Interiors: Take inspiration from Scandinavian design

How do you design a house that has soul? If anyone knows the answer, it's the Scandinavians. Just take a look at a new book, The Scandinavian Home, by designer Lars Bolander and writer Heather Smith MacIsaac.

It's packed with photographs which demonstrate a quintessentially Norse design aesthetic.

Although there are varying interior and architectural influences in Sweden, Denmark, Norway and Finland, there's common ground in their love of stripped furniture, pale painted rooms and spaces that feature oodles of wood inside and out. You'll also notice that almost all of the homes in the book demonstrate a sense of the surrounding land, and a focus on the hearth, or the heart of the home.

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"Whether it's needed or not in contemporary houses, few Scandinavians by choice go without a kitchen fireplace," says Bolander. "They value the connection to history and nature and treasure the cheer, warmth, scent and glow every bit as much as, if not more than, their ancestors."

This elemental link can also be viewed in their signature love of timber.

"Wood and water, fire and ice, darkness and light - such are the powerful elements of nature that define Scandinavia," says Bolander.

To illustrate this, the book offers images of traditional wooden-clad Norwegian 'hyttes', which are all positioned in dramatic locations: by a mountain, a fjord or surrounded by towering pines. Other featured houses are bright red constructions, painted with "falun", a linseed-oil paint that's been used for centuries to defend wood against harsh weather.

The book says: "Nothing is as striking as a red house hunkered down in a white wonderland".

However, this material isn't restricted to the exoskeleton of a home. The book features interiors with stripped or painted wooden walls, panels, staircases and window panes. If a home's design could be described as minimal, it's the use of this material that makes it seem safe and rooted, as opposed to bare and cold.

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"With two-thirds of Scandinavia covered in forest, wood has always been the region's primary building material," Bolander explains. "Right into the early 20th century, farming remained the primary industry of a lightly populated land. The self-sufficiency that such an occupation - and such isolation - demands meant that Scandinavians built their own houses and furniture, using materials at hand, largely pine, spruce and juniper."

According to the book, Scandinavians used to paint their furniture to disguise the fact that it was made from common pine. Either that, or they'd be attempting to give a piece new life, as they'd never consider binning it. As Bolander explains: "Waste is anathema. Frugality, pragmatism and self-sufficiency are virtues. Things are made well to last more than one lifetime; rare is the object that is purely decorative."

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There are other defining characteristics of this type of design. Scandinavians only enjoy a couple of months of temperate weather each year, so many of them will move their dining table and chairs outside in order to take advantage of a summery climate. For the rest of the time it's likely to be cold and dark, so homes are created to maximise any available light. In modern builds, this means floor-to-ceiling thermal windows, skylights and lashings of white paint.

"The hours of darkness, the depths of temperature, the harshness of the weather loom large. Cold not only constricts the senses but also concentrates design," says Bolander. "Scandinavians live for light. Like air itself, it is critical to their wellbeing and all the more cherished because, for many months, they must make do with very little or none at all".

The book demonstrates other design influences that have come into play throughout the centuries. For example, King Carl Gustav III (1746-1792) is responsible for the 18th-century Gustavian look which, according to the author, is exemplified by "a palette of pale colours", "painted furniture with a matte, even slightly worn, finish" and a "measured dose of pattern". As this flamboyant Swedish monarch also visited Versailles during his reign, Scandinavian style tends to have a Gallic bent, as demonstrated by the Rococo-style furnishings and trompe l'oeil effect wall coverings that are pictured in the book.

This hotchpotch of references has been distilled into a surprisingly distinctive modern-day style. "As far and wide as Scandinavians ultimately drew and still source inspiration, they always have and always will pass design through a humanistic filter," explains Bolander. "In a Nordic home you will never feel overpowered by scale, suffocated by stuff, or put off by clinical minimalism. You will feel utterly at ease: comforted by sensitive proportions, delighted by thoughtful details, calmed by unfussy decorating, and subtly yet profoundly connected to a larger world. If anything is going to supply drama, it will be nature."

The Scandinavian Home: A Style Sourcebook by Lars Bolander and Heather Smith MacIsaac, 24.95, Thames & Hudson, out now.

This article was first published in The Scotsman on Saturday, 18 September, 2010

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