INTERIORS+DESIGN for architects
Mark Major

Mark Major was educated in the UK and overseas. He trained and practised as an architect prior to focusing on the unique relationship between light and architecture.

He first met Jonathan Speirs at Lighting Design Partnership before opening his own practice in 1989. In 1993 he formed a working association with Jonathan Speirs and Associates which developed into Speirs + Major. He is the Director responsible for running the day to day activities of the London studio.

Mark has worked on a diverse range of international projects from architectural lighting to urban master–planning and light art and has been honoured with a number of national and international lighting awards including the Lighting Designer of the Year 2007. He has also worked on three RIBA Stirling Prize winning projects; Magna Science Adventure Centre, 30 St Mary Axe and the Maggie's Centre in London.

What are you working on at the moment?

A wide range of projects all around the world. This includes the lighting of the massive Barangaroo Development in Sydney with Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners for Lend Lease, the beautiful Alila Calicut, India with Allies and Morrison and a very special retail project in the US. UK based work has very much picked up with major schemes for Land Securities including Victoria Circle and Ludgate Hill/Old Bailey and our appointment to work on the Burlington Arcade project with Peter Marino and Blair Associates. On–going historic building work includes the re–lighting of Canterbury Cathedral with Purcell Miller Tritton and the lighting of a 12th Century basilica at the UNESCO World Heritage site of Pannonhalma Monastery, Hungary with John Pawson.

What were the highlights of 2011?

2011 was a very exciting year indeed. Highlights included the work we carried out for LOCOG on the concepts for the lighting overlay for the Olympic Games and winning a major international competition for re–lighting the famous 112m 12th century 'Dom Tower' in Utrecht. Meeting and consulting with Anish Kapoor on a project was also a wonderful experience. We have also seen the successful completion of Atelier Jean Nouvel and Siddell Gibson's One New Change and the St. Botolph's project in London with Grimshaw – and a stunning private archive and library for the Rothschild Estate at Waddesdon Manor with Stephen Marshall Architects. We have also had the opportunity to meet architects, designers,fellow lighting professionals and students through lectures in Sydney, Copenhagen, Mexico City and Philadelphia.

You trained as and practised as an architect, what made you focus on lighting?

Before I became an architect I used to paint. Indeed I originally considered training to be a fine artist. Having qualified as an architect I very much enjoyed working with the built environment but always felt I was missing something on a creative level. When I accidentally stumbled into architectural lighting design in the mid 1980s I realised very quickly that here was both a medium and a developing field of creative design where I could perhaps have the best of both worlds. I certainly haven't been proved wrong and have never looked back.

Each space is different and tailored to the client’s specific needs. So, when a client comes to you with a project, what will be the first stage in the design process?

We always think about 'light' first. That includes daylight and not just the condition after dark. Technique and technology can only follow once you have understood the role of light within any project. This is not only about how people use space but how they will experience it. Lighting design is not only about vision but also perception. Thinking in this way then leads you to making decisions about the quality, quantity, direction and character of the light, etc. To that end we can never be involved in the design process too early as we believe that by collaborating closely with the architect, interior designer, landscape designer or whoever is leading the process that we can have a direct influence on the overall development of the built form.

Is there any one project that you are particularly proud of?

I am immensely proud of a wide range of projects. We have been privileged to be involved in many special projects over the years. I suppose that 'stand out' schemes of recent times would be our work on larger projects such as Heathrow Terminal 5 and St. Paul's Cathedral but for different reasons. I am also very proud to have been involved with some of the work on the Olympic Park (Lighting Design Advisor and Olympic Athlete's Village). At the same time we are very proud of some of the smaller, lower cost projects we have been involved in too. Being part of the team that won the Stirling Prize for Maggie's Centre, London was just great.

What would be your dream project?

I think one in which we have a client and a series of collaborators that allows us to really bring together all the various strands of what we do – architectural, strategic design, branding, product, etc., – into a single integrated solution.

You have an active interest in architecture and lighting education, are you still inspired by working with students, and given how busy you are, is this something you will continue to do in the future?

I used to teach a good deal in the early days. We also spent a lot of time and energy on our educational project 'Made of Light – The Art of Light and Architecture' a few years ago. That included an exhibition, book and lecture series. The book sold out a while ago but there still appears to be a big demand. I also give a few lectures each year, including to enthusiastic students, but certainly the current workload in the practice doesn't allow me to spend as much time being involved with education as I would like. It is something I very much hope to be able to address in the near future as I have always found working with young, developing designers very inspiring.

As a lighting designer you have a particular interest in designing lighting schemes that 'compliment the night'. If you were tasked with lighting Stonehenge, how would you tackle the challenge?

We have talked about the qualities of darkness for many years now – and published a number of articles on the subject. This was well before concerns about energy use and environmental impact became drivers to considering the use of less light. To that end I absolutely believe that the world is different after dark than it is by day and we should not illuminate our built environment to try and extend the day through mimicking daylight. The opportunity to use light to re–interpret how we experience the world after dark is one of the great joys of what we do. As for Stonehenge it should stay dark. Its form is connected with the presence of the sun. The lack of light in the site is critical to its meaning.

We have just launched the 2012 WAN Lighting Awards. Last year you were on the jury of the WAN Lighting Awards, what did you think about the quality of the entries, and what projects would you suggest should win an award this year?

The quality of the entries was very high indeed though I would actively encourage more lighting designers to submit even more work this year. It is a wonderful way to showcase talent. As for which project should win this year – well I am too diplomatic to be drawn to answer that one! The only thing I would say is that some of the best lighting design around is that which has the kind of subtlety that you barely notice the job that it is doing. Good lighting should often make you say 'what a great space' – not 'what great lighting'. Not that there isn't room for some fireworks sometimes. So I guess it might be nice to see an award go to a simple, modest, everyday kind of scheme.

Photography: copyright Speirs + Major & James Newton