Scandinavian Style

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Nesting in Nordic ease.

By Theresa Rolen Long   

It’s cold in Birmingham. And I’m in search of some hygge (pronounced “heurgah”)—a 300-year-old Danish word that, loosely translated, means a cozy, contented feeling. Many believe it’s the origin of the word “hug.” It is something anyone battling winter weather aspires to. But in Denmark, it is a priority—a way of life.

Danes counteract winter doldrums with candlelight, camaraderie, post-dinner table talk, woolen socks, cups of glogg, and bowls of porridge. Imagine sitting fireside in a soft chair, with a blanket, some hot tea, and a good book. That’s hygge. Tucked into a dark, cave-like bar, drinking some stout beer with a sweater-clad companion? You’re full-on hygge. Even “Netflix and chill” can be hygge. Intimate, warm, relaxing good times—in bookstores, coffee shops, or gathered together at home—are how northern Europeans throw shade at Old Man Winter.

Danish interior decorating promotes hygge with strategic lighting placement, lots of candles, leather, fur, wool, and wood. Their homes are filled with tactile items that bring comfort and joy. Danes, historically, are not a material people. For them, it’s more about experiences, health, and wellbeing. Perhaps this attitude arose from a long history of function over form, survival over possessions.

Denmark, Sweden, and Norway comprise Scandinavia, and they are notorious for their harsh clime. For centuries, life there was mostly about enduring their cold, dark months. Resources were scarce in this isolated part of the world. Homes were minimally decorated with well-made, clean, and simply lined furnishings. And bright, light indoor environments were the antidote to long winters and minimal sunlight.

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Functionalism and practicality historically presided over their interior design. The machine age, however, ushered in a shift in emphasis, as art and design embraced the emotional needs of the people. The art movements of the early 1900s peaked an international interest in subtle, nature-inspired decoration, elegant lines, soft colors, handicrafts, and national Romanticism. Sleeker than Victorian style, Denmark embraced Art Nouveau and Japonaiserie, adopting the name “Skonvirke” to describe its jewelry and craftwork of the time.

Art and design in the early 20th century reflected the dawn of industrialization and technology. Many artistic campaigns were backlashes to this type of progress, and to war and oppression. Social change was encouraged and expressed through movements like Dadaism, Cubism, and Surrealism, creating a lasting effect on modernism worldwide.

Scandinavian culture welcomed modernism as it appealed to its history of simplistic design. Art and architecture quickly adopted simplified visual compositions. De Stijl was a collective art project in Denmark led by artists Piet Mondrian, Gerrit Rietveld, and others. It expressed pure geometric abstraction and reduction of form and color to basic essentials and led to the neoplasticism art philosophy. Scandinavian architecture adopted principles of the German Bauhaus movement. Swedes loved the simplistic function or funkis of designs coming from this trend.

Because Scandinavian countries were late bloomers to industrialization, their handicraft traditions were more conscientiously preserved. Quality craftsmanship, ingrained efficiency, and job satisfaction amalgamated to define the new Scandinavian design ideology. Scandinavian design also evolved to mean democratic design—as it appealed to the masses via affordability and accessibility, encouraging the enjoyment of the domestic life. It was important for this remote region that good design be not only availability, but also beautiful and humanistic.

The Swedish Society of Industrial Design promoted democratic design for the general public, and exhibitions in the U.S. and Europe in the mid-20th century further established Scandinavian design principles. After the wars, schools in northern Europe were created to pass on craft traditions, industrial arts, and commercial business principals to the next generation of artisans.

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Most of us are familiar with at least a few historical architects and designers from Scandinavia. Some notable ones are Jacobsen, Henningsen, Wegner, Marimekko, Aarnio, and Panton. Their designs are iconic, ubiquitous, and still relevant today. A visit to any mid-century modern furnishings website or store will yield many exemplars of sleek Scandi-style from the 20th century. And the Stockholm Furniture Fair is an important contemporary trendsetter in the interior design industry.

Whether your budget is Ikea or Poggenpohl, or your taste is van Gogh or van Doesburg, you’re sure to find something made in Scandinavia that can seamlessly integrate into your home. Scandinavian design is the perfect foil for our hectic and complicated lifestyles. It is simplistic, durable, calming, natural, humanistic…and beautiful.

But first, stave off the S.A.D., and inject a little hygge into your lair with some low-key lighting and candles, warm food, and good friends. Or maybe a bubble bath with a glass of vin and some ABBA. Adopt a bit of the Danish lifestyle—tend to your wellbeing and claim your winter contentedness.

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