illumni People Profile:
Satu Streatfield


illumni catches up with Satu Streatfield to talk about some of her inspirations, her influences and her take on designing with light.

Satu is a Senior Designer with acclaimed lighting design firm Speirs + Major, who has a particular interest in public realm projects. She has worked on projects including Channel 4’s Big 4, Lights over Kruunuvuorenranta in Helsinki, various projects in London’s King’s Cross Central and a lighting strategy and pattern book for Bath, UK. She has a passion for music and sound, and was recently able to combine her two passions in a unique installation of drumming and light at the first ever Light Night Canning Town.

Lighting Designers spend a lot of time thinking about spaces and how people experience them. Could you share with us a favourite place of yours in the world – somewhere that inspires you?


Two actually. One would be a wood-burning sauna. It’s like being in a kind of intense multi-sensory compression chamber – the intense heat on your skin and in your nostrils, the wonderful smells of wet and burning wood, the dancing flames in the dark…and sonically saunas are amazing: the fire roaring, the burning wood bursting, the crash as the cold water hits the stones and the creaking, clanging and whistling that follows as the stones, woods and metals contract and expand. It’s always a very cathartic experience both physically and mentally, and a kind of endurance test.


By the sea would be my second one – for almost the exact opposite reasons. The overwhelming vastness and sense of infinity, everything seems to slow down and your sense of time and space opens up. The sauna is quite an introspective space for me, intense and personal, whereas the sea is a good place to remind myself how insignificant I am in the grand scheme of things.

Your colleagues know you as a lover of music – what kinds of music do you like to work to?

This is a really easy question to answer – I hate working to music and don’t really like the idea of ‘background music’. If I listen to music I have to give it my undivided attention. If I hear music that I like or find interesting I have to focus on it otherwise I kind of feel it’s disrespectful. If I don’t like it, I tend to have a mental breakdown and can’t concentrate on what I’m doing. Just a bit of background noise is ideal as even silence – not that such a thing really exists – can also be quite distracting.

Influences on our work can come from many places, and from many different people. If you had the chance to meet anyone in the world, past or present, who would it be? And why?

I had a kind of list….Brian Eno, Bowie, James Turrell, Steve Reich and all these people, and then I thought actually I’m not sure I ever want to meet any of them in reality – I like their work so much I wouldn’t want to risk disappointment. So actually I think I would like to meet complete strangers from the remotest tribes in the world – people who have a completely different way of life and probably find our way of life utterly absurd.


Image: copyright Speirs + Major


Image: copyright Speirs + Major

Can you tell us something interesting about yourself or your work that perhaps not many people know, but you would like them to?

I’d prefer people knew about projects I’d worked on than have them know about me. One such project will hopefully be Kruunuvuorenranta in Helsinki – once it’s finished!

I think it’s one of the most interesting projects we’ve worked on – we collaborated with West 8 who did the landscape design – and it’s also quite close to my heart as my mum’s Finnish. There are some ideas that, if realised, I think could become really interesting precedents for the way in which public and private lighting can interact. We started with an almost medieval approach to street lighting, where, rather than it being a system that runs through a residential area, the idea was that residents, or residences, would light the streets or spaces. This was the original high level aspiration – and actually at competition stage we had a more fantastical notion involving a lantern hire scheme – but it remained a core principle during the design development and it manifests itself in various ways throughout… partly through more standard, human scale wall-mounted details but also through more ambitious and integrated details – exploring ways we could integrate functional lighting into the façade designs, encouraging architects for each residential block to come up with creative ways of accommodating lanterns in their facades and optimising materials to create a particular lit effect. The idea is that the lit character of secondary streets and semi-private spaces appears to be generated by the light and life within the buildings – light radiates from the homes into streets and spaces, not the other way around. So there aren’t light fittings in the courtyard spilling light through peoples’ windows and there is an impression of occupancy even when the homes are empty.

We also took the approach that light art on the site should be designed as applied art, so rather than having these light monuments and luminous follies scattered around for people to look at, you’d take a piece of functional furniture, like a bench or a canopy, and consider how it might best be designed to play with both daylight and artificial light in interesting ways.

What would you say was the most unusual source of creative inspiration?

My dad – he’s a London Taxi driver and self-professed anarchist! He’s also a compulsive devil’s advocate. He’s extremely opinionated and likes to debate everything. I enjoy debating – I often get inspired by people who completely disagree with me – because you end up having to really interrogate your own ideas. Trying to understand other peoples’ perspectives is one of the most important things a designer does, I think – to try and empathise with this whole array of other opinions and experiences – it all helps to make sure that you’re considering the people that are going to see, visit, live in, work in, look after, love, hate or pay for the space that you are designing.


Tell us about your favourite creative collaboration to date?

There have been so many…but I would have to say that my favourite would be our recent project for Light Night Canning Town – an event that The Brick Box put together. It was great because it was basically a very direct collaboration with ‘normal’ people and with an amazing bit of found space. The installation wasn’t complete and didn’t perform until those people interacted with it. It was a fantastic and actually really heart-warming experience – there was such a wide range of people who came to play the drums. They absolutely jumped at it, we didn’t need to encourage people to have a go – they just instinctively did. It was a really primal experience – people’s lit faces surrounding a metaphorical hearth and those pounding rhythms. And the space itself was amazing; the acoustics made the drumming all the more intense, and its dark qualities obviously helped get the most out of the battery powered torches, which were just about the most high-tech bits of kits we had in our very low-tech, analogue interactive light and sound show.

Light Night – Canning Town from Speirs + Major on Vimeo.

What springs into your mind if I ask ‘what is your all-time favourite bit of lighting kit?’

I might get told off for this but I actually really like high-pressure sodium lamps! They’ve been kind of superseded by all the great bright white lamps, but I just like the quality of light from a SON lamp on certain streets, in certain contexts. It’s the same sort of colour as candlelight, super warm, but of course has crap colour rendering. But I actually really like the fact that it casts everything in this slightly alien, monochromatic warm hue. I think night-time should have a distinct and different visual character compared to daytime. Historically, the light that humans have engineered has tended to be very warm, related to heat, and actually our scotopic vision is naturally monochromatic… There are a lot of reasons not to use it, of course, but it’s a bit of a shame to think it could disappear – I quite like it. But maybe I’m being a bit of a luddite, or being nostalgic.

What would you say is the most exciting aspect in regards to working in the field of lighting design?

The fact that it is still a relatively young profession. I keep going on about street lighting – it seems like a really boring and mundane subject but it’s one of the things I’m most interested in and get most passionate about. You could say that streetlighting – in terms of where it was placed and how it was controlled – was quite a smart system when it was first introduced. Light is sometimes employed as quite a blunt instrument these days. People tend to be a lot cleverer with light when and where they can’t produce it in abundance. So in some ways we’ve probably taken a few backward steps, mainly because we humans liked light so much that we got a bit drunk on it and now the hangover’s probably starting to kick in. We’re all still learning and technologies and attitudes are changing quite quickly now, so these are quite exciting, if sometimes a little scary, times.

And conversely, what do you find frustrating or upsetting thing about working in the field of lighting design?

Numbers. I love geekery and the science/maths of light, but this human obsession with trying to quantify and standardise things– with light it doesn’t really work and I think it can sometimes stunt creativity and lead to places getting over-lit.

I say light; you say?­



Photography: Speirs + Major

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