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Mark Major

 


Lighting designer 

Speirs and Major Associates 

London, United Kingdom

 

Interview by Paul Haddlesey

YAS Island Welcome Pavilion, Abu Dhabi, UAE © Martin Pfeiffer
Lighting designer Mark Major
Luminous spoke to Mark Major of Speirs and Major Associates about his background, why he became a lighting designer and his predictions for the future of lighting design.

What is your first memory of light?

I have two distinct early memories. One was sitting in a car with my grandfather when I was a child and him reciting the old saying “red sky at night, shepherd’s delight”. I was amazed that people could tell things from the colour of the sky.

Also, I spent a large part of my childhood in the Arabian Gulf and I remember the contrast between the dim northern light of a British winter and the harsh, unrelenting sunlight of the Gulf. I think that contrast has had a deep effect on my approach to lighting.

Ironically I’m still one of those people who can find a grey rainy day standing outside White Hart Lane (the home of Tottenham Hotspur Football Club) sadly romantic. Though I confess to an increasing love of sunlight as I get older!

How did you get involved with light and why did you become a lighting designer?

I was training as an architect in Edinburgh in the mid-1980s when I met my now business partner Jonathan Speirs, who was working in architectural lighting with Lighting Design Partnership. Having started out as a painter before falling into architecture because it was deemed a “proper profession,” I was fascinated by the potential to combine my passions for light, colour and the built form - and to have some fun at the same time. 

Even in those early days I could see there was huge potential for lighting design in the UK. I can honestly say I’ve never regretted ignoring the advice of my final year tutor to “abandon the frivolous and fashionable pursuit of lighting design because it won’t last”.

What is your best personal experience of architectural lighting?

Embarrassingly, my best personal experiences of light are generally related to daylight. Which isn’t to say there is anything intrinsically wrong with artificial lighting, and clearly there have been some excellent schemes – some of which have hopefully been designed by us.

However, I can genuinely say that the natural effects of light, both outside and within great buildings, have by far and away surpassed anything I have ever seen that was man-made.

I am not a religious man but if there were a god I am sure he would manage to produce something better within a building after dark than anything we have achieved.

I therefore turn, in architecture, towards the divine light of great Gothic cathedrals, the quiet, private light of domestic architecture and the incredible effect of natural light in modern buildings by masters such as Frank Lloyd Wright, Louis Kahn, Norman Foster, Jean Nouvel – the list goes on.

How do you view the work of the Professional Lighting Designers’ Association in education?

I think the PLDA provides remarkable value in respect of education. They have always encouraged students and young lighting designers to engage with light in a hands-on manner, putting them in touch with many skilled practitioners and experienced manufacturers. These people are able to provide the young people with an excellent grounding in both the potential and the basic techniques of lighting design through their well-organised workshop programmes.
YAS Island Welcome Pavilion, Abu Dhabi, UAE © Martin Pfeiffer

How do you see the lighting-design profession developing over the next ten years?

At the end of the last recession, when I was asked whether the growth of lighting design in the late 1980s would be killed off by a lack of work, I predicted that it would arise from the ashes of that downturn even greater and stronger than it was before. And I was proved right. However, even I could not have envisaged the remarkable growth we have experienced in the last ten years.

During these leaner times it is the perfect moment for lighting professionals to consolidate and prepare themselves for what will no doubt be busier times ahead.

There is much work to be done if we are to compare what is still little more than a trade organisation with the traditional idea of professions such as architecture, medicine and law. I do not mean that rudely, because not being an established profession does not make you any less professional in your approach. But ultimately, society will demand a clear and consistent idea of what it is that a lighting designer does, what should be expected of them, what their ethical professional behaviour should be. 

They should be insured on a mandatory basis and they should have in place a proper and certified system of both creative and professional education that will promise to deliver a minimum standard from the professional lighting designer, working alongside the other members of the design and construction team.

We are still a little way off meeting that challenge but I firmly believe that within ten years we ought to have made it.
Interview published in Luminous Magazine 15/2015

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