Last week we were invited to be part of Pecha Kucha #36 at the Nordic Heritage Museum in the Ballard neighborhood of Seattle. It was a blast closing out the event and we had a ton of fun watching the other participants; see the full roster here. The theme was “Nordic Love” and we decided to divulge the top 10 things we learned while studying in Scandinavia. Afterwards, we were thrilled that so many people asked if the presentation would be up on the blog. So we said, “Heck yeah, we’ll put it up.” Enjoy.
In the fall of 1993 we each boarded an airplane from our respective universities with our sights set on studying architecture in Copenhagen, Denmark. At the time we knew very little about Denmark; we knew about the popularity of cheese, the public acceptance of funny sweaters and the abundance of oddly named pastries. We had no idea how influential Scandinavia would be in our lives and our careers as architects.
Everything was designed well in Scandinavia, from entire buildings right down to glassware at the local cafe. The Danes even applied their design skills to the hot dog bun, or pølse, as they called it. The bun was baked with a hole perfectly sized for a hot dog (insert humorous but harmless phallic observation here).
2. Good design always trumps fashion.
The objects that surrounded us in Denmark weren’t just well designed, they were timeless. They were designed in such a way that you bought something once. You used it your entire life and then handed it down to your grandchildren. A great example of this is the famed PH5 lamp designed by Poul Henningsen in 1925 and manufactured by Louis Poulsen.
When things are designed well, like chairs, and books, and cabinets … you don’t need fashion. This is the Egg Chair designed by Arne Jacobsen in 1958. Did we mention that the Scandinavians are also very skilled at marketing?
3. Modest private spaces – celebrated public spaces.
In Scandinavia, people live modest personal lives with unpretentious, economical homes. Energy, resources and pride are put into the public spaces. This is one of the many courtyards along Copenhagen’s main shopping street, the Strøget.
Locations like plazas, courtyards and mezzanines become places to gather and celebrate the daily rituals of life. The Royal Danish Library is an excellent example of an indoor gathering space. The new addition, designed by Schmidt Hammer Lassen, was completed in 2006 and is an extension to the original library from 1648.
4. Public transportation needs to be the path of least resistance.
Not only is there an excellent public transportation system in Copenhagen, but the policies around using public transportation are also very clever. At the time of our studies, anyone who bought an automobile was given a train pass. Even after you had abandoned the public transportation system the Dane’s still didn’t give up on you. The encouragement to use public transportation was astonishing.
Copenhagen’s “five finger” transportation system reaches each of the 5 main prominent neighborhoods. Like most things Scandinavian, they’ve taken a complex system of information and have boiled it down to an elegant and easily understandable diagram.
5. Personal freedom trumps rules.
This is the Carlsberg Brewery, where decades ago employees of the brewery were allowed to consume six beers per day on the job (seriously). Naturally, workers maxed out their daily limit more often than not.
When the brewery eliminated the limit, making it possible to drink as many beers as one liked, the number of beers consumed per employee went down.
6. Being good is more important than being famous.
The anonymity of Scandinavian designers always impressed us. Every time you turned a corner in Denmark you found great architecture by architects you had never heard of, architects that don’t care about popularity.
Scandinavian’s don’t yearn to be rich, famous or published. It’s enough just to do good work and have a good life. This is the folding chair designed by Hans Wegner in 1949.
7. Lower your expectations and you’ll be happier.
The Scandinavian countries are cultures that believe they have enough; they’re happy with things just as they are.
The Dane’s do not tie their happiness to the stock market or what they’re driving. Simple pleasures and daily routines can offer as much joy in life as you want them to.
8. Anybody can cook well.
When we lived in Scandinavia it was all meatballs and potatoes. There was no point in going out to eat because there wasn’t any good food. And because no one would go out to eat, new restaurants wouldn’t open up.
Now the Scandinavians have the best restaurant in the world, NOMA. On a typical Danish menu you can now find terms like herb emulsions, sea foam, and foraged blueberry meringue. If the Danes can pull out of this culinary tail spin, anybody can do it.
9. Save the schnapps for last.
There is etiquette to drinking in Scandinavia: you start with a beer or two, then move onto wines with dinner and maybe an after dinner drink. Later in the evening, Farfar heads down to the cellar to fetch a bottle of that schnapps he made a few summers ago. This is an ancient drink for the soul; it embodies the tradition, the beliefs and the happiness of an entire culture.
There is a social significance of sharing drink; it happens with good people around a table of food and stories and wine stains. It can’t be bought, it can’t be acted out, and it can’t be found on Facebook.
10. We all need more hyggelig.
The Danes have a word, hyggelig, that doesn’t even translate in the English language because we don’t have enough of it. Its closest relative is “cozy” but even that doesn’t come close to encompassing everything that hyggelig embodies. It’s about a calm, comfortable surrounding with good friends or loved ones, often while enjoying good food and drink. And it’s something we all need more of.