The Danes have a word for it; thanks to the imagination and persistence of a theatre management team, Northampton now has a cafe bar for it.


All photography © Bar Hygge

Running a regional theatre arguably shares similarities with being an architect: a lot of administration but with just enough involvement with the creative side, which is your real passion, to keep you going year on year. You operate in a tough competitive climate but the rewards – when your audience responds to what you are doing – are hugely satisfying.

The Royal & Derngate,  Northampton is in the Premier League of regional theatres. This is thanks in no small part to a hugely creative and thoroughly organised team of people headed by their Chief Executive, Martin Sutherland. One 17 Architects have been fortunate to work with Martin together with the theatre’s Operations Director, Richard Clinton, on three projects to date.

The one we want to look at is Bar Hygge, a craft beer bar and cafe created in a former retail space in part of the original theatre buildings fronting Northampton’s Guildhall Street.

Some might say that giving a cafe bar a name that few know how to pronounce and even fewer understand its meaning would be risky but Martin and Richard have no lack of imagination, conviction or belief in their audience: “We knew that if we got the concept right, Northampton would embrace Bar Hygge, just as they have everything else about the Royal and Derngate” said Martin. “We cater for an adventurous and fun clientele and we wanted to give them a really authentic experience. We think we’ve done that.”

Hygge (pronounced hoo-gah or huu-guh) is a Danish concept and roughly translates as the warm, satisfying feeling engendered by enjoying simple pleasures in comfortable surroundings in the company of friends. But ask ten Danes to translate hygge and you will get ten slightly different answers. So Bar Hygge is not about theming but about creating the conditions that give rise to hygge. Not that a strong dose of Danish design does not help: Martin Sutherland insisted on genuine classics in the form of light fittings by Louis Poulsen, one of the great names of Danish design, and bar stools and chairs imported from Erik Buch, another iconic manufacturer. Quality at this level does not come cheap but research trips to sample the genuine articles in the bars of Copenhagen convinced Martin and Richard of the value.

In a cafe bar the food and drink on offer are make or break elements. In keeping with the emphasis on authenticity rather than pastiche Bar Hygge was set up to offer an unparalleled range of craft beers, locally made spirits, truly interesting wines and fizz plus non-alcoholic refreshment of the same high standard. The food on offer matches and complements the beverages: cheese and charcuterie are delicatessen quality whilst the open sandwiches not only taste great, they fulfil the hygge test by bringing a smile to your face by their fabulous presentation. You can opt for the cosy interior where candlelight plays a major role, or sample the street life of Northampton’s cultural quarter at one of the simple bench tables outside.

The most recent incarnation of the building was a wedding dress shop. ONE17 stripped back plasterboarding, layers of paint and various floorcoverings to reveal warm mellow brickwork and a timber floor that needed just a thorough sand down and a couple of coats of sealer to provide the perfect background for the new venture.  Cloakrooms and kitchen were tucked into the rear of the space and a purpose designed bar draws the eye across the main room. A raised area to one side, reached by a short flight of steps, provides more discreet seating and a good vantage point from which to survey fellow patrons.

The street entrance is slightly above the main space, so ONE17 installed a short ramp to overcome the level difference and ensure access for all, with a striking bottle display, manufactured in Yorkshire, right beside the entrance. This provides a hint of the pleasures available whilst giving privacy to those inside. Lit with led strips, the sparkling amber glass of the display says hygge as soon as you walk through the door.

Whilst most seating is at tables for two to four people, the long communal table in front of the bar, with its tall leather topped Erik Buch stools, has rapidly become a firm favourite.

Talking of craft beers, Huddersfield’s own Magic Rock craft brewery is rapidly gaining a fine reputation and we were surprised but very pleased on our last visit to Bar Hygge to find that the Yorkshire brewer’s products were available to Northampton’s beer connoisseurs.

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