What I Learned About Scandinavian Design In Denmark & Sweden

Function but make it fashionable.

Originally Published: 
Coco Hotel Copenhagen Scandinavian design
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Like most Americans, I have always found it easy to idealize Scandinavian culture — from the midday Swedish “fika” to the “hygge” creature comforts. Then of course there is the constantly sought-after Scandi sense of design — not only in their fashion sensibility (look to labels like GANNI, Stine Goya, and BITE for some of the chicest examples), but also their clean yet impossibly cozy interiors. So during a recent trip to two of the epicenters of said aesthetic, Copenhagen and Stockholm, I was careful to take notes on what makes Scandinavian interior design so good and the takeaways anyone can try in their home — with a little expert intel, of course.

Before explaining exactly what I observed while carefully studying the hotels, Airbnbs, retail spaces, and restaurants I explored, it may be important to discuss my expectations prior to the trip. If, like me, your foremost example of Scandinavian design is IKEA, it may be easy to assume that every interior space in this part of the world is ultra modern. And while you’d be partially correct, what may surprise you is the warmth you feel here. For example, after a grey and soggy walk through Stockholm one afternoon, biodynamic farm and café Rosendals Trädgård welcomed us with a wood stove, tables lit by candles, and chairs strewn with sheepskin chair covers (this is to say nothing of the lunch spread that consisted of kardemommeboller, chokladbollar, hummus with roasted beets, and toast with pork rillettes and pickles among other mouth-watering options).

Intentional Design

This sense of juxtaposition might be the greatest common theme among spaces I visited in Stockholm and Copenhagen. Even some of the most contemporary museums, like the Louisiana Museum and Moderna Museet, are contrasted by the historic architecture that either houses or surrounds them. “I think Scandinavian design and interiors now really reflect the culture and, to me, it’s this mix of old and new — living with things from the past but somehow pulling it forward,” explains Dan Mazzarini, creative director of collective BHDM Design and creator of Archive. “Beautiful typography, modern design. Forward-thinking food. All of those things are very Scandinavian, but they sit side-by-side with historic architecture. It’s really this definition of lifestyle meets interior. ”

Mazzarini, who recently enjoyed his own visit to Copenhagen, points to a few reasons for this unique juxtaposition — most obviously, the climate. The fact that Scandinavia experiences more dark and cold days than we do in America necessitates warm and welcoming interiors. “When you step inside, that warmth that you feel is planned,” he says. “It’s planned from a functional systems part of the building, but it really radiates from the walls out.”

Abbey Stark, senior designer at IKEA, expands on this explanation by stressing the Scandinavian focus on creating an overall sense of wellbeing — something she says is a cornerstone of the Swedish brand. “We’re trying to give people happy homes,” she says. “Our vision is to create a better everyday life for the many. And that’s really what drives Scandinavian design. How do we create functional spaces? Comfortable spaces? Affordable spaces? All these things come together to make a space that you feel good in.” A perfect example of this idea is the aforementioned ritual of fika, a conscious midday break that is common in Swedish culture. “From the cup you’re drinking out of to what you’re sitting on,” the design expert adds. “It’s all about the experience and enjoying every day.”

The key to such happy homes, Stark explains, is functionality. It is easy to consider Scandinavian spaces as minimalist — specifically according to American standards. But actually it may be more accurate to say that Scandis are designing with intention. Their interiors are imagined in a way that helps them live life better and more efficiently, which is why you’ll rarely see a room overdecorated. “[Everything is] very intentional],” she tells me. “So everything you put in a space, you’ve thought through it. Because we want it to be a beautiful space, but it still has to be a functional space.” You may have noticed that your favorite IKEA products are designed with this in mind, but if you’re looking to take the Scandi approach one step further, the brand has also recently launched a program that offers one-on-one interior design consultations that don’t break the bank. And as Stark mentions, they’ve got the perfect products for the job.

Obviously you don’t have to take a trip to Denmark or Sweden to be inspired by the Scandinavian way of living, but being immersed in the rituals and routines in this part of the world gave me a greater understanding and appreciation for the culture that I couldn’t wait to bring back to my own home. On my trip I carefully observed the elements that felt quintessentially Scandi — from the moody lighting to the use of negative space — then I asked Mazzarini and Stark to break down these conscious design decisions as well as how to use them to achieve a similar feeling in your space. Use them to create your own happier and better functioning home, intentionally.

Gallery Walls

Cofoco restaurant in Copenhagen. Courtesy of Ashley Tibbits

A gallery wall certainly isn’t a design feature that’s exclusive to Scandinavians, but they certainly were popular in the hotels and restaurants I visited in Copenhagen and Stockholm. This took me by surprise, as it’s easy to think of Scandi spaces as being clean or sparse — and gallery walls feel extremely maximalist by nature. But as Stark says, the difference always goes back to the intentionality of designs in this part of the world.

For instance, Mazzarini, who stayed at Hotel Sanders during his recent excursion to Copenhagen, noted that the art displayed in the hotel’s gallery wall all shared similar subject matter with a story behind it. “A lot of photography was inspired by local ballets,” he explains. “The reason was that the owner of the hotel was a former ballet dancer. The point is, it wasn’t to be random. It told a story. There was some sort of theme. And as a designer, that’s what I would hope others would take away from that, too. Is it all things you collected on trips? Is it all about your summer vacation? That, to me, is how a gallery wall hangs together well.” You can create the same effect in your your home by choosing art and objects that tell your own story: Personal photographs, artwork and memorabilia collected during your own travels.

What impressed me about the gallery walls in Scandinavia was the mix of media: Typography, vintage exhibition posters, photography, even painting. Still, everything felt tied together harmoniously. One way to achieve this, Mazzarini says, is keeping a few elements — like size or material — consistent. “Lowest common denominator, if you don’t know what you’re doing, is get the same color frame,” he shares. “Birch, in four different sizes, but it’s all birch. You put it on the wall and it automatically ties it together.” The designer also suggests the option of sticking to a color palette, like the black-and-white gallery wall in his own home.

Pops of Color

Coco Hotel in Copenhagen.Courtesy of Ashley Tibbits

Despite — or more accurately in spite of — the cold and dim conditions in Scandinavia, the interiors are far from drab. Rather, Copenhagen in particular has an affinity for vivid use of color (and I have the florescent lilac and lime green sweater now to prove it). And surprisingly, this even starts on the exterior. “I don’t know if it’s the lack of daylight and you expect it to be darker, or snow-colored or whatever it is, but even the buildings in Copenhagen are bright and bold and beautiful,” explains Mazzarini, who points to areas like the Nyhavn harbour as an example.

Yes, designs here may be more playful than you would assume, but bold uses of color and pattern feel a bit more intentional. So if you aren’t the most adventurous when it comes to either in your own space, this could be an easy way to dabble. “The foundation is more minimal and then you play it up with things you can switch out seasonally or have a little bit more fun,” Stark advises, detailing IKEA’s own use of color and pattern. “We’re working with the basis of whites, blacks, natural woods, but then we want to go bold with the graphic patterns and textiles. The rugs will be a bold black and white stripe and then the pillows could be yellows, reds, greens. We don’t go overboard with color but it’s a really — I go back to the word ‘intentional’ — way of placing the color throughout.”

Layered Lighting

Alice bakery in Copenhagen.Courtesy of Ashley Tibbits

“We have so much to learn from Scandinavian taste, but I think lighting setting the tone or the mood of the space is at the top of the list,” says Mazzarini. And having explored bars, restaurants, and living spaces here during my travels, I couldn’t agree more. In fact, “hygge,” the Danish/Norwegian term used to describe a quality of coziness, really starts with the lighting. And this isn’t just about aesthetics: The Scandinavian sense for lighting — think desk and table lamps, sconces, even candles in lieu of harsh, overhead light — is all about creating a respite from the outside elements.

Secondly, the choice of lighting is dictated by the architecture. Most Scandinavians want to make use of as much natural light as possible, and then artificial lights are added to accentuate your space and create a desired mood. “You’re filling the space and making a statement,” Stark explains. “We create ambience and mood with it but also [use it as] a design feature in the space.” For example, pendant lamps were the main sources of artificial lighting in practically every space I encountered, from cafes to Airbnbs, and they ranged in scale depending on their surroundings.

To create a similar effect in your home, Mazzarini has a few suggestions. “Avoid architectural lighting: No can lights in your ceiling — no direct downward lights is, I think, the strongest rule there,” the design expert says. “What I saw instead were pendants and sconces and table lamps. Candles everywhere, even during the day. And not just on your dining table. Wherever you want to put them to have that glowy flicker that happens. There’s that kinetic quality to candlelight and that was in every hotel and restaurant that we went to.” Another must? Adding dimmers to all your lighting. “Dimming is key to setting the mood, which is so in line with that Scandinavian lighting that we like,” he adds.

Negative Space

Airbnb in Stockholm. Courtesy of Ashley Tibbits

While Scandinavian spaces were certainly not as sparse as I would have initially thought, I would argue that designs here value negative space more than the average American ones. Essentially, what they don’t add to their interiors is as conscious as what they do. And Stark says this all goes back to the Scandi emphasis on function. “[Scandinavian design] is always functionally driven, which is why you’re never going to see it overdecorated,” she explains. In other words, the furniture, fixtures, and accessories are selected with intention to serve your daily life, which naturally eliminates the need for excess or clutter. The effect is calming, not cold. “There’s a restraint that resonates in a really positive way,” Mazzarini says.

Not sure how to scale back and make use of negative space in your own home? “Think, the opposite of a gallery wall,” Mazzarini advises. “One picture, but don’t have it centered on the wall. Consider the scale and consider placing it off center and lower than you usually would. That piece suddenly calls for attention in a really interesting way and makes everything around it feel more intentional.” Besides the arrangement of wall art, the designer suggests revisiting the objects on your tables and shelves. Scale back to remove what you don’t need, focusing on a few juxtaposing items instead of a busy collection and allow your furniture to show through. In fact, your furniture in itself can be a way of introducing more negative space. Look for interesting sculptural shapes that allow air and light to pass through.

Natural Elements

Lobby and patio at Coco Hotel in Copenhagen.Courtesy of Ashley Tibbits

Part of what Stark refers to as the “sense of wellness and wellbeing” that is ever-present in Scandinavian design comes from the prominent use of natural materials. Even in manmade materials — a stainless steel table, for example — you might find organic, biomorphic shapes reminiscent of nature. This, Mazzarini explains, is a way of bringing the outdoors in, which can add to the feeling of calm that Scandi spaces often induce. “It could be real or faux but I loved that they had all these hides on their outdoor furniture,” he says. “Sheepskins over the back of these wicker chairs. When you think about natural materials, think texture. It kind of feels like this mentality of ‘use every part and piece’ of what you take from the earth.”

From jute rugs to stoneware vases, there are so many easy (and affordable) ways to introduce more natural elements into your own space — and if you’re on a budged, IKEA has plenty of such products in its catalogue. “When we talk about a layered look, like layering lighting, we can also layer textiles and finishes in a space,” Stark tells me. “We work with a lot of natural woods. All our textiles — cottons, linens — all those elements give it a tactile experience. Even down to our lighting, it can be the paper globes or things like that. All these natural elements that work together.” Even simply switching out the shades on your existing lamps can create an instantly cozy effect, explains Mazzarini. “A natural colored paper is going to create a glowier light,” he says.

If you want to add in some greenery, Stark just suggests doing to with that same sense of purpose and restraint in mind. “When we look at adding plants and things, they’re going to be either in a contained planter or working up the wall as a design feature,” she explains. “Again it’s intentional and meant to create a feeling of wellbeing in the space and that’s really at the heart of Scandinavian design.”

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