Danish Architecture: Hygge and Northern Exposure

Almost 20 years ago, I had the pleasure of studying architecture in Copenhagen, Denmark. Some of the lessons learned there have stuck with me to this day, and I am particularly reminded of them on these cold, wintry days. 


Danes Know How to Hygge

Copenhagen Denmark. A couple of things that really stick out in my memory are 1) the perpetual rain, cold, and dank terrible weather and 2) the relief of retreating to a warm, cozy inside. Now the relief of shedding wet boots, coat, hat, and gloves inside a warm building is something that most of us in the North East can related to. However, I’m talking about something more. Much more. I’m talking about good food, great drinks, and happy friends, all bundled into a cozy atmosphere. I’m talking about my experience with Hygge.

Danish design influence


So, what is

Hygge? Well, it’s a Danish word that has no direct translation in English. It’s been described as “the art of creating intimacy” and “coziness of the soul”. I’m here to say that it’s not just the latest Instagram hashtag. It’s for real. Here’s how I experienced the architecture in Copenhagen: exteriors are pretty simple, clean lines, maybe a splash of color here or there, but fairly unremarkable. It’s the interiors that the Danes pour all their efforts into: selecting furniture, carefully lighting each room, adding pillows, blankets, tables and candles to create a sense of comfort and ease. For lighting, diffuse is the name of the game. Harsh, high contrast light will have everyone squinting in confusion (or more likely annoyance). Much like a southern exposure. Wait, what?


Unlearning Sunlight Lessons

In the US we’re taught to position windows for southern exposure to maximize sunlight. But that’s not what the Danes-who-live-in-perpetual-darkness-most-of-the-year do. They prefer a northern exposure. Here’s why:

Southern exposure lets a lot of light in, but it’s more direct, meaning very high contrast. You end up squinting in your kitchen from the bright light reflecting off your counter-tops, while the sink area is bathed in shadow. On the other hand, windows with a northern exposure cast even lighting over the entire room, especially when the windows are floor to ceiling or placed high up on the wall.

northern exposure with floor to ceiling windows


Danish Design Influence

The biggest lesson I took away from Copenhagen and integrated into my design practice is this: exteriors are easy, interiors matter most. Interiors are where people are. At LEAP we spend the majority of our design time on interior spaces, really thinking about the use and feel. When it comes down to it, we humans spend 90% of our time inside, even if the weather here is better than Denmark. So, raise a cup of hot cocoa and light a candle. I hope your day is a little more Hyggelig as we finish out February.


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