The Scandinavian aesthetic may hail from small countries thousands of miles across the sea, but the design-oriented cultures of Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Finland and Iceland have long had an outsized influence on American design—both during the golden age of midcentury modern and again now, as the pared-down look is enjoying a resurgence. Nordic style actually shares much in common with our own island locale in its emphasis on nature, coastal and wooded settings, beautiful light and appreciation for clean, modern lines. A few design professionals with roots in these northern latitudes explained the key characteristics of Scandi style, why it’s so relevant today and how to bring it home.
1. Let There Be Light
“Traditionally, Scandinavian design has been about letting in much-needed light,” explained Sara Norrman, author of Simply Scandinavian (2016, Ryland Peters & Small) and editor-in-chief of Houzz Nordics. In countries where it is dark much of the year, white or light gray interiors, painted or pale wood floors, large windows with light curtains and lots of mirrors and candlelight are utilized to make the most of all available light. Similarly, bright and vibrant textiles and pops of cheery color from pillows, rugs and artwork are essential to lift the spirit during the long days of winter as well as celebrate the beauty of summer.
2. Appreciate Nature
This extends to all its forms, like using natural materials. “Living close to nature, as Long Islanders do as well, we celebrate the natural world inside our homes,” said Norrman. “By mirroring the materials outside you can bring Scandinavian design thinking into your home.” She suggested utilizing plenty of wood, as well as slate and local stone in kitchens and baths. Natural textures like floaty white cotton curtains or simple linen bedding also enhance the aesthetic. “The style is unfussy, easy to live with and low-maintenance.” Plants are another favorite means for bringing the outside in.
3. Keep it Simple
“Scandinavians gravitate toward an eclectic look that mixes old and new, but you don’t see a lot of clutter,” said kitchen designer Susan Serra, CKD, of Huntington and founder of ScandinavianMade.com and Bornholm Kitchens. “The look is minimalist but it’s a warm modern feeling. Interiors are carefully edited and curated and art plays a big part.” She added that their spaces are generally smaller, which forces a focus on clean lines and highly useful items that are beautifully made.
4. Balance Form and Function
Scandinavians value enduring, timeless design over fashions and fads. Serra, whose site sells one-of-a-kind hand-loomed rugs from Sweden and handmade pottery from Denmark, explained that the Bauhaus movement jumpstarted a more organic aesthetic characterized by the human form. “Most designers lay everything out and then try to make it pretty. Scandinavian designers integrate aesthetics and function equally from the start. There’s a respect for the end user; it’s a democratic type of design. It’s simplicity that is both beautiful and cost-effective, while being high quality.”
Those egalitarian roots are partly the result of government initiative, explained Ann Ljungberg, owner of Just Scandinavian in New York City. After WWII, the demand for new homes grew, resulting in a building spike in the 1950s and 60s. “The government investigated how the average housewife worked, how many steps she took doing her chores, how many pots and pans she used, what size kitchen towels, etc. Designers were given that research and asked to design items that were both practical and beautiful.”
5. Sustainability + Accessibility
“It goes back to the democratic roots of Scandinavian design—not adding all these embellishments for the upper class, which follows from the political system and how people live,” said Serra. Simplicity of form, avoidance of excess and good design that’s accessible to all contribute to this spirit. Norrman added that this attitude has evolved further: “In recent years, sustainable design has also taken prominence, with many people choosing products that are made close to the source, or from materials that are responsibly sourced and will last for years to come.”
6. Mix and Match
“We love to mix antique furniture or family heirlooms with very modern art or even pieces from IKEA,” said Ljungberg. “I tell our customers, ‘dare to mix, not match,’ and ‘think harmony, not symmetry.’” Serra agreed that due to the emphasis on simplicity and functionality, Scandi design is extremely versatile. “No one does eclectic like the Scandinavians, which means you don’t have to make your whole house Scandinavian. Pick a few things—a chair, a breakfast table, a colorful textile—to add diversity and joy to your interiors. Scandinavian style mixes well with other pieces and styles.”
Ultimately, Scandinavian style is “an embracing of new ideas, while taking direction from the past,” Serra said. “Midcentury is considered a golden age for Scandinavian furniture, but I believe we’re in a new golden age now, with a resurgence in design for lighting, furniture and fabrics.”