We used to say that a man’s home is his castle, but men and women alike seem to be moving away from a castle mentality and more toward a refuge mindset tied to comfort and simplicity. That is partly due to economic and demographic trends, with environmentally conscious millennial homeowners priced out of larger homes in major markets and strapped with college debt, empty-nester boomers and seniors downsizing, and the residual effects of the Great Recession, when millions of Americans saw their home values plummet. McMansions seem so last decade!
It’s also due to the cacophony of daily living, where a bombardment of technology, advertising and negative 24-hour news cycles disrupt our sense of quiet, calm and well-being. It’s natural – and probably inevitable – that people would seek sanctuary in their private homes. Given the centrality of kitchens and baths to our daily lives, it’s not surprising to see comfort and simplicity show up in those spaces; homeowners, designers and manufacturers are all embracing the trend.
Americans wanting to simplify their lives and embrace a more relaxed and sustainable way of living have numerous opportunities to learn and be inspired: Hygge (pronounced hoo-gah), from Denmark, is the best known of these movements (with 865 books listed on Amazon and 32.9 million Google results at press time), but lagom from Sweden and wabi sabi from Japan also relate.
All three emphasize natural, simplistic, easy design at home that eschews excess and perfectionism in favor of functionality and relaxed living. How does this relate to the kitchens and baths you create for clients, and the products manufacturers and retailers offer to complete them? Two designers, an author and a manufacturer, share their insights.
Hygge at home
“Hygge is being in touch with your innate need and desire for emotional and physical comfort,” shares Long Island, NY-based designer Susan Serra. This, she says, “includes a regular supply of fresh flowers, candles, iconic Scandinavian furnishings and accessories [and] an appreciation of exposed old construction such as crooked beams, imperfect plaster or 100-year-old wood flooring. It is a home as a collection of treasured items that may not be perfectly coordinated, nor in perfect symmetry. The result of the spaces they live in reflects a perfect balance between too much stuff and an absence of life within the space.”
While the trend has been sweeping the country for the last few years, Serra has been embracing it in her Scandinavian-inspired projects for close to three decades. She is not surprised in the least about its growing appeal: “After 2010, kitchen design began to evolve toward cleaner lines. From my lifelong visits, I believed that Scandinavian interiors’ mainstream cultural aesthetic included design elements that Americans would find attractive. These include: the use of white in new ways, the use of vintage items, natural materials and a modern design aesthetic with warmth. I felt it was precisely the combination of modern warmth paired with the [stylish] look of a casual lifestyle that would resonate.
“In terms of the layouts,” she notes, “I’ll do plans filled completely with cabinetry, which is what [clients] think they want, and then I’ll show them a few alternative plans with less cabinetry, which translates to more of a ‘room’ experience than a solely utilitarian place.” Other design elements to incorporate, she says, are large windows, low-hung lighting, plants, vintage furniture pieces repurposed as storage, natural materials, treasured decorative objects, natural materials, practical rugs and a couch.
“I strongly advise designing in what I call the kitchen sofa.” It’s a magnet, she declares! To get the proportions right, Serra selects a real couch with legs replaced for ones with a better dining height and practical, durable upholstery. “It provides incredible comfort, significant visual softness and warmth in an otherwise hard-surfaced room, as well as enhanced functional purposes – including napping on occasion!”
Hygge-inspired bathroom elements, she says, can include a steam shower and large separate tub, bidet-style toilet, ample natural lighting, heated floors, music, plants and natural materials wherever possible.
“Hansgrohe has been actively promoting the hygge concept in Denmark, Scandinavia and Germany, and we would like to begin promoting it in our other subsidiaries, as well,” shares Thomas Leth, managing director at Hansgrohe Denmark. “After a long, action-packed workday, it is important to de-stress one’s mind, body and soul. The bathroom has always been an intimate, private sanctuary. This creates an oasis where one can relax and calm down,” he adds.
For the German manufacturer, this has meant nature-inspired product design, warm, soft PVD finishes and lighting elements built into fixtures, like its AXOR Nendo LampShower, for spaces where natural light isn’t available.
“Organic and natural materials like wood or various tactile fabrics can soften the look in the bathroom,” Leth says. “Combined with shiny materials like glass, they create a nice harmonic balance within the room. Furthermore, glass is very hygienic and easy to clean.” More Hansgrohe and AXOR products are incorporating glass, he observes.
“Different spray modes and technologies in the showers can aid in offering a hygge feeling,” he suggests. “To deeply relax, one can try a hand shower equipped with massage sprays. Hand showers with multiple spray modes offer different ways to relax.” These can range from intense drenching to a softer spray.
Lagom’s ‘just enough’ approach
Similar to hygge from Denmark, Sweden’s “Lagom is often described as ‘not too little, not too much, just right,’” notes Live Laugh Lagom author and Swedish transplant from Nigeria and the U.S., Lola Akinmade Åkerström, “but lagom lies closer to the word ‘optimal.’ Having too much or too little causes stress.” In this way, lagom encourages smart purchasing and sustainability.
“Lagom invites harmony into our homes by avoiding clutter and balancing practicality with memorabilia near and dear to our hearts. [It’s] even better if a single item can fulfill both roles of functionality and sentimental value.” This can mean using an heirloom hutch for dish and glass storage, rather than cabinetry, or the rug shipped home from vacation in the bathroom or kitchen.
“We can continue to stress over cleaning a piece of furniture every week that may be useless to us,” she notes. Even useful home elements can create stress when excessive ornamentation or fragility require rigorous maintenance. “Lagom wants us to question why we own the things we do.” It’s not the same as minimalism, she explains, but rather, a precursor. “Lagom wants us to find our own levels of personal contentment by paring down excess in our lives so we can clearly see what we need to be focusing on or what we truly need to keep in our lives.”
Light is one of those needs, she comments. “From cozy candlelight on tables to warm lamplight at doorsteps to guide our paths in the dark, luminance in all its modes is essential. In Sweden, you’ll find airy home layouts with space cleared to allow light to flow. Even the tiniest of apartments will often look breezier than normal because they have been consciously designed to maximize the space within them. Simple, neutral colors and designs let us see our own tastes and preferences more clearly against a clutter-free backdrop.” This includes simple, functional appliances that are durable and get the job done, she adds. The same applies to bathroom spaces and fixtures.
Wabi sabi and minimalist luxury
Scandinavians aren’t alone in their focus on relaxed living. It’s a Japanese value, as well, perhaps popularized to offset their famously intense work lives. With definitions that have evolved over the centuries, wabi sabi today may best be translated into English as ‘wisdom in natural simplicity,’ but it also points to embracing the rustic and imperfect elements in one’s environment.
This was one of the trends cited by Tatiana Machado-Rosas, design department manager of San Diego-based Jackson Design and Remodeling. “Casual imperfection is a concept we see expressed in kitchen and bath designs that forgo formality and fuss in favor of minimalist space planning and muted color palettes based on white and earth tones. Clutter is eliminated and the essential objects that remain are selected for their authentic utility and beauty, including ‘imperfections’ such as those found in the natural textures of wood countertops or flooring, or a backsplash created from handmade tiles.”
“Minimalist luxury” is another design trend Machado-Rosas sees happening now. “Minimalist kitchen and bath designs offer a respite from the sensory overload of today’s lifestyle. Minimalist luxury is a way to embrace simplicity while appreciating the beauty of carefully selected luxurious materials and objects. With thoughtful design, these pieces can be comfortable, too.”
“Natural growth” is a complementary movement the San Diego designer sees. “Greenery is showing up everywhere, but especially in kitchens,” she comments. One of JDR’s designers was on the 30 Under 30 team that won a 2018 KBIS innovation award for its “Living Fridge” concept, and Urban Cultivator created a stand-alone appliance for growing greens and herbs indoors; home chefs are creating kitchen gardens and greenery walls. Even without the cooking elements, there are benefits to incorporating plants in both kitchen and bath design.
“Greenery is being used in all types of bathrooms and in a variety of styles,” Machado-Rosas adds. “We’ve seen large potted palms, which connects to a bohemian aesthetic that has been trending for a while, as well as mini succulent gardens and hanging plants. Greenery in the bathroom expresses the idea of comfort and simplicity,” she says, noting, “plants are an easy way to instantly purify the air and add comforting natural beauty to a space.” The natural moisture of full bathroom spaces makes plant maintenance easier, too, she points out.
“We see the trend toward comfort and simplicity in today’s kitchen and bath design partly as a yearning for home as a safe haven during a time of rapid change. Simplicity also reflects a growing tendency to consider the natural environment and focus on the most beautiful and essential home elements,” the San Diego designer says.
While simplicity may translate to fewer, less ornate cabinets in many projects, they can also be of more premium materials at higher price points. Profits don’t need to come at the expense of a client’s desire for comfort, sustainability and less materialism. ▪
Jamie Gold, CKD, CAPS is an independent designer in San Diego, the author of New Kitchen Ideas That Work and the New Bathroom Idea Book (Taunton Press), and a design journalist, NKBA Chapter Presenter and industry consultant. Her website is jgkitchens.com. She was recently named one of Kitchen & Bath Design News’ 50 top innovators.