The Hampstead guide to hygge
PUBLISHED: 11:08 14 October 2016 | UPDATED: 17:54 17 October 2016
Everything you need to know about the Danish secret to happiness - and how to find your own slide of hygge in north London.
If you’ve been anywhere near a lifestyle publication recently you’ve probably heard the word ‘hygge’. Pronounced ‘hue-gah’, it’s the Danish word for that intangible feeling of cosiness and contentment you feel when surrounded by good company in a nice environment, and it’s become the buzzword of the moment for beleaguered Brits looking to find some comfort in the colder months.
“Hygge means having a good time with people you like,” explains Signe, a Danish academic who has been living in West Hampstead whilst studying at LSE.
“It can also be when you’re alone, say if you were outside in the cold on a rainy day and you got home and it was really warm inside and you sat on the sofa with a cup of tea and some biscuits.”
Signe describes the emotional resonance of hygge as something akin to the Coca Cola Christmas advert – think children playing in the snow, twinkling lights and frosted window panes.
Hygge is the polar opposite of the current craze for wellness culture. Spiralised vegetables, cold pressed juices and spin classes are anathema to the hygge experience.
“It’s very much about indulging, eating comfort food,” says Signe. “Say at the weekend when there’s the farmers’ market, in the winter maybe in November on a sunny day and you sat and had a coffee talking with a friend – that would be hygge,” she adds. “I really like the one in West Hampstead, and they have really good cakes!”
When she’s particularly homesick, Signe also likes to buy a loaf of authentic rye bread from the Euphorium Bakery on South End Road.
Hygge really starts at home, as Helen Russell found when she found herself relocating from London to rural Jutland in Denmark for her husband’s job. She told her story to a rapt audience at Scandi Night, the launch event for the Fitzrovia Festival of Furniture to celebrate the reestablishment of the area as a centre for design and home ware.
Her book, ‘The Year of Living Danishly: Uncovering the Secrets of the World’s Happiest Country’ documents her transformation to harried Londoner to a happier, healthier hygge convert.
Russell had spent over a decade living in London writing for glossy magazines, battling endless colds, undergoing gruelling fertility treatment and barely finding time to see her husband. “We were encountering each other as a warm body in the bed each night,” she says.
This all changed when they shipped 123 boxes of their possessions across the North Sea in the dead of midwinter to start their new life in Denmark. At first, the culture shock was as full on as the frigid Nordic winter. For one, her husband was home by 4pm each day, the Danish approach to a work life balance being much more, well, balanced. “Staying at your desk until 7pm is more likely to earn you a lecture on time management than a pat on the back,” she says.
Intrigued by this wildly different approach, Russell threw herself into a year long research project to decipher how the Danes had cornered the market on happiness.
“Hygge really meant learning how to be kind to myself, which after 12 years working in the London magazine industry I wasn’t too familiar with,” says Russell, who defines the hygge mindset as “mindfulness without the woo”. It worked for her – along with the book deal Russell also found herself unexpectedly expecting the couple’s first child.
Allowing yourself to tuck in to your third Danish pastry or lighting a couple of candles are totally hygge, but domestic Danish design also has a big part to play in this holistic approach to happiness.
“You can tell a lot about a nation from their homes,” says Russell. “Every home that we saw had white walls, white furniture, smart designer touches. In Denmark everyone is into design.”
Scandinavian minimalism isn’t about having an Instagram-worthy backdrop to your life though. “Looking at something beautiful can induce the same reaction as being in love,” explains Russell. “Clever Danes are getting that surge of hormones and sense of wellbeing just by walking through the front door. They prioritise design so they can make their home a happy hygge haven.”
Danish designer Morten Georgsen has been bringing his own special take on hygge in the 23 years he’s been designing furniture for Danish design store Bo Concept. Morten was in London to launch the Fitzrovia Festival Of Furniture, A larger than life character he claims to find inspiration flying first class with a glass of champagne, although his best ideas come to him when he’s sat on the commode.
“Hygge is like zen for Danes,” he tells the Scandi Night attendees. Its meditative qualities means that sometimes hygge can be elusive. “Sometimes you say ‘we are really going to hygge!’ but it never appears,” he says. “You can put on the candles, the fireplace, turn down the light, everything to bring the hygge atmosphere but it doesn’t appear.”
Bringing ‘the hygge atmosphere’ home can be helped, of course, by good Scandinavian design.
“Scandinavian furniture is very good to do the hygge because it doesn’t stand there screaming,” explains Georgsen. “It’s anonymous but in a very intelligent and appealing way.”
The minimalist, egalitarian ethos that underpins Danish design has its origins in the cultural radicalism movement of the interwar years, and prioritises functionality and beauty in the form of practical furniture.
“It fits with everything including things you inherit, and it’s beautiful in every colour. That’s why Scan design is conquering the world again,” says Georgson.
If you’re looking for quality Danish design to bring hygge philosophy to your home the Bo Concept store on Finchley Road would be an excellent starting point. Solid, Scandinavian furniture is a good baseline, but hygge is also about accessories.
“It is about relaxing, when you have the hygge you feel you are happy because it’s a mindset,” says Georgsen. “Tea, deep pile rigs, cashmere blankets, subtle colours all bring that hygge feeling,”
Tea is a recurring theme when the Danes talk about hygge, and what could be more British than tea? Although we don’t have a word for it in the English lexicon, it turns out we could already be doing the hygge without even realising.
“You eat so many cakes here. And tea! Tea is like the essence of hygge,” says Signe. “I come from a very tea drinking family and when I go home I bring my mum British tea. That’s like the essence of hygge – having tea with your mum. And cake. I think the Brits are definitely capable of hygge – we are not exclusive with our national identity, it’s very inclusive.”
Get Hygge with it
Our top places in north London to get hygge:
Bubbles and Light
Lighting candles is key when summoning a hygge atmosphere. Bubbles and Light stock only handmade, natural products made in Britain and are firm believers in the importance of lifes little luxuries.
9 Flash Walk, NW3; bubblesandlight.london
Unless you’re genuinely celiac going gluten-free definitely falls under the umbrella of faddy diets associated with wellness – so not hygge. Get your mitts on a freshly baked load of authentic rye bread from Euphorium Bakery and indulge away.
45 South End Road; euphoriumbakery.com
West Hampstead Farmers Market
Perusing a farmers market on a frosty autumn morning is a sure fire way to get hygge. It’s held every Saturday from 10am to 2pm.
Iverson Road, NW6
Stylish Scandinavian design that pre-empts the needs of the modern urbanite can be found in spades at the Finchley Road outpost of this Danish concept store.
255 Finchley Rd, NW3; boconcept.com
Ginger and White
Tea is totes hygge, but coffee with friends can be too. Along with Antipodean coffee, Ginger and White serves traditional greasy spoon fare with farmer’s market ingredients for a double hygge whammy, and even their boiled eggs get cosy knitted hats.
4a Perrins Court, NW3; gingerandwhite.com