Northern exposure

Northern exposure

Winter is the perfect time to be inspired by the Danish concept of hygge and take a moment to appreciate everything that makes your home warm and welcoming.
By Tess Paterson

There’s a truly beautiful connection between lengthy, snowbound Danish winters, and the ability to be in the moment. The Danes have long been revered for their sophisticated, pale-toned home interiors – not only as spaces that counter the months of low grey skies, but as homes that are somehow both inviting and elegant. These northerners have developed a skill for slowing down and focusing attention that can only be described as an art form. It even has its own word – hygge (pronounced ‘hue-gah’).

Alex Beauchamp, founder of the excellent blog, refers to the concept as one of ‘leisurely charm.’ According to Beauchamp, ‘Hygge describes a moment when things are slow and at your leisure. You’re in no rush to go anywhere. There’s a sweetness, a cosiness to what you’re doing and you just feel content.’ She adds that hygge requires consciousness – the ability to not just be present, but to enjoy the present.


As our obsession with screen time persists, and we rush from one unfinished task to the next, it’s a concept that has a valuable role to play in our daily lives. ‘With the current global challenges, I think our homes should be a refuge of comfort, safety, familiarity and happiness,’ says interior designer Tessa Proudfoot. ‘Now, more than ever, hygge should be a way of life.’

Hygge is taking social-media platforms such as Pinterest and Twitter by storm, but it is more than just another a trend. Despite what retailers may imply, it’s a concept rather than a commodity. ‘You cannot buy hygge,’ insists Beauchamp. ‘It is used to acknowledge a feeling or moment – whether alone or with friends – as cosy, charming or special.’

What’s so wonderful about the whole idea is that it comes down to the simple things. The most mundane daily rituals take on a fresh significance, rather than being something to rush through on the way to work: For instance, the quotidian act of making a pot of coffee, pouring it into a heated mug and truly savouring the aroma and taste. Or uncorking a fine bottle of red wine in front of a crackling early-winter fire and letting it breathe while you put together a really good cheese platter – for just the two of you to savour.


‘For me, hygge is the idea of creating a cosy down-home warmth in the winter months, with interiors and furnishings that lend themselves to relaxation,’ says Proudfoot. ‘It’s about spending time with one’s friends and family around a roaring fire, with mulled wine and rib-sticking comfort food.’

To create an atmosphere of simple, cocooning luxury (and as an antidote
to too much pale neutrality), Proudfoot suggests decorating with a combination of feel-good textures. ‘It’s a good idea to think about contrasts, especially in neutral schemes,’ she advises. ‘Hard surfaces with soft, rough with smooth, faux-fur with silk.’

Any form of crafting is a lovely contrast to our digital age. Handmade accessories not only typify the hygge value of doing things mindfully, but they are also a great foil to pared-down spaces. Over-scaled knits add quirky comfort. (You can even try your own extreme knitting by making extra-large needles from 20 mm dowel rods and using the chunkiest wool you can find.)

‘For this look, the key textures for me would be chunky knitted blankets against soft moleskin upholstery, faux-fur throws backed in supple silk or suede, and thick woven tartans and plaids,’ says Proudfoot. ‘The latter always look gorgeous, especially combined with leather trims.’ Mohair accents have a strong place in the hygge aesthetic too. Not only does this natural fibre have a durable beauty, but it’s proudly home-grown – South Africa produces a staggering 50% of the world’s mohair.


There’s so much to admire about Danish interiors – not least of which is their ability to create light-filled rooms with a sense of quiet. On the whole, they’re pretty uncluttered. Thanks to furniture with clean lines, plenty of raw timber and pale paint, the look is neither fussy nor loud. That said, hygge infers a love of home – an appreciation of where you’re at right now. Personal items that have been simply curated, are very hygge.

Just outside the Danish capital Copenhagen, the house that belonged to Karen Blixen (author of Out of Africa) is now a museum. Filled with her own treasures and furniture, it’s a real delight. Photos of her living room’s original decor show whitewashed floorboards, a writing desk next to the window and pots of flowering bulbs.

Creation of a personal sanctuary has much to do with colour (or the lack thereof). ‘I love the peacefulness of Nordic neutrals, and the palette can be very easily adapted to our South African lifestyle,’ says Proudfoot. ‘However, the key to achieving this look is to vary the tones and textures. Too much of one thing can be predictable and boring.’

One way to add impact – especially as we’re not short of daylight – is to experiment with black. A trio of dark-toned ceramics, for instance, can add wonderful impact to a pale interior. Painting one item black (such as a kitchen island or chest of drawers) adds a sophisticated thread. ‘On the pale spectrum, Kravat, stocked by St Leger & Viney, has gorgeous textured neutrals,’ says Proudfoot. ‘And locally, Philip Pikus, stocked by T&Co, has lovely weaves and pinstripes in a range of whites and greys.’


If hygge relies on a sense of awareness and ease to be truly authentic, it makes sense to choose accessories in a similar vein. Candles are a simple example, with the ritual of lighting them akin to taking a pause during a busy day or marking a special event. Soft candlelight creates an instantly soothing ambience, whether at a busy family gathering or while simply savouring a cup of tea on your own. Good lighting can be a wonderful antidote to stress. First prize is lots of ambient light or dimmers, with a dedicated lamp for reading. And, as far as Danish classics go, I have long coveted a white Panthella floor lamp by Verne Panton, or Poul Henningsen’s Snowball pendant.

At home, designer Ashlee Ainsley Lloyd has taken handicrafts to new heights. Her Echru pendant lights, radiating a warm copper glow, were inspired by Africa’s natural forms and bountiful culture of crafts. She describes her goal: ‘To create functional pieces that engage one’s emotions and senses.’ In the context of hygge, the combination of hand-spun metal, crocheted yarn and patience transforms into something truly meaningful.

Staring into a fire is a lovely way to unwind and let your thoughts go. ‘My essentials for creating hygge at home are a huge wood-burning fireplace, black timber floors strewn with mohair carpets, and white goat hides draped over velvet armchairs,’ says Proudfoot. For an effortless mixture of comfort and luxury, add plenty of candles, blond wood panelling and cream crocheted blankets.

Good fabrics are a must for cosy winter cocooning. While acres of taupe linen may echo a certain refined Nordic restraint, there are other equally luxe options. ‘I adore velvet curtains, even in summer,’ says Proudfoot. ‘Faux-fur hides dotted around always add visual comfort, and I like to add in some “jewellery”. This could be scented candles in tortoiseshell hurricane lamps, clear vases filled with twigs and berries, or bleached horns to really evoke that Nordic feel.’

All that remains is a classic on Netflix, and a good bottle of red wine.

Styling: Francoise Jeanne De Villiers; Styling assistants: Jani Oosthuizen & Robyn Lane; Photography: Gareth Van Nelson/, Gap Interiors; Stockists:,,,,,,,,

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