6 things to see at Morton Arboretum's 'Illumination'
By Katlyn Smith

When bands such as Van Halen, The Smiths and Duran Duran went on tour, John Featherstone was the guy who designed the light and sound spectacle on stage.

He still counts some of those rock stars as close friends, but now he's working in a different kind of arena -- one that's considerably more serene.

If you go

What: "Illumination: Tree Lights at the Morton Arboretum"

When: Friday through Jan. 2. Doors open from 5 to 8:30 p.m.; lights out at 9:30 p.m.

Where: Morton Arboretum, 4100 Route 53, Lisle

Tickets: $13 for adult members, $18 for others off-peak; $17 for adult members, $22 for others on peak days

Info: (630) 725-2066 or

Featherstone and his team of designers are the creative forces behind one of the region's premier holiday light shows: "Illumination" at the Morton Arboretum in Lisle.

The show opens Friday for a nearly two-month run featuring tens of thousands of LED lights and plenty of music and special effects along a one-mile route with forests, hills and stunning vistas "in every direction," says arboretum education director Anamari Dorgan.

And while his spotlight once focused on flamboyant musicians in the 1980s, Featherstone's production is no less dramatic when hundreds of trees along the trail are the showstoppers.

"We wanted to develop an experience that was firmly anchored in the idea of the trees being the real stars of the show," the British lighting designer says.

The sprawling outdoor museum -- home to tree collections from around the globe -- long has been a must-visit in summer and fall.

But now, with "Illumination" brightening what had been a stark winter landscape, the arboretum has become a holiday season destination, too. More than 350,000 turned out for the event, created exclusively for the arboretum, in its first three years.

If you're looking for Santa peeking around a tree, though, you may want to try someplace else.

"We said right from the get-go, 'Look, if you want twinkle lights on trees, that's fine, but that's not what we do,'" says Featherstone, founder of the company, Lightswitch.

Before opening "Illumination," Featherstone and arboretum officials gave the Daily Herald a behind-the-scenes tour of this year's show and a new "grand finale."

Here's a look at some of the highlights.

Crystal Promenade

What: Two dozen elegant chandeliers are suspended on fir trees along the southeastern section of the Illumination trail.

Mood: Romantic or magical, depending on the viewer.

"It's a really big hit with kids," Featherstone said. "It turns into 'This is the grand ballroom for the fairies and the sprites.'"

For the grown-ups, it's apparently the perfect setting for popping the question. The arboretum has heard from couples who have gotten engaged at Crystal Promenade and then return the following year as husband and wife.

"How great is that? That's one of the most important commitments you can make in your life and that they choose 'Illumination' to do that really is incredibly rewarding for all of us," Featherstone said.

Inspiration: Featherstone admits there was some "head-scratching" on both sides about hanging chandeliers from trees, but he wanted to explore the boundary between humans and nature.

Symphony Woods

What: A crowd favorite. Lighting fixtures on the ground are synchronized to a soundtrack -- beat by beat -- from "The Nutcracker" and cast beams of color on groups of trees as if they were ensembles of an orchestra: percussion in the back, strings on the left.

The recording features four pieces from "Nutcracker" performed by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.

Mood: Bold flashes of color in woods that feel like an amphitheater. These fixtures are not search lights but produce thin rays. "We walk a very careful line between wanting that kind of effect and not disturbing the night sky," Featherstone said.

Setup: His team deconstructs the music to decide how it wants to reflect each beat. Synchronization technology allows the lighting hardware to effectively listen for cues from the audio system.

Hug a Tree

What: A trio of trees form this interactive feature, one of many on the "Illumination" route. Expect to stand in line to see how the branches light up when you wrap your arms around the trunk.

Mood: Playful. "What better way to get to know a tree than to give it a big squeeze?" asks Dorgan, the arboretum's education director.

Tanyosho Pines

What: Spotlights in shades of purple on a pair of trees native to Japan and planted in the 1920s.

Mood: Perhaps the most understated of "Illumination." "We treat them like the crown jewels that they are," said Featherstone, whose team works closely with Morton arborists to install lighting without damaging trees or their roots.

Meadow Lake Magic

What: The narrow light fixtures drifted with the flow of the lake last year and now are anchored by cables in a rigid design that complements "Illumination's" finale.

Setup: The devices are linked by Wi-Fi. Control nodes in stand-alone sheds tucked away in the trees dictate the brightness of light that flickers across the water.

"It's a huge amount of data that needs to be controlled," Featherstone said.

Fantasy Forest

What: Polished PVC pipes stand tall in the center of the arboretum's hedge garden, resembling tree trunks and, again, accentuating that line between man-made and organic.

Mood: A last, roughly four-minute hurrah set to a custom piece of contemporary music.

Inspiration: "We wanted to give a really strong and defined final experience," Featherstone said, as crowds end "Illumination" back at the Visitor's Center.

"This is our big, vibrant, colorful, celebratory send-off."