Even with 4,000 miles between us, Fox Cities residents and people from Denmark have something in common – we both endure some of the longest, darkest winters around. When it comes to winter coping mechanisms, our Danish counterparts have an edge in the concept known as hygge (pronounced hoo-guh). Danes developed hygge as a way to find enjoyment in the bleak days of winter, as it celebrates life’s simple pleasures like hand-knit blankets, flickering candlelight and coffee with friends. “It’s definitely more of a feeling. It’s not necessarily something you can go out and buy,” says Leslie Wilson, owner of Bellwether Interior Design in Neenah.
While central to Scandinavian culture, the concept has only recently made its way this side of the Atlantic. The word itself has no direct English translation, but hygge focuses on creating warmth, cosiness and contentment. Sometimes it can be interpreted as the art of creating intimacy in your home, so the holidays are a natural time to hygge up. We spoke to local interior design experts who suggest seven ways to hygge your home for the holidays and all winter long.
1. Keep rooms clean and uncluttered.
Hygge embraces a minimalist approach to decor with the philosophy that a serene space leads to a serene mind. This is easier said than done, especially during the holidays when clutter is at an all-time high. “We tend to over-accessorize during the holidays,” says Rebekah Myers, head designer at Branching Out & Co. in Appleton. “So don’t be afraid to put pieces away.” Clearing space creates a clean landscape for seasonal items to shine. One of the most well-intentioned clutter creators during the holidays is greeting cards. Instead of displaying them on prime mantle real estate, Wilson suggests attaching them to a festive ribbon hung above an entryway. “If you don’t have tons of space, you always have wall space or over a doorway that adds an extra element without adding clutter because it’s not on a tabletop,” she says.
2. Arrange seating to encourage conversation.
“This concept is all about coziness, family and friends, so you want to create an environment that’s conducive to conversation and laughter,” says Greg Curtiss, designer at The Wreath Factory in Menasha. “Seating often faces the TV. Change that.” Seating arranged in a circular grouping is more conversation-friendly, Curtiss says. Don’t forget to offer extra blankets and plenty of pillows so guests can linger comfortably. “I always have a basket of knit stockings or slippers for guests to slip on and curl up with a blanket,” Curtiss says. Wilson suggests switching out an everyday coffee table with a plush ottoman that can serve as additional seating, if needed.
3. Create ambiance with secondary lighting.
Harsh overhead lights, begone – cozy lighting is a main tenet of hygge. Fireplaces provide the warm glow that hygge is known for, but the same effect can be achieved with string lights, candles and lamps. “We love mixing candles on a mantle or in a tablescape, using various heights of pillar candles or pairing chunky and taper candles in different holders,” says Casee Meach, sales and marketing director at Branching Out & Co. During the holiday season, Wilson opts for earthy-scented candles, like those with notes of fresh pine and tobacco. She also recommends adding candle wall sconces to keep tabletops free from unnecessary clutter. Don’t discount battery-operated flameless candles either, Curtiss says. New models look like the real thing and can be set to a timer or operated with a remote control. Plus, there’s no safety concern.
The Oxford English Dictionary defines hygge as “a quality of coziness and comfortable conviviality that engenders a feeling of contentment or well-being, regarded as a defining characteristic of Danish culture.”
4. Decorate with natural materials.
Connecting with nature is central to hygge and luckily the holiday season offers ample opportunity to bring the outdoors in. A no-brainer method is to opt for a real Christmas tree, but there are many ways to incorporate plants and natural elements. Meach is a fan of large fiddle-leaf figs in decorative containers that can breathe life into a room in more ways than one. “Not only are they pleasing to the eye, but many plants create oxygen in the home and certain ones, like lavender, have calming effects,” says Myers. Bonus: adding aromatic evergreens like pine, cedar and balsam to your decor will fill your home with the scent of Christmas. Curtiss favors Port Orford cedar. “It’s a long, flat branch, and when it dries, it doesn’t lose the needles,” he says. “I like tucking it in bookshelves and around mantles.”
5. Incorporate meaningful items.
Handmade decor adds instant character. If you don’t have a mantle, Curtiss suggests hanging a birch log on the wall with some cup hooks screwed to the bottom from which stockings can hang. “It brings in that natural element, but also provides texture and interest,” he says. Display keepsakes from your travels or pieces that hold sentimental value, even if they don’t adhere to this year’s holiday decor theme. It’s okay to mix vintage Christmas tree ornaments with new ones or to pair your heirloom china with modern flatware. “It’s your home and your memories,” Wilson says. “It’s more interesting when things have a story behind them. They’re conversation pieces.” And good conversation is totally hygge.
6. Add layers of texture.
If color is intimidating, create visual interest with textural layers. During the cold winter months, Wilson recommends layering wools, furs and knits, whether with throw pillows and blankets or rugs. “Another big trend is macrame,” Wilson says. “You can add texture on walls with a hanging as well.” Curtiss likes to add throws and pillows in a monochromatic color scheme of grays, creams and whites, but in different textures and even various patterns. “People are afraid of mixing patterns like polka dots and stripes,” he says, “but as long as it’s the same color family, go for it.” In order to achieve that hygge coziness, Meach says it’s important to soften hard surfaces and lines. “Add flowers and fresh greens to soften a centerpiece on a hard surface,” she says. “It offsets the texture to give it that warmth.”
7. Focus on people, not things.
Candles and fuzzy socks are great, but true hygge is a philosophy of mind and spirit. At its center is the ability to slow down and savor the little things, most of all being the company of people you love. To best serve the family and friends you welcome into your home this holiday season, Curtiss says you must appeal to all parts of their being and it rarely requires any money. “You want to hit all the senses – the sounds, the smells, the visuals, the touch, the tastes,” he says. One of Curtiss’ favorite soundtracks is the simple crackling of a fireplace. Mulled cider smells as great as it tastes. Cozy fabrics look and feel luxurious. Most importantly, lively conversations and heartfelt sentiments are balm for the soul.