Interiors: Live happily ever after
Great Danes hold the key to creating a blissful home
It's hard to measure happiness, especially in Ireland where people love nothing better than a good moan. In Denmark, things are more straightforward. In 2013, the World Happiness Report declared Denmark the happiest country in the world and the Happiness Research Institute was founded in Copenhagen that same year.
The Danes have some of the world's highest tax rates and a climate that makes the Irish winter look balmy. So what do they have to be so happy about?
The Happiness Research Institute links the legendary happiness of the Danes with the concept of hygge (pronounced hoo-gah). This translates as a unique blend of cosiness and conviviality, and creating a lovely atmosphere at home is a very important part of it. "The reason for the Danish obsession with interior design is that our homes are the hygge headquarters," writes Miek Wiking (below), CEO of the Happiness Research Institute and author of The Little Book of Hygge: The Danish Way To Live Well (Penguin 2016).
Danish people understand hygge at the same intuitive level that Irish people understand craic. Both are culturally specific concepts that can be difficult to explain.
"It's hard to actually express what hygge means in English terms," says the Danish designer Per Plough. "It's the word that we use to describe having a nice time. Sometimes you walk into a space and you immediately feel welcome. You can have that experience in a beautifully furnished house, but you can also have it in an old house that hasn't been done up at all."
Hygge is a feeling rather than a look. It's not something you can buy, but there are things you can do to create it. Candles, firelight and soft furnishings in natural materials are high on the agenda, but the structural design of a building can also be conducive to atmosphere.
Some houses seem to welcome you with open arms. Others shut you out. A formal dining room, however elegant, can be rather chilly. When the table is laid for six, only the most adroit host can accommodate an unexpected guest without an awkward moment.
"Open-plan living areas are really good because they create an informal dining experience," Plough explains. "Benches are fantastic. You can always squeeze in another bum."
His own Veizla bench in solid oak or walnut costs from €1,600 (that price should make him happy!) from Pemara Design, but a more basic bench would do the same job. Hygge is making everybody feel comfortable. A good sofa bed, like the Flip sofa bed (€399) from DFS, works well in this context, preferably combined with a sheepskin rug and gentle candlelight.
If you can afford it, the soft white and walnut kitchen from Danish Kitchen Design (from €16,000) has elements that give the feeling of hygge: warm coloured wood, a built-in fireplace and an open flow between kitchen and dining areas. If you can't, the Metod/Voxtorp kitchen from Ikea (€3,530) is also designed to create an atmosphere of easygoing conviviality.
In either space, you'd feel comfortable helping your host to peel the spuds.
One of the myths about hygge is that it's something that only happens in the winter. "Actually, it's all year round," says Helle Moyna of Nordic Elements. "It's what we Danes do in our spare time!" Like Plough, she has been living in Ireland for years. "I love to visit Denmark, but I couldn't go back to live there. It's very much a Big Brother society." The Danish will institutionalise anything. Even happiness.
Hygge may be informal, but it's neither effortless nor casual. "It's important so that everyone is involved in creating an atmosphere - it's not just me running around," Moyna explains. "At home, we light candles every evening, even in summer, and put them in big glass jars to make sure that they're safe. The children love to help light them. I'm also teaching them to help me cut logs for the fire because I'd like them to learn to do it safely." A log fire comes high on the hygge checklist, closely followed by woolly blankets.
Another aspect of it is home cooking, but it's as much about the shared experience as it is about the food.
"Hygge always involves some kind of eating!" says Moyna. "In Denmark, where it's expensive to eat out, people tend to entertain at home. And families take time to sit down and eat together, to focus on the important things in life. This could be enjoying a cup of coffee with a friend or making banana bread for your children when they come home from school."
Here's the rub. The Danes work less than we do and their hours are flexible. There's many a commuting Irish mother who leaves her children to the crèche before breakfast and doesn't pick them up until after tea time. Not much time for banana bread there! It may be that hygge is more about reasonable working hours and affordable childcare than it is about candles and soft furnishings.
Still, there's no point in gripping. Hygge is fundamentally a positive thing and even if we can't do it as well as the Danes, we can move in that direction.
Switch off the pendant in the evening and use little side lamps to create ambient pools of light. Cheap nightlights look better in little brass holders (starting at €20 from Nordic elements) and the most rickety sofa can be made more comfortable with warm-coloured velvet cushions (€30) supplemented, budget permitting, with one or two luxurious hand-embroidered linen cushions (€130).
"We all have some art on the walls. Pick out one of the colours and echo it in the cushions," Moyna advises. "And stop treating candles as a luxury!"
"At this point, you are welcome to go Freudian on the Danes and point out that hygge seems to be about comfort food and security blankets," writes Wiking. "And perhaps you are right. Hygge is about giving your responsible, stressed-out achiever adult a break. Relax. Just for a little while."
Sounds like a plan.
See pemaradesign.com, danishkitchendesign.ie, nordicelements.com, dfs.ie.