A design for life
I’ve just spent 5 relaxing days in Copenhagen with my lovely wife, and started writing this blog in my mind during the trip. It’s a wonderful city, packed full of great design and architecture, with a way that just feels… well… it just feels like a very good quality of life. It is also one of those cities that gets better the more you return (this was our second time), opening itself up and exposing more and more points of interest to the inquisitive visitor.
The first cut of the blog was all about design. We saw so much of it, from the astounding Design Museum Danmark with its endless collections, through to the newer design brands destined to be icons of the future, like Hay and Normann.
The museum is a must for any trip to Copenhagen, and you can get a great feel for the experience by visiting their excellent website:
Arrange your visit if you can, to take in one of the excellent free tours. ‘Danish icons’, in English, is on every Sunday at 2pm (no booking required). The museum is packed with chairs, glass, lighting, products, clothing, home-wares, fabrics, crafts, graphics…. if it’s been designed, it’s in there!
We also had a fascinating insight into the architecture of the city, taking a contemporary architecture bike tour with Asser Munch from Be Copenhagen. He showed us the full range from historic to contemporary, and everything in between. Learning how conservative a people the Danish are, which helped me understand their love of the right angle and the thinking behind those modernist principles.
Lack of bad design
The more time we spent in the city, the more we realised that it was not just about the good design that surrounds you, it was also about the bad design that doesn’t exist. Landing in Leeds on our return quickly reminded us of how in the UK, we just take bad design for granted.
Another observation, was on how the locals dressed. On one level, most Danes are very tasteful, wearing simple, considered clothing from a limited colour palette. Shops like Cos were bulging with buyers. But look closer, and the appetite for fashion is also very conservative. That limited palette is in fact just grey and black, and you see very few people who venture beyond their staples.
I suspect this is an inherently conservative society.
Illuminating the Danish soul
As our stay went on, the idea for the blog changed a bit. My musings became more about the Danish way of life and how design has contributed to that, rather than the design of the objects used in everyday life. Everyone appears pretty happy on the surface, and their quality of life certainly seemed good to me. There is even a word for it in Danish, ‘hygge’ (pronounced ‘hooga’), which roughly translates to ‘cosiness’.
In essence, hygge means creating a warm atmosphere and enjoying the good things in life with good people. The warm glow of candlelight is hygge. Friends and family – that’s hygge too. There’s nothing more hygge than sitting round a table discussing the big and small things in life. Perhaps hygge explains why Danes are the happiest people in the world?
So where does design fit in?
The numerous, well-designed bars, restaurants and cafes offer endless opportunities for cosy coffees, cake and chat. Comfortable furniture and relaxing, cool environments add to the feelings helping you to make the most of life. Add in the numerous well-designed buildings, outstanding architecture and traffic-free streets, and it’s no surprise everyone is so happy.
The lack of traffic in the city centre is palpable. Clear, usable bike lanes run absolutely everywhere, encouraging more than 50% of Danes to commute to work in the city by bike. Add in the whopping 180% tax on cars, which are deemed luxury items, and you quickly end up with a city dominated by the bike and pedestrian rather than the car. That’s good for the environment, good for health and good for everyone.
New homes are designed with the community in mind. Design maximises the impact of the sun in a country that suffers harsh winters, and creates imaginative shared spaces. District heating provides energy to over 60% of all Danish homes, enabling the country to become a net exporter of oil, and making a dramatic difference to fuel bills, fuel poverty, carbon emissions and fuel security.
Overall, Copenhagen (and Denmark generally) feels like a great place to live because of good design, the way of life, imaginative housing, shared spaces, neighbourhood heating, good public transport, homage to the bike lane, considered communities, its compactness and a high level commitment to sustainability. This all combines to deliver tons of hygge.
The downsides I hear you ask? Well, visitors find it expensive. Danes earn more, so feel it less. Having a cosy, hygge beer usually knocks you back about £8. And eating out can be steep.
So Copenhagen was a very positive experience for me, and I don’t think I’m being overly influenced by visiting just as Spring was breaking and the city reawakens from another deep, cold winter.