Lighting focus: Speirs + Major on texture, colour and illumination

Keith Bradshaw, principal at Speirs + Major discusses the powerful chemistry between texture, colour and illumination

Edited by Jill Entwistle

Material Concerns 
Keith Bradshaw, Speirs + Major

Working with it every day as we do, it is easy to forget that light, in and of itself, is intangible. As designers, we are used to thinking and speaking of light and materials as a single entity. We need to remind ourselves that light and material are two very different yet interdependent entities. Without light, materials and their inherent characteristics are unseen, and without materials, light is invisible.

Each material is intriguing in its way, its character formed by a unique blend of pigmentation, texture and degree of specularity. Light has the power to reveal these qualities, and also to exaggerate or to soften them. Considering a composition of light surfaces within a single space, we are most often looking to find the most effcient and balanced approach that will allow the various materials and surfaces to come alive. Trying to enhance every material is likely to overwhelm a single composition – decisions need to be made and priorities set. In the simplest of terms, finding this balance is the design process of working with light.

Coloured light brings a further layer of possibilities for creating atmosphere or narrative. Exaggerated tones of white light or varying saturations of coloured light can be used to underpin a mood or to provide visual information to a scene. Bold light colours create immersive signals that can redefine a space. Subtler, less saturated tones have a fascinating impact on materials and affect the atmosphere of a place as perceived by visitors.

It is important to consider that the texture in a space is not just found in the individual or collective material characteristics of its surfaces and elements, but also in the relationships between them, and how these may alter over time.

Natural light is never static. It may be less perceptible on a grey day, but subconsciously we know that the position, intensity and colour of natural light is always changing, providing a dynamic influence on the way we experience our world. It follows that when we design artificial light we should not be approaching our composition as something static. This does not mean that all artificial lighting should have some type of ‘show’ sequence, but rather that, to create a more authentic light, we need to make changes in light over time inherent to the project.

This could be achieved simply, by small changes in the light balance of space, or light that recognises changes in the function of the space. It could perhaps be a change of intensity of colour temperature, responding to the activity of users, or an adjustment in the position of the artificial light from above (mimicking the position of the sun), to light positioned at a lower physical level that draws closer to people after dark. With each change in scenario, the relation between light and materials will shift, bringing a new perspective to the experience of the space.

Some materials are defined primarily by their texture: brick, stone, timber, fabrics and even glass all have a variety of finishes and depths of relief. For these surfaces and materials, if the approach to light flattens out their textural effect, their magic is lost. Indeed, the degree to which the texture of the surface is enhanced by light can have a significant impact on the perceived quality of the material, as well as its importance within a space. Very close offset light, that exaggerates textures by amplifying the contrasts within the surface finish, brings drama and a greater sense of three-dimensionality. However, the more exaggerated the effect, the greater the risk that an apparently high-quality material or surface is revealed as imperfect by highlighting usually imperceptible variations. It is no coincidence that a skilled plasterer will use a close offset light source or torch to check and refine the purity of their finished work.

The Beverly Center in Los AngelesThe Beverly Center in Los Angeles

There is usually a balance to be struck, and we often find there is no substitute for trying out effects first-hand. In all of our projects, the dialogue between light, colour and material texture is constantly on our mind. We make multiple tests, checking and experimenting to find the most appropriate way to reveal a texture or best enhance a colour. We think in terms of visual impact and also consider the practicality of concealing the lighting detail. Once we believe we have the correct approach to all the surfaces and textures in a single space we take a step back to make sure the balance of the overall composition is what we were aiming for.

This may mean some tuning – downplaying the effect of certain surfaces or overplaying others to ensure the space is harmonious and clearly legible, rather than confused and distracting. Often in the process we question whether materials and textures can be changed or relocated to help the overall composition.

The Macallan Distillery and Visitor Experience, Kingussie, Scotland, with lighting by Speirs + Major. Multifunctional and informative, the scheme meets the practical needs of the distillery operation, while using colour to provide an immersive, narrative experienceThe Macallan Distillery and Visitor Experience, Kingussie, Scotland, with lighting by Speirs + Major. Multifunctional and informative, the scheme meets the practical needs of the distillery operation, while using colour to provide an immersive, narrative experience

Coloured light is a fun and useful tool in architectural lighting, but we believe the use of it must support a meaning or purpose that complements the design or function of the building. In our projects, we have used coloured light to tell stories and to bring the meaning of a new or old building to light. However, we are always mindful that we do so in a respectful, restrained manner, using selective and limited colours as a means of communication.

The Macallan Distillery and Visitor Experience, Kingussie, Scotland, with lighting by Speirs + Major. Multifunctional and informative, the scheme meets the practical needs of the distillery operation, while using colour to provide an immersive, narrative experienceThe Macallan Distillery and Visitor Experience, Kingussie, Scotland, with lighting by Speirs + Major. Multifunctional and informative, the scheme meets the practical needs of the distillery operation, while using colour to provide an immersive, narrative experience

At the Macallan Distillery and Visitor Experience, for instance, light is both multifunctional and informative. Light sources within the distillery are carefully choreographed to provide the required functional light for the operation of the distillery, adhering to strict safety standards, while also providing an immersive, narrative experience that expresses such concepts as the temperature variations in the distillation process. This approach, on an architectural scale, marrying function and experience, helps to bring the project to life.

Where exterior lighting is concerned, illuminating large facades has a civic impact, whether the project is for a private or governmental institution. Architectural facades are the backdrop to the city, and the extent to which they are lit contributes greatly to the character of the city at night. The temptation exists with these schemes to provide coloured light just in case it might be needed – particularly as the relative cost variation between a white source and a coloured source diminishes. Invariably, as the ‘just in case’ temptation to use the colour is strong, the role of the lighting designer evolves to include that of ‘colour curator’. One must engage with the commercial and civic imperative to use coloured light, designing the looks of lighting scenes for each moment in which a client might choose to use colour.



Beverly Center, Los Angeles
A Case Study in Colour
On a recently completed project in Los Angeles we worked with the architectural and marketing ambitions of the client to provide a strict template and timeline for facade lighting. The 3km-long facade wrapper at the Beverly Center cleverly conceals parking decks, while delivering a dynamic singular facade treatment. The facade uses white light to reveal and enhance the woven texture of the wrapper as it undulates around four city blocks. Careful light studies pre- and post-installation set the maximum intensity of the light such that the light facade fits well in the context of the neighbourhood, and is striking but never dominant.

The client also wanted to celebrate national holidays and civic events on the facade. In response to this ambition, we created several lighting looks that would allow them to engage with planned or impulse civic events in a ‘designed’ way, that remains complementary to the architectural facade and respectful to the street. Successful examples include a lighting scene for LA Pride, or on US national holidays when the Stars and Stripes are played out on the facade in an abstracted form. When local teams win national-level sports competitions, limited colour templates allow the team’s colours to connect the building momentarily to the emotions of the city.



Hide Restaurant
A Case Study In Texture 

The ethos of Hide restaurant in London’s Mayfair is a comfortable, homely space where fine dining sits effortlessly within a relaxed, natural space. The tactility and texture of the surface finishes and materials are celebrated, contributing to a stylish yet deliberately imperfect ‘hand-crafted’ environment. From napkins to wall surfaces, door handles to food styling, all materials form part of this conversation. Given such a palette, the temptation would be to reveal and enhance all the rich textures and materials, but we understood that the project also demanded restraint. Some surfaces are celebrated; others benefit from a soft bounce of light that reveals the material but doesn’t try to compete within the composition. Indirect light subtly enhances without overlighting the textures, which would have devalued the overall atmosphere of the room.

South- and east-facing windows provide a strong connection to the outside, with carefully selected glazing treatments to retain the appropriate level of privacy. From the fresh, vibrant light of a summer’s morning in London to the grey light of a winter’s afternoon, natural light provides endless variation in the light quality and atmosphere of both the room and materials. Throughout the day and through the year, a variety of light scenes within the restaurant is designed to positively complement the available daylight, or to provide warm comfort as a counterpoint to poor natural light conditions.

The effect is to create a sense of authenticity – a ‘naturally’ lit space. Light is not the main attraction – rather, the balance of lit surfaces, and materials and human scale provided by the visible light sources, underpin the elegant yet comfortable spaces.

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