects who trust us and respect us know that we're not going to suggest stupid things. Ultimately, they are the design leader, but they respect our opinion in terms of how it is, and we have good, strong debates about ideas. That design process is incredibly enjoyable. I think it's also key for us that we're involved through the entire project. We have attempted over the years to try different ways of working, where we just do concepts or concepts with some schematic information and then leave it up to the architects and the engineer to try and get it delivered, and the results are never good. It's key that the lighting designer is there to make sure of the crafting of the end result, to deliver the client the vision that was sold to them at the very beginning [of the project].
What do you consider innovative in lighting?
I think that comes back to creative thought and constantly pushing the boundaries of how you can apply and integrate light into building, surfaces, and materials. I hope that we are known for our creativity and our innovation in terms of how we think about light and how we apply light and the ideas behind those things.
Any advice for young designers in this economy?
Hang in there. Get experience in as many different aspects of design as you can and you'll be a better designer. Open your eyes. Travel the world. It doesn't always have to be about light. Just be interested in design with a big "D." You'll be surprised at how useful things you pick up, nothing to do with light, can influence your decision-making and design process later.
Any predictions for the next big thing in lighting?
There's going to be more use of daylight in buildings.
Is there a lighting gadget out there that you wish existed?
I'd love a credit card-sized light meter that fits in my wallet so I could bring it out in meetings.
Favorite time of day?
A lighting or architecture text that has influenced you?
Kevin Lynch's Image of the City has been a guiding force in our strategic thinking.
Words of wisdom for a lighting editor?
Don't believe anything a lighting designer ever tells you.