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Lighting design pioneer Jonathan Speirs dies


Lighting designer and architect Jonathan Speirs has died after losing his long fight against cancer

Born in 1958, Speirs co-founded the hugely influential lighting practice Speirs and Major with friend Mark Major in 1992.

The London and Edinburgh-based firm has worked on a raft of high-profile lighting projects, including the Stirling Prize-winning Barajas International Airport by Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners and Foster + Partners’ Gherkin.

In 2010 Speirs won the RIAS’ Lifetime Achievement Award - the same year he was diagnosed with terminal cancer.

A statement on the practice’s website reads: ‘Since his diagnosis Jon showed characteristic strength and a steely determination to defy the life limiting constraints put upon him. He continued to work with us and travel widely until the end of 2011 finding energy and solace from the great loves of his life, his family and his work.

‘Our thoughts are with Liz, Lucie, Erin, his sister, brothers and father. We will miss him dearly but will keep him with us, working to his and our primary objective: delivering great projects.’

Rab Bennetts of Bennetts Associates described Speirs as a ‘great guy’ adding: ‘As a lighting designer, he had more influence on many architects than it is possible to chronicle. 

‘We worked with Speirs and Major a lot and we really enjoyed working with Jonathan on many projects, from our early work in Edinburgh to the Royal Shakespeare Theatre and current projects like Camden’s new offices. Jonathan added a great deal to the projects we worked on together and he will be sorely missed.’

A personal tribute to Jonathan Speirs by Mark Major

It is about as difficult a task as I have ever faced writing a personal tribute to my long time creative partner and dear friend Jonathan Speirs who tragically passed away on 18 June 2012 following a long illness. Difficult not only due to the loss but also because anyone who has ever met him will immediately understand that it is almost impossible to find the right words to both capture his incredible personality and to properly summarise his remarkable career. Any tribute will therefore fall short of doing him justice - but I will do my best. Whilst we have all been prepared for what has happened it doesn’t make it any easier to comprehend or deal with.

It was in the first year of my post-graduate studies at Edinburgh University in 1985 when I first met Jonathan Speirs. Being a student architect I was inevitably broke and in urgent need of a part-time job. A friend suggested that I contact an architect she had met who was designing lighting for architectural projects. I had never heard that you could do such a thing and my curiosity was naturally pricked. I duly turned up at Lighting Design Partnership’s small but rather nicely designed studio. This was the first time I met Jonathan. We instantly got on. The job was mine. To be honest the significance of that first encounter only became apparent many years later when we finally joined forces to form Speirs + Major.

In many ways the Jonathan I met then differed very little from the Jonathan who has now left us. Charismatic, energetic, ridiculously enthusiastic and totally passionate about architecture and light; I experienced all that from our first conversation right up to the last time I saw him. Even during his long illness all he wanted to speak about was something interesting that he had read or a wonderful opportunity he had just heard about. All I had been looking for all those years ago was a casual job. With Jonathan I of course ended up with so much more than I ever could have hoped for.

And that was the mark of the man. Whether you were a client, a fellow architect or designer, a hard working employee or simply met him at a party, you would always come away from any encounter with Jonathan much the richer. Constantly bursting with ideas, stories, references, things he had seen and experiences that he just had to share with you - Jon was never a man whose glass was half empty or half full - it was always completely overflowing. His ability to excite not only you and the person next you but also the whole room was one of his many remarkable gifts; that and the speed of his creative mind.

He could not only conceive a remarkable lighting concept in the blink of an eye but more incredibly, he could synthesise the technical solution at the same time. That came from another ability he had – to constantly record and observe the world around him. In that way he often left many of us trailing in his wake. The great thing was that no concept was too daring or too crazy. As a result Jon was responsible for leading some of the most celebrated and innovative award-winning lighting projects of recent times.

And yet beneath the creative and extrovert exterior that marked his professional career there was another Jonathan who was quiet and considered. He rarely expressed his private feelings and if he did it was always in the most polite and reserved of ways. He was also extremely modest about his achievements. Above all he was a very warm, generous and considerate man who worried about the people around him, always wanting them to have fun. Anyone who ever met Jonathan would never forget him and wherever I go people always immediately not only ask after him but then go on to shower him with praise.

As for his prodigious talent as a lighting designer you need look no further than the incredible list of projects that he completed over a career that spanned nearly thirty years. From his more sensitive architectural approach to projects such as Barajas Airport, Madrid and Gateshead Millennium Bridge to the more dynamic and iconic lighting schemes for the Burj Al Arab Tower, Dubai and Bethlehem Steelworks, Pennsylvania, Jonathan always managed to find a way to get the very best out of a project and then some.

Speaking as someone who had the privilege of sharing the years when he created so many of those ground-breaking lighting schemes it is still difficult for me to comprehend how he managed to achieve so much. Right from his formative years at LDP, through his creation of Jonathan Speirs and Associates in Edinburgh and the final coming together of Speirs + Major nearly twenty years ago, Jon was behind many hundreds of celebrated lighting schemes in countries all around the world.

It was therefore most appropriate that when he chose to step down from Speirs + Major in February 2010 to focus on combating the cancer that had been so unexpectedly diagnosed, that both the architectural profession in Scotland and the wider international lighting community chose to honour him. Being made a Fellow of the Royal Incorporation of Architects in Scotland plus receiving an Honorary Doctorate from his alma mater the University of Heriot Watt was a fitting way for his native country to show its appreciation for one of its brightest design talents.

Also being made an Honorary Member of the International Association of Lighting Designers and winning a Lifetime Achievement Award from Professional Lighting Design enabled the international lighting profession to show its appreciation for the massive contribution he made both in raising standards and inspiring a generation of lighting designers. We were also very pleased indeed that despite his illness Jonathan was able to join the practice in accepting the honour of being named ‘Design Practice of the Decade’ at the Lighting Design Awards in London in March. In so doing the whole UK lighting design profession was able to publically show it’s appreciation for an immense talent.

In recognition of Jonathan’s considerable achievements a small group of friends have agreed to establish the ‘Jonathan Speirs Scholarship Trust’ as a means by which to continue his legacy into the future. This fund, details of which will be posted later, will seek to actively raise money to provide financial support to aspiring young architects to enter the lighting profession just as he did. There is no more fitting way to celebrate Jonathan’s remarkable life than to continue doing what he was so good at - inspiring and helping the next generation to reach higher than they might otherwise achieve by doing the thing he loved most - bringing magic to people’s lives through the imaginative and creative application of light.

In concluding this tribute to Jonathan, and on behalf of myself, Keith Bradshaw and all at Speirs + Major, I would like to send our love and sympathy to his wife Liz, daughters Lucie and Erin, his father, sister and brothers and wider family. Our thoughts also go with all his many close friends around the world who will be feeling his loss as we do.

Dear Jon. Rest in peace. We will all really, really miss you…


Readers' comments (3)

  • Sad news indeed. Jonathan Speirs was an inspirational figure. An exceptionally talented designer who guided Speirs and Major to the top of their profession and one of the few Scottish practices with a truly global presence and international reputation.

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  • For about four years in the early nineties Jonathan and I shared an office in an old shop in Blair Street Edinburgh. He had about three staff and so did I. We also shared a wonderful and very lively Italian-Scottish secrtetary Iolanda who Jonathan brought with him. It was "early days" for both of us and we enjoyed each others activities, shared each others sucesses and commisserated on any failures, although I don't recall that he had too many of those. He was always immensely charming, delightful company and totally committed to what he was doing. After out-growing Blair Street it never surpised me that he went on to create with Mark and others such an outstanding company. He had ambition and ability in spades. A lovely man.

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  • Jonathan will be very much missed. He was one of the most talented designers around globally. He was one of the most delightful, friendly, modest and humerous people I have ever had the joy of knowing. He lit up the world in more ways than one.

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