Lighting strategies: Ad Gefrin, a landmark museum and whisky distillery in northern England

July 28, 2023
The owners and design team prioritized local craftsmanship and thoughtful illumination in the multifaceted program.

Located one hour from Newcastle upon Tyne, England, the whisky distillery and museum Ad Gefrin borders Northumberland National Park, home to some of the darkest skies in the U.K. Completed in March 2023, the project offers a striking destination in Wooler, an area steeped in Anglo-Saxon history.


In 2019, Ad Gefrin co-founders Alan and Eileen Ferguson and director of visitor experience Chris Ferguson commissioned U.K. firm Michael Grubb Studio to create a lighting design that showcased their brand and provide a memorable visitor experience throughout the project’s diverse program, which includes a whisky distillery, dining areas, retail spaces, an event space, a museum, and a grand atrium entrance. The Fergusons also wanted to support the local community by hiring local companies and craftspeople to create a landmark and legacy that celebrated their ancestry for posterity.

Michael Grubb, founder and managing director of his eponymous studio, said in the studio’s project description, “There was a real investment in the local community throughout this project. The clients are a family-run business who were committed to involving and benefitting local people.”

The design needed to create a warm and welcoming ambience in an area that experiences long winters and is protective of its dark skies. A handcrafted dome and copper skylight topping the atrium lobby demanded a lighting solution complementary in craft and charm, but also pragmatic for maintenance.

The lighting designers wanted to ensure the daylight-filled Bistro, which includes a bar, café, and restaurant, would command the same attention at night. Meanwhile, the functional, accent, and decorative lighting had to be suitable for a potentially explosive—literally—working distillery, which receives visitors on tours. Next to the distillery, the vaulted event space is highly visible from the street.


Local Northumbrian architect Richard Elphick led the building design, with Studio MB overseeing the exhibition design. The team paid meticulous attention to detail, using traditional and contemporary materials and refined materials, including copper stills by the world-renowned, family-run company Forsyths. “The success of this project is also due to teamwork and all the pieces coming together,” Grubb said in his firm’s project description. “A good working relationship between the client, contractor, designers, and engineers created a pleasant experience and a real harmony to the project.”


The design team combined traditional techniques, sustainable design practices, and modern efficiencies. Large windows allow in an abundance of daylight while minimal exterior lighting, kept at a low lumen level, respects the dark skies at night, supports wayfinding, and extends the facility’s use in the winter, all while creating a warm ambience.

Light encircles the interior of the atrium dome, drawing the viewer gaze up to the skylight. “The process of interrogating and challenging design often promotes innovation and benefits the end result,” said Melissa Byers, head of Michael Grubb Studio’s Bournemouth office in the firm’s project description. “Typically, we could have chosen an encapsulated, acrylic, flexible linear product to suit the curvature of the dome. However, following a series of lighting tests, multiple straight shorter lengths of LED luminaires were chosen as they delivered a brighter lit effect, with a lower wattage output, whilst short lengths could individually be removed and easily upgraded or maintained over time due to the product’s design and materiality, making this approach both more effective and sustainable.”

Inside Bistro, the design team created a custom lighting feature combining 270 spherical glass pendants illuminated by internal fiber optics, an allusion to Northumberland’s starscape. The optical fibers were hand cut on-site and arranged individually to produce the final, seemingly natural arrangement. Running long optical fibers across the sloped, shallow, and wood-slat ceiling was undesirable due to the risk of a green discoloration.

For the ATEX-rated distillery, the designers combined functional and decorative lighting and created two respective lighting scenes. Warm spotlights illuminate the materiality and texture of the copper pot stills and highlight the interior architecture to create a beacon visible from the outside.

In the event space, the designers 3D-modeled a series of pendant designs that would visually connect with the copper pot stills. The result is three large-scale, multi-tier, curved, copper-leaf pendants that have a strong visual impact indoors and out.

Lighting in the tasting room was kept to a minimum through narrow-beam, discrete spotlights and illuminated LED panels to highlight the color and characteristics of the whisky and a surrounding audiovisual experience. The designers deployed a similar lighting approach in the Great Hall and museum to focus attention to the artifacts and multimedia exhibits. In the retail store, a higher lumen level supports a navigable floor area while feature lighting highlights specific products.

Ad Gefrin’s owners were pleased and proud of their finished project. “We could not be happier with the result of the lighting design,” Eileen Ferguson said, according to the studio’s project description. “We are incredibly proud of what the team have accomplished, creating a space which serves the local community while demonstrating our values and style as a brand.

Project credits

  • Client: Ad Gefrin (Alan, Eileen, and Chris Ferguson)
  • Lighting design: Michael Grubb Studio Architect: Richard Elphick, supported by Todd Milburn, Red Fox, and JCP
  • Construction: Brims Construction Ltd. Interior design: Studio MB

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Architectural SSL staff

In January 2024, Architectural SSL evolved to LightSPEC. While the name changed, the editorial focus -- writing and developing audience-first content about architectural lighting in the built environment for architects, interior designers, lighting designers and manufacturers, and specifiers of commercial and residential lighting and controls -- remains the same.

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