Having lived in a suburb of Copenhagen for 5 years and remodeled a 1963 house there, I’m at home with contemporary Scandinavian design and Danish hygge – both creative responses to gloomy weather. Hard to translate, hygge means something like comfort, beauty, and companionship in daily life, especially in the dark winter months.
I missed these aspects of the culture on moving to Portland. Also long, grey and wet, our winters can bring on SAD-ness (Seasonal Affective Disorder).
Ironically, our weather was apparently part of the attraction for the 150,000 Nordic immigrants who settled in the Pacific Northwest around the turn of the 20th century. Along with the climate, the region’s landscapes and key industries – farming, fishing, and timber – reminded them of home. Today, an estimated 10 percent of Oregonians have Nordic ancestry.
We may never see another wave like that to our shores. But there’s nothing to stop us from assimilating elements of contemporary Nordic design. Of course, that’s already happening.
It gives me a warm, hygge feeling to see icons of Danish design like wishbone chairs in the Pearl’s Design within Reach showroom, the largest in North America. Or the stark white silhouettes of Vestas wind turbines on the peaks of the Columbia River Gorge. Or to eat smorrebrod (open-faced sandwiches) at the outpost of Broder Café in the airy modernist home of the Scandinavian Heritage Foundation on Oleson Road. And I look forward to experiencing the new James Beard Public Market and the Willamette Falls Riverwalk, both to be designed by the renowned Norwegian firm, Snohetta.
But the real inspiration for this posting are two articles I came across when scouting content for my Facebook page:
- A Dwell story about a native Oregonian and her Swedish husband who remodeled a Rummer house in southwest Portland to create a “beacon of light”
- A Remodelista story about a mid-century modern house near Seattle that was reimagined in a “modern Scandinavian way” to “capitalize on sunlight throughout the year”
Scandinavians have long championed and adapted modernist architecture. So it’s no surprise that the Swedish half of the Portland couple gravitated to a Rummer. Named after the local developer who started building them here in 1959, Rummers are modernist in style, with:
- Rectangular and asymmetrical shapes
- Clean lines and minimal ornamentation
- Liberal use of glass, often as a structural element
- Open plan layouts
Many are built around atriums that may be open air or enclosed with glass walls, vaulted glass roofs, and clerestory windows extending upward from the roof line.
These features harvest lots of sunlight and allow it free passage. Surrounded by frosted glass panels that offer privacy and light, the front door of the Dwell Rummer opens on an enclosed atrium with spiky potted trees. The atrium, in turn, opens on the sitting room, which has floor-to-ceiling windows and a sliding glass door overlooking the patio and garden beyond. As Bob Rummer said in an Oregon Home interview, his homes “bring the inside out or the outside in.”
Overlaying the modernist bones of the house is a typically Scandinavian décor. Most of the walls and the brick fireplace are painted white. Along with the white poured concrete floors (which have radiant heat), they reflect light. The interiors are clean and uncluttered, with streamlined and “bare-legged” furnishings – again allowing light to move freely through the space. White surfaces are warmed by wood elements: the rich deck in the atrium, the side chair in the sitting room, and the dining table. The spaces are finished with touches of character or quirkiness – like the unruly shag rug, the grey floral geometries of the dining area’s Finnish wallpaper (that reminds me of Spirograph drawings), and the lemon-yellow front door.
This approach to color runs counter to prevailing theory and practice in our corner of the world. For example, a Portland Monthly article explains how to choose wall paint “for the Northwest light.” It recommends muted tones developed by local companies, Yolo and Devine. Offering similar advice for Seattle interiors, Apartment Therapy says colors that “reflect the moody weather” are best.
Recommended paints combine hues from the color wheel (such as red and green to make brown) or are “knocked back” with additions of grey or black. Mixing colors this way reduces their purity or vibrancy and saps their ability to reflect light.
Scandinavians, on the other hand, swim against the moody currents of their weather. White is their go-to color for walls because it does the best job of reflecting light. Most interiors are monochromatic – with black and gray elements for contrast and gravitas. Given the cultural preference for natural materials, wood often enters the picture in pale or blonde tones that are warm but reflect light. Finally, there is a tradition of vibrant accent colors on the pure or saturated end of the spectrum. When accents are mixed, it’s with white (the most reflective color) not black (the least reflective color). For example, the lemony tint of the front door in the Dwell Rummer house adds a jolt of energy without stealing light.
Obsessed with sunshine, the Scandinavians are on to something. Research shows that access to light enhances energy, sleep, and emotional health. So we need to make the most of it in our homes, offices, and schools – especially in winter months.
Of course, modernist architecture isn’t for everyone and Portland has an enviable stock of early 20th-century homes and cottages. Also featured on my Facebook page, the following stories show how they can be opened up to light without sacrificing their architectural character or integrity.