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MONDO ARC

Keith Bradshaw

Issue 66 Apr / May 2012


Having become Director of Speirs + Major in 2009, Keith Bradshaw has been at the forefront of a radical re-evaluation of the firm’s vision ever since. Paul James caught up with the ‘“designer working with light” to find out more...

To say it’s been an eventful five years at Speirs + Major is somewhat of an understatement. Most of it has been thrilling. The first three years of that period saw the practice sweep all before them, winning an unprecedented consecutive three IALD Radiance Awards for their work on Barajas International Airport, Madrid (2008); 3 More London (2009); culminating in the splendour of the Grand Mosque, Abu Dhabi (2010).
At the same time huge, high profile projects were being completed at a rate of knots – T5 at Heathrow and Beijing International Airport carried on where Barajas left off; the Infinity Bridge in Stockton-on-Tees gained huge media coverage; and Armani Fifth Avenue, New York was the ultimate fashion statement.

Then came news that Jonathan Speirs, one of the co-founders of the practice together with Mark Major, was retiring due to ill health. It would have been all too easy for a company to lose its focus or at least to go into auto mode, churning out ‘me too’ projects using the same successful Speirs + Major award-winning formula. However, the practice had already set about changing as Keith Bradshaw, a designer trained in both art and architecture, became a Director in 2009 after joining the company in 2002. Having cut his teeth at Kevan Shaw Lighting Design in Edinburgh, Bradshaw had already delivered the Grand Mosque, Armani Ginza Tower Tokyo, Copenhagen Opera House and Armani Fifth Avenue, and had begun plotting with Mark and Jonathan a change of direction for the firm.

“The thinking of the practice had moved on a great deal in response to our experience on various projects and in different markets,” remembers Bradshaw. “When energy legislation came to the fore a couple of years ago we had already begun to consider how the existing understanding of lighting design was at risk of becoming outdated. We wondered if the market might actually be diminishing for us all as fees and energy codes suggested a new era. We took time out to think and reflect about what it was that we enjoyed about light and which marketplaces, alongside architectural lighting projects, might accommodate our ideas. By clearing our minds we realised it was the thinking and attitude behind our work that was the key and was in fact already playing itself out on some projects. It was a great moment to realise that the solution lay entirely in the design process but at the same time we knew it would be a challenge to stay true to the vision.”
So, in August 2010, the ‘Speirs and Major Associates, Lighting Architects’ brand identity that had served them so well for more than a decade was changed to ‘Speirs + Major, Designers working with light’ to more accurately reflect the skills of the team and the method of their work. Having historically had more architects working for the practice, they found they were increasingly attracting people that didn’t have an architectural background but were involved in theatre, art, 3D design, animation, graphic design or were just into light. The one thing they all had in common was a love of light rather than a love of architecture with a passing interest in light. They may not have been as technically gifted in drawing and professional responsibility (skills that were already well represented at the firm) but they were passionately committed to lighting. Therefore three disciplines – architectural + environment, strategy + branding and product + innovation – were identified as the new approach to work in the practice reflecting the skills of the personnel and the philosophy behind the work.

“We wanted to push ourselves. We had won awards and completed huge projects like cathedrals, mosques and airports but where could we go next? Do we just continue doing the same types of projects or revisiting old ones? We realised we wanted to challenge ourselves to work in different markets, to broaden the idea that lighting designers could only work within the lighting industry.”

But was it an absolute necessity? Surely the practice could have carried on just doing the same thing - the award-winning projects - and no-one would have blamed them for that.

“The change in our process and thinking allowed us to address several issues. One was the portfolio but more fundamentally it was about what we needed in-house in terms of skills. The new skills we needed were focused on the needs of the three disciplines. We naturally found that skills and knowledge moved between the three areas of work: a lot of our strategic work has had a direct influence on our architectural work and that, in turn, has fed into our product design work. It’s very common for a lighting designer to get involved with designing a lighting product but we’re much more interested in anything that light’s involved in, whether it is an environment, a material or a product that involves light in some way. When we talk to manufacturers about designing a product there is no Speirs + Major style, it’s about thinking through the key issues first before designing out-from-the-light source rather than in-from-the-housing.”

But of course, Speirs + Major don’t just do plain products that perform well. A starting point was collaborations with DW Windsor and Ruud Lighting, subsequently Cree, on radical street lighting solutions. Indeed, Cree’s Aeroblades will be officially launched at Light+Building in Frankfurt before making its US debut at Lightfair International in Las Vegas. Having already had experience in designing specials for their own projects, this was a natural progression into the world of commercial product design.

“In a difficult market and with Jonathan stepping down, it really accelerated our evolutionary process. Now, several years later, we are very happy with how the vision for change that myself, Mark and Jonathan had is making us a stronger design practice. We’ve never been more energised,” comments Bradshaw.

Whilst project work with star architects, including long-term collaborations with Foster and Partners and Wilkinson Eyre Architects and more recently BIG Architects is still high on the agenda, Bradshaw believes that it is the attention to detail that sets them apart from other practices.

“We believe that the collaborative way in which we approach our projects is like nobody else. We’ve always given our clients more than just the solutions to the lighting. We try to get right behind the project by asking difficult, and seemingly unrelated, non-lighting questions about the project. That way we can come up with better solutions. If a client asks us to repeat a design, for example the Grand Mosque lunar cycle idea, we advise them how we need to start from scratch to find the right idea. The ideas are at the core of our work with light. If all we needed to do was to specify fittings from a catalogue to make a nice scheme then that isn’t enough. That’s not what a designer does and it is impossible  to differentiate yourself from the next guy.”

The tone in Bradshaw’s voice tells me that the “Can you do a Grand Mosque?” request has come up on a number of occasions. So has the project become an albatross around their neck? Would they design the scheme in the same way now?

“The story behind why we lit it in that way is still the right one. Would we approach it in the same way again? That’s a tough one. It’s much harder to develop an architectural lighting scheme that looks good permanently, rather than designing an all-singing, all-dancing event scheme that you would soon get bored of. The mosque was on the brink of event lighting but I think we stayed on the right side of the precipice... just! We were very careful to ensure that.”

Bradshaw recalls a recent project in Norway where the owner of a prominent building wanted a façade lighting scheme. It was so well defined by day that, by using the traditional thought process, it needed a lot of lighting to give it an equal presence at night. However, when thoughtful questions were asked about the use of the building and its tenants, the owner was persuaded not to light the façade in favour of a few simple lit interventions. This resulted in a scheme that was true to the owner’s brand and one that wasn’t just “lighting decoration”.

But there must be examples, particularly in Asia, where the client is insistent on a big, brash lighting scheme to stand out amongst the rest? Again, Bradshaw recalls a project meeting relating to a current job – a tower in Shenzhen where sustainability was one of the driving factors. He took this as a green light to propose an understated ‘inside out’ design with a small amount of reveal lighting. However, the client was determined to define the crown of the building with more light and skytrackers firing into the sky. After much negotiation it was decided that the skytrackers will only get turned on for special events and the original scheme will be left alone for most of the year.

“We have three or four core principles behind each of our projects. Once they are in place, only then can you move onto a developed concept. The old way of thinking was a ‘lit floor, lit wall, lit ceiling’ theory. If one or two of those elements are taken away, the concept no longer exists. Whereas if you have a broader set of principles that make up the concept, it matters less if the wall detail falls away or fittings are cut because of budget or detailing. The spirit and integrity of the job is retained by the way we approach it.”

The company began to realise the power of what they do and how they do it when they saw the marketing for the Burj Al Arab over ten years ago. The building was more often than not shown as a lit at night image. Similarly all the media and launch night material for Armani Fifth Avenue used their image of the front of the store at night. “That makes you feel really proud - and careful not to be exploited,” states Bradshaw.
But all the travelling must take it out of the family man. After all, he has three children and a wife that has a “proper” job as a GP.

“The balancing act of family and work is the hardest aspect of my working life but it’s something I take very seriously. As much as I can I don’t let work impact on weekends. That is something that Jonathan helped me understand. The travel is a means to an end – it is incredibly important because of the amount of international work we do. It keeps you very sharp because if someone is paying for a flight and hotel as well as your fee then you had better make sure you are good, more than good. This is especially true when you are doing a job in a country where there is a mature lighting market.”

So, after all the soul searching, seismic business decisions and personal setbacks, what next for Speirs + Major?

“As a practice we’ve always been very self conscious about not enjoying the moment too much and quickly moving on to the next thing. We had that amazing run of three IALD Radiance Awards but in a way it only served to remind us how much better we had to strive to become. We were straight on to the next project. We definitely didn’t celebrate our achievements as much as you would imagine. I think that with everything that has happened in the last few years we are determined to enjoy our work as much as possible - you never know what’s going to happen next.*”

www.speirsandmajor.com

* Some time after this interview and just before publication, Speirs + Major won the ‘Design Practice of the Decade’ at the UK Lighting Design Awards. The honour was suitably, and vigorously, celebrated...


HIGHLIGHTS

Projects that you would like to change:
How a design responds as time passes is important in all design disciplines. Would we go back and re-specify new technology to serve the same function? Yes. Would I change the approach? No.

Projects you admire:
Tyseley Incinerator - Martin Richman. It was on the route of the night bus home. It looked great after a few pints of cheap cider!
Herz Jesu Kirche, München - George Sexton. Beautifully handled.
Tribute in Light, New York City - John Bennett, Gustavo Bonevardi, Julian LaVerdiere, Paul Myoda, Paul Marantz. This is the purest expression of a memorial one could imagine.
Places and projects that you can feel as well as see, experiencing light is so much richer than looking at images.

Projects you dislike:
Anything with a chandelier designed by somebody other than the lighting designer. Designs that make a lit feature of everything therefore making a feature of nothing. 

Lighting Hero:
My influences mostly come from outside of lighting.  That’s not to say that there aren’t many designers and studios I respect but in terms of inspirational hero figures I can’t not mention artists such as Caravaggio, David Hockney and Bill Viola who have looked and looked at how light behaves in space and found their own way to capture it, something we are trying to do every day.

Notable projects:
Copenhagen Opera House, Denmark; Armani Ginza, Japan & 5th Avenue NYC, USA; Grand Mosque, Abu Dhabi.

Most memorable project:
There is an unprintable story behind most major projects but I think the opening hours before both Armani flagships where pretty unique experiences. They were memorable due to the sheer bloody mindedness needed to get the projects over the finishing line whilst avoiding police, security cordons, celebrities and some monumental technical glitches.

Current projects:
Zhuhai Opera House, Guangdong Province, China; Gardermoen Airport, Oslo, Norway; Miami Design District, USA

 

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