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Can Modern Design Be Cozy?

A long long time ago, in a land faraway I was fortunate enough to experience the Danish concept of Hyggelig. To American ears it sounds kind of like HooGuhLee. Roughly translated it means Cheerful, Comfortable, Cozy, Warm, Pleasant, Nice, Enjoyable, Content, Friendly, the absence of anything annoying, irritating or overwhelming. As it gets colder, the days get shorter and the holidays come along, hyggelig seems to be everywhere in Denmark.

English speakers don’t really don’t have a word that means the same thing, which is why it takes so many to describe it. It’s a concept and experience, more than a thing. Maybe the best description is the word ‘cozy’ but that really just scratches the surface.

A hygge evening might be around the dinner table with good food, good friends, candles, a warm fire, good beer, nice music and laughter. That would be very hyggelig.

A hygge encounter might be an unexpected meeting of old friends you haven’t seen in a while and a chance to catch up. That would be very hyggelig.

A hygge scene might be a pot of tea, some pastries, candles, beautiful dishes, the scent of pine in the air, and something simple and beautiful on the table near a window looking out at the snow falling. That would be very hyggelig.

The surprising thing to me was that hygge extends to the home as well. It didn’t matter whose home I was in, economics didn’t affect it, nor did rural living versus urban living. Hygge as a concept seemed to be everywhere. I felt like a kid in a candy store, every home I was invited into was beautiful, in a way that only Danes seem to know how to do.

It wasn’t that there was a lot of stuff or killer architecture. It was that the stuff that people had was simple, almost spare. It had something to do with the way a room was arranged, with the rich materials and simple pallete of colors, with knowing where the accent of a room was. Rooms were not overcrowded or filled with useless things. In a way it was the absence of things that defined spaces. The things that were left were beautiful, nothing less, nothing more.

When I think of modern design, I think of Danish Hygge. It’s the paring down of elements to the very essence but not in a way that leaves you cold. It’s keeping it simple but infusing it with that intangible thing that makes a house a home. It’s the physical feeling of comfort as well as the way light washes across a surface. It’s beautiful forms that are rich in texture, maybe even a little rustic. It’s the unexpected, that feels familiar. It’s making the useful thing beautiful. It’s the beauty of a simple barn on the landscape.

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder and modern design comes in a lot of flavors. It can be cold black steel modern or warm textured hyggelig modern. I’m a fan of the latter because I think houses should feel like homes and to most of us that cold black steel thing just doesn’t feel cozy.

For me, modernism is a way of thinking about design, not a style. It’s an approach to design that results in durable buildings that can weather the storms of fashion. It’s the thought, the problem solving, the magical moments that make a building last. I love buildings that respond to their moment in time, but if it is just made to appeal to the moment, like the latest pair of boots, chances are it isn’t going to have lasting appeal.

It’s been over 30 years since I was in Denmark and hygge doesn’t seem to have changed one bit. I think it is because it is an approach, a way of thinking and a way of seeing the world that makes it an enduring thing. Modern design with a little hygge can make the difference between house and home. Some architects might be rolling over in their graves or just rolling their eyes at the idea, but really, it is more in the spirit of modern architecture to have hygge than not to have it.