It has been remarked upon, in various surveys, that the Danes constitute the happiest nation in the world. Much of that has been attributed to the emphasis they place on community, their willingness to suppress their own immediate gratification for the good of their neighbours, and the concept of hygge.
Like many of the words used to sum up a national trait, hygge is difficult to describe with any degree of precision, but it is generally considered that “cosy” is possibly its nearest equivalent in English. In 2016 it even managed to hit the Oxford Dictionaries shortlist for “Word of the Year” and was defined as, “a quality of cosiness and comfortable conviviality that engenders a feeling of contentment or wellbeing”.
Hygge is especially important during the long winter months, when life revolves around the home and it becomes especially important to pay attention to interior design, which is possibly why Danish furniture has enjoyed such a stellar reputation around the world for 60 years or more. When families are forced to spend the lion’s share of the winter months indoors, it makes sense that they should seek to surround themselves with beautiful and comfortable objects.
Jonathan Stewart of Wharfside, whose Shoreditch warehouse is filled with some fine examples of handcrafted Danish furniture, claims that its popularity will last as long as its manufacturers continue to exhibit the same dedication and flair as their predecessors. “The whole point about buying Danish designed furniture is that the master craftsmen are passing on their skills,” he says. “Certain Danish houses have chosen to revisit some of their classic designs due to demand, and the only reason they can do this is because contemporary furniture makers are just as skilled as those from the previous generation.”
Of course, it is vitally important for those godfathers of hygge to pass their skills down to the next generation, which is where the concept’s core philosophy comes into play. Far from being merely a quirky way of expressing a feeling of contentment, hygge is also a state of mindfulness in which the individual can take enormous pleasure from performing tasks that others might view as mundane or even unrewarding. Therefore, it is vitally important that craftsmen pass on their skills to the next generation so that future Danes can continue to enjoy the beauty of solid wood furniture.
“The truth is that an expertly made piece of furniture never goes out of fashion,” says Stewart. “This is probably why, when we have read reports over the years about how so-called brown furniture has lost popularity, we have laughed. Danish design really started to affect people’s purchasing choices in the 1950s and is still proving to be popular among aspirational families.”
This concept of ensuring the continuation of skills dates all the way back to the days of the Vikings, when builders of longships would ensure that the youngsters of the village had mastered the knack of shipbuilding so that they could guarantee the continued wellbeing of the community.
Denmark’s national philosophy of community and people working together for the good of all also had an effect on the design of its furniture. While the phrase “beautiful things that make your life better” fits in very neatly with the concept of hygge, it was also considered essential to manufacture things that were affordable and could blend with the decor of any home, however humble.
Danish designers, like their other Scandinavian colleagues, were influenced by their immediate environment and, certainly in the middle of the 20th century, were obliged to be inventive and make the most of the materials that were available. Industrialisation occurred later in Scandinavia than in most other European countries, which meant that many old handicraft techniques were preserved much more effectively than they would have been had factory production been established earlier.
However, one of the main factors that has motivated a sense of continuity within Danish design is the singular climate. With winter days being scarcely lighter than the interminable nights, interiors need to be as bright and practical as possible to allow householders not only to survive but enjoy these months, which are largely spent indoors.
While there are countries that revel in factory production, Danish designers are proud of their old school approach to furniture and take pride in the amount of care that is lavished on every piece of solid wood furniture.
“Of course, factory produced furniture has been popular in the past,” says Stewart. “However, the current trend of thinking about environmental issues when making basic consumer choices means that people are now thinking about buying pieces that can be handed down to their children. This mirrors the way that the Danish craftsmen are passing on their knowledge of wood.”