Every Friday morning, Cynthia Sanford gets to work early. She’s not there to sell more mid-century Danish furniture — although that’s what shoppers can find at the Kensington, Md., branch of Modern Mobler, where Sanford is store manager. Instead, she enjoys some quiet time with a friend before opening up for the day. They drink coffee and knit among handcrafted teak sideboards, splayed-leg coffee tables and never-let-you-go lounge chairs.
In other words, Sanford explains, “we’re having hygge.”
It’s a term she hadn’t heard until about a year ago. Almost no one had — except for the people of Denmark, who use it incessantly, according to Danish Ambassador Lars Gert Lose. “Hygge is part of our DNA,” he said.
Roughly translated into English, hygge means coziness. But, Lose adds, “it’s as hard to define as it is to pronounce.” (“HOO-gah” gets you close enough.) To him, hygge is a combination of three factors: the space you’re in, the people you’re with and the intention “to create a sanctuary.” Nail the details, and it adds up to an all-encompassing sense of comfort and well-being. In Denmark, which boasts eight months of weather forecasts that might make you want to stay in bed, hygge has served as the ultimate coping strategy.
Now the secret’s out.
Hygge has been anointed the latest lifestyle trend, inspiring luxury tea blends (hooglytea.com), designer wallpapers (hyggeandwest.com) and a Philly brewpub (barhygge.com). It’s also the subject of an entire library of new books, which is fitting, given how hyggelig it is to curl up and read, preferably by the glow of a fireplace while wearing woolen socks and sipping something steaming.
Blame the buzz on current events, says food writer Signe Johansen, author of “How to Hygge,” which explains how she maintains her Nordic traditions while living in London. “People are worried and anxious about the future — 2016 was a discombobulating year for many reasons,” she says.
That’s certainly true in Washington, where the recent spike in political divisiveness is palpable. Some hygge-style socializing could help, Lose says.
“It’s almost like meditation, but it’s a collective exercise rather than an individual one,” he explains. Distractions such as phones are shut off. Topics that could devolve into shouting matches are shelved. “The point would be to say: ‘This is all about having a good time now. It’s time to talk about what we enjoy about life.’”
Hygge can even play a role in policy discussions, Lose adds, noting that he participated in a group bike ride along Pennsylvania Avenue in the District this month as part of an event on “Rethinking Urban Transportation.” The vibe was informal, partly because of the gear involved. “When you put on a biking helmet, you have to laugh at yourself,” Lose says.
A conducive environment is key to experiencing hygge, says Lose, who suggests Washingtonians take an evening stroll through Georgetown or picnic by Mount Vernon. And, of course, there’s the Danish Embassy, which is hygge by design. The building was the work of Danish architect Vilhelm Lauritzen, who inserted hygge-friendly touches, such as the chandeliers that hang throughout the residence. Their playful circles of bulbs, each inside a glass, can be dimmed to adjust the mood.
As Happiness Research Institute chief executive Meik Wiking points out in “The Little Book of Hygge,” proper lighting is essential. That means there should be several light sources, scattering pools of warm light throughout a space. When in doubt about how to achieve that, he says, just add candles.
Kira Fortune, a Dane who now lives in Chevy Chase with her family, frequently finds herself fielding questions about candles. There are 14 in her living space at the moment, not counting the ones inside lanterns in her yard. She lights all of them.
To her, that’s hygge, which demands that “you go out of your way to be uber-cozy,” she says. When she has the time, Fortune lights not only the candles but also her two Morso wood-burning stoves. She prepares hot chocolate and glogg, or mulled wine, and bakes rye bread from scratch. Then she savors sitting around with no real plans — just board games, books and blankets.
Setting up such a hyggelig scene requires energy and attention, but it’s a process she enjoys because she knows how wonderful the result will feel. “Living in Washington, we work long hours. This is one way to switch off, go down in gears,” Fortune says.
That seems like a good thing to know how to do, even if you can’t pronounce it.
Here are some ways to hygge at home:
Nordic interiors are minimalist. So to prep for going hygge, you might want to try the KonMari Method, Modern Mobler’s Sanford says. The goal is to tame clutter by keeping only things that “spark joy.” To Sanford, a sleek sideboard fits that bill — you can use it to display items and tuck away a few of your favorite things for easy access. “I always want my knitting and yarn near me,” she says.
Bring nature home with a houseplant. “How to Hygge” author Johansen recommends aloe vera — they’re a funky shape, they’re low-maintenance, and they’re useful. “It’s the best thing for applying on a burn,” she says. If you’re picking up a bouquet from the florist, go monochromatic. “Too many colors can feel hectic,” she explains.
“The Little Book of Hygge” author Wiking promotes a hands-on approach to furniture shopping. “Consider not only how things look, but how they feel,” says Wiking, who prefers the touch of wood over steel and glass. Danish-style decorating doesn’t have to be pricey, he adds, noting that his favorite pieces are a pair of stools he made with his uncle. Their value comes from his memories. You can attach stories to your belongings even if they’re purchased. Just consider the source, Wiking says: “You’re in a flea market in Paris. It’s already different from Bed Bath & Beyond.”
A few flickering candles on a table is fine, but for a cozier effect, use surfaces at varying heights, Johansen says. Experiment with window ledges and bookshelves. Always use candleholders, and be careful: Johansen’s dress caught on fire at a party when she accidentally brushed up against a tea light on a low shelf.
Fortune’s strategy for creating “a Copenhagen house in Washington” involves knowing where to shop. She hits up Ikea every two weeks to restock her candle supply. (Only plain white ones are acceptable — “We’re very much into less is more,” Fortune says.) The Swedish store also sells rye bread mix and holiday foodstuffs. Rodman’s in Friendship Heights is her source for marzipan and chocolates. For Kahler-brand striped vases and other ceramic accessories, she orders from royaldesign.com. And when she’s desperate for other goodies from home, she turns to design emporium Illums Bolighus (illumsbolighus.com), which ships to the United States.