Cozy by Design


Feet warming at fireplace with hands holding coffee


It’s a modernist’s dream to live in a home of clean lines and windows for walls, a la Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. In the pursuit of improving our created environments, wringing the benefits of technology into our spaces, wiping the clutter of ornate flourishes, and letting function drive form, the inclination to pull back on emotional design undertones can sometimes shoulder comfort for comfort’s sake and lead to a stark experience. If not properly considered — or without remaining faithful to the guiding principles of true modernist design — the empty spaces that once brought clarity to our rooms begin to summon a sense of lonesomeness.

On a psychological level, humans desire the protection and warmth of being indoors, surrounded by the ones we love. It’s a sense so integrated into our primal, human nature that we’ve striven for its achievement since Paleolithic cavemen. The first ones to really get it right were the Danes, who spend half the year engulfed in sub zero temperatures and months of darkness. Denmark has turned this evolutionary impulse into an art, developing an ethos-meets-design-principle that promotes coziness and contentment. We should wonder why, for a nation geographically positioned to endure some of the most dreadful winters on the planet, the country and its surrounding Scandinavian siblings continue to top the UN’s list of happiest countries on earth. It could be their remarkable healthcare and education systems, but the real secret’s in the Hygge (hoo-gah).

This Danish principle can closely be translated to the English “coziness” or “togetherness.” Others refer to the meaning as a ritual of enjoying simple pleasures, of cultivating joy. Jamie Kurtz, associate professor of Psychology at James Madison University, calls it “the absence of anything unpleasant.” Kurtz teaches a course focused wholly on Scandinavian happiness, with Hygge being a centerpiece. “There really is no direct translation, and no way to track its first emergence,” she said. “The best way to explain Hygge is to see it, to feel it.” It’s uncanny how interior design elements can come together to effect the interior of our beings. Many popular western trends provoke the opposite of Hygge, fostering instead a coolness, a separation, and ultimately, a lack of pure contentment.

In an attempt to portray a sterling cleanliness, past trends have favored black steel, marble accents, and statement chairs that act as art instead of furniture. In a word: We’ve been searching for the ultra-cool. It’s about a look, not a living in. Western design sometimes favors staging and strict boundaries, along with a focus on displaying luxury. Said Kurtz, “In America, we are obsessed with showing off, which is not the Scandinavian way.” She also credits an unintentional quality to the way we accent our homes, lending to an affection of negligence. We are creatures of our environments. How we design, we feel.

We have long created spaces to photograph and point to as we pass by, but there’s a turnover happening. Mounting trends that include tech-free living rooms and escapist nooks, natural-finish tiles, and organic textured materials, along with promoting natural wear and tear, are bringing us back to the primal joy of spaces.

Adding leisure books, wood, leather, lamps, and repurposed pieces can combat the fluorescent light and cool white tiles of the synthetic indoors. Extend this practice through the food and flora of your home. In The Little Book of Hygge: Danish Secrets to Happy Living, Meik Wiking, CEO of the Happiness Research Institute, suggests: “Give yourself a break from the demands of healthy living. Cake is most definitely Hygge,” and, “Live life today, like there is no coffee tomorrow.” Hygge begins at survival and becomes true living.

The perks of going Hygge are many, from increased joy to a lower energy bill and even stronger relationships. From a design perspective, decorating rooms to promote comfort and warmth last longer than remodeling at every vogue somersault. It’s your grandma’s recipe; it doesn’t need a 2.0 version. A good, comfortable couch perfectly attuned to the space around it is both timeless and welcoming. “It is about… a feeling of home. A feeling that we are safe,” Wiking added.

Although there’s a thrill in having to cope with an edgy design and a beauty in spaces that are made to be a two-dimensional aesthetic, we must always have a place to retreat. A haven to Hygge. We have no power in transporting a full-scale Danish lifestyle to our boarders. What we can do is open our spaces to the practice of Hygge. As a design, it can be done with simple, inexpensive shifts that promote intentional comfort.

Hygge can be cultivated year-round, but is used intentionally as a way to cope with the depressive effects of winter. This holiday season, resist the urge to luxe-out with glitter and gold, and opt for naturalistic, comfort-fueled design cues that can be shared with friends. Measure your newfound merry as the season runs its course. Your ancient DNA will thank you.

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