I first encountered a Danish design interior in Romania, strangely enough. While volunteering there, I met a Dane working for the Danish embassy in Bucharest, and was absolutely amazed by how I felt after walking into her beautifully designed apartment. The environment was clean and modern, with Scandinavian furniture and lighting of higher quality and aesthetic value than anything outside her front door. Although vastly different from the design aesthetic of my native California, her apartment offered me temporary shelter and mental reprieve from the culture shock I was experiencing during my first days in Bucharest.
British author Helen Russell describes the typical Danish home in her memoir, The Year of Living Danishly: “White walls, bleached wooden floors, and not a single item of clutter in sight.” While viewing homes as potential living spaces on arrival in Denmark, she also noticed the wall-hung loos with tanks hidden in fake walls, universally built-in wardrobes, and “lighting that looks like it belongs in a gallery.” Her conclusion? Denmark as a country strongly values design as an important part of its industrial production, lifestyle, and identity. She considers these to be contributing factors to Denmark’s ranking as one of the happiest countries in the world.
The Danish tradition of hygge probably has something to do with the positive mood of their living spaces. Hygge (pronounced hyoo-guh) is something Danes actively strive to create, especially in the dark winter months of this northern land. Denmark.dk defines it in this way: “…hygge is about taking time away from the daily rush to be together with people you care about – or even by yourself – to relax and enjoy life’s quieter pleasures.”
Although this definition clearly identifies good company as an essential component, it is hygge’s aspect of enjoying life’s quieter pleasures that has transformed the international community on Pinterest, self-help books, and home decor into a mecca of Danish design and lifestyle. In Denmark, design and hygge overlap in that they are both dedicated to creating a peaceful, beautiful, and highly functional environment where human beings can take care of themselves. Sounds great doesn’t it?
My favourite hygge elements include a cozy cup of tea in my living room with a good book, a knitted throw, and a scented candle. And if I’ve managed to get rid of the clutter around me, I’m a happy camper.
From an an early age Danish children come interact with quality architecture and furniture; schools and day care centres are well equipped with design elements intended to promote wellbeing. As a result, Danish children develop an understanding that functional yet beautiful design is essential to realising the good life, and then this attitude extends into adulthood. The value placed on a quality environment is made more urgent by the fact that Danes are inside so much during the long, dark winters. They willingly invest more in their home environment to make life more liveable.
A Short History of Danish Design
The Danish Culture Canon credits Thorvald Bindesbøll (1846-1908) with some of the earliest contributions to Danish design. He was an architect, but also worked in ceramics, jewelry, bookbinding, silver, and furniture. He is best known for creating the Carlsberg logo (1904), still in use today.
According to Anne-Louise Sommer, director of Denmark’s Design Museum, the modern “Danish aesthetic was influenced by the Bauhaus and has been a tradition since the 1920s.” She explains that the economic recession at that time posed huge social challenges, but the Danes recognised that good design was important for well-being and decided to make it a high priority. Their young, socially democratic government made it a crucial part of their regeneration plan.
A few different factors further helped this development along. Firstly, Denmark’s late industrialisation helped it jump into the future using borrowed technologies, and its tradition of high-quality craftsmanship helped it progress quickly toward modern industrial production. Freedom of individual expression was also strongly supported in Denmark, which helped designers and architects imagine and realise innovative achievements. They were so creative that by the end of WWII, the rest of Europe was clamouring for new Danish products such as light wood furniture.
Danish design takes a highly functional approach, and most of the well-known Danish designers have been industrial and furniture designers, focused on improving everyday life. One of the early greats was the Bernadotte & Bjørn studio, established in 1950, which was the first to specialise in industrial design (office machines, domestic appliances and functional articles such as the thermos jug). They also collaborated with the electronics manufacturer Bang & Olufsen to excel in modern design work. The Stelton company joined with Arne Jacobsen and Erik Magnussen around the same time, to produce their iconic vacuum jug, a huge international success.
The successful story of Danish design continued with such designers as Hans Wegner (Wishbone Chair 1949); Nanna Ditzel (Hanging Egg Chair, 1959); Poul Kjærholm (Hammock Chair, 1965); and Verner Panton (S-Chairs, 1967). Arne Jacobsen’s famous Egg Chair (1955) is now used and reimagined all over the world. Poul Henningsen created lighting with similar international success; around 50% of Danes have at least one Henningsen lamp in their home, and similar lamps have been created by other designers. Finn Juhl and Borge Mogensen are other Danish furniture makers of world renown. Many of these designers studied at the Furniture School of the Royal Danish Academy of Art, and all have been influential in the development of Danish interior design. And Danish archiects such as Jørn Utzon (Sydney Opera House, 1966) are also well known for their innovative and expressionistic work.
Danish Functionality Continues
The functionality emphasized by Danish Designers’ is evident in many other facets of Danish life. Efficient use of energy, recycling, and shared resources combine into as system that’s as practical as it is beautiful.
Denmark always tops the charts in sustainability rankings, and it was the first nation in the world to create a ministry for environmental issues in 1971. Their interest in efficient, renewable products and processes are woven into the environments they design.
Poel Henningsen lamp, 1925
One example is their amazing way of heating homes: well insulated doors and windows and a district heating system that uses heat from burning waste, wind power, and central solar heating to warm floors. When you have a good infrastructure to work with, all the details that make up an aesthetic space fall into place.
How to Get the Hygge Look
Can we benefit from Danish creativity? Absolutely! Danish furniture is still prized internationally and Denmark is leading the world in terms of practices for sustainability. On top of that, it’s easy to find books, articles, and posts that promote the concept of hygge. Now everyone can benefit from the Dane’s hard-learned lesson of how to create a caring environment (amid dark days, harsh weather, or urban overstimulation) in which to rejuvenate and thrive.
Charlotte Ravnholt of Denmark’s biggest interiors magazine, Bo Bedre, gives the following suggestions for creating hygge in your own home:
• Use natural materials such as wood and leather.
• Employ lots of lamps throughout the room to create ‘pools of light’ or ‘areas of hygge.’
• Add throws or blankets on the sofa for extra cosiness.
• Incorporate a variety of cushions/pillows as design elements that bring comfort. Danes are known to change these with the seasons.
• Set the scene with a great dining table — with at least 8 chairs — to bring in friendly company. (Danes invite friends over for dinner or drinks more often than eating out.)
• Finish off your table for guests with Royal Copenhagen dining plates.
• Use candles. Hygge commonly incorporates them into design for a warm, cozy feel. A Kubus candleholder is a popular choice in a lot of Danish homes.
• If you really want the true Danish look, try some hand-crafted designer chairs, such as those by Hans Wegner, Finn Juhl, or Borge Mogensen.
As we step deeper into winter, I feel inspired to invite a little more hygge into my life. I think a hygge-style Thanksgiving–loaded with great friends, candles, and great conversation–would be a fantastic experience! And then afterward, a little Danish-style self-care would help me relax from the hours in the kitchen. Whatever the occasion, social or solitary, it can probably be improved with Danish sensibility: good company, quiet pleasures, and great design.