7 Scandinavian Design Principles and How to Use Them

scandinavian style living room with couch, furry throw blanket, and modern coffee tables

Scandinavian decor has become a global phenomenon. Beloved for its simplicity, function, and connection to the natural world, this style of interior design offers understated elegance to residential and commercial spaces alike. Scandinavian design grew largely out of a demand for functionality, where the harsh winter climates of Northern Europe drove those who lived in this area to value utility over decoration. This deference to functionality was also an important ideal of the Bauhaus movement, which had been influential in the development of Scandinavian architecture.

The Origins of Scandinavian Design

The signature elements that came to define the Nordic style—minimalist white walls, wood floors, and modern furniture—began to take shape in the 1950s with the establishment of The Lunning Prize. Instituted by New York-based importer of Danish designs Frederik Lunning, the annual prize was awarded to eminent Scandinavian designers from 1951 to 1970.

Equally instrumental in the development of Scandinavian design was the work of then-editor of House Beautiful magazine Elizabeth Gordon. In 1954, Gordon arranged “Design in Scandinavia,” a traveling exhibition of the best design the collective nations had to offer and became instrumental in championing the movement.

Scandinavian design continues to be a leading source of inspiration for interior design. Below, explore the signature characteristics of the movement and uncover quintessential Scandinavian designs — whether it be Hans Wegner‘s Wishbone Chair or Poul Henningsen’s iconic pendant lighting.

Scandinavian Design Principles and Characteristics

scandinavian grey couch and coffee table

Rooms designed in Scandinavian style offer a blend of textures, contrasts, and soft hues to create a sleek, modern feel. The aesthetic also embraces the Lagom lifestyle. This Swedish principle emphasizes the philosophy of hygge, which entails creating a cozy, balanced feeling in a space. To strike a balance between functionality, modernism, and comfort, Scandinavian design embraces a variety of principles and characteristics, seven of which are outlined below.

1. Muted Colors

Scandinavian design often boasts a neutral-heavy color palette. Because winters are long and dark in Northern Europe, Nordic design utilizes whites, greys, and tans to make a space feel uniform and bright. Often, accents of blue and other bold colors are incorporated loosely throughout.

2. Natural Lighting

Natural lighting is used to make a space feel bigger and brighter. White walls emphasize available light, and minimal use of window treatments allow natural light to illuminate spaces.

3. Modern Furniture

Kaare Klint, widely regarded as the father of modern Danish furniture design, paved the way for the sleek, modern furniture that appears throughout Nordic rooms. Like Klint’s signature style, Danish furniture is marked by warm wood tones, gentle lines, subtle curves, and tapered legs.

4. Decluttered Space

Scandinavian decor follows a “less is more” design mantra. In the 1950s and ‘60s, Scandinavian homes were traditionally small, so they didn’t allow for extravagant amounts of decorative items and accents. Thus, designers tend to avoid ornate or excessive detailing, and storage is wisely implemented.

5. Wood Accents

Wood is often incorporated into the design of a space through walls, wood slats, and flooring. Wooden toys, like that of Danish designer Kay Bojesen’s iconic wooden monkey introduced in 1951, can also be placed around rooms as playful accents. Often, designers juxtapose the hard, dense material with rugs or sheepskin textiles to soften the feel of a space. In keeping with the light and bright aesthetic of Scandinavian design, light woods such as beech, ash, and pine are typically used most.

6. Greenery

Plants, flowers, and other botanicals are used to brighten up spaces and breathe life into a room. These living elements offer a pop of color and add to the natural, minimalist essence of of Scandinavian design.

7. “Less is More” Approach

Simplicity and practicality are the two largest principles of Scandinavian design. Walls are commonly left bare and spaces are left relatively sparse to emphasize this principle. Even toys are designed as simple, wooden objects, and tents made from dowels and fabrics are frequently found in Scandinavian playrooms.

Tips for Designing with Scandinavian Decor

Scandinavian decor marries modern design with natural elements. Learn how you can incorporate its minimalist aesthetic into your own home.

Scandinavian Bedroom Ideas

Scandinavian decor bedroom ideas

A Scandinavian-inspired bedroom should take full advantage of the relaxing, cozy aspects of this decor style. By using soothing, natural tones, adding light, modern furniture, and following a minimalist approach, you can create a serene bedroom space.

Opt for a low-profile platform bed with an upholstered frame for an effortless, sophisticated look. Choose white or grey bedding, avoid bold colors and patterns, and top your duvet with a cozy fur throw. Look for an arc floor lamp or task floor lamp for additional lighting.

If you’d like to add artwork, opt for a monochrome piece. Black-and-white photography, ink drawings, or charcoal works on paper all complement Scandinavian design principles.

Scandinavian Living Room Ideas

scandinavian decor living room ideas

Scandinavian-style living rooms should feel clean and functional. The use of straight lines and minimal, modern furniture mixed with cozy elements like plush area rugs and throw blankets helps create a living space that feels inviting without being too cluttered.

Look for a sofa with a mid-century modern feel. It should be slim — not taking up an exorbitant amount of space — but still comfortable. Scandinavian sofas often have wooden angled legs. Add comfort and textural elements with a few throw pillows in muted colors.

Soften stark, wooden elements by adding an area rug. Opt for a faux fur or cowhide rug to showcase the natural elements of the style, or look to neutral shag rugs to bring balance to your room. Complete the look with additional seating in the form of Scandinavian-style chairs. Look for those made of light-colored wood with curved backs, tapered legs, and other stylish elements. Top a side table with a sculptural piece for a finishing touch.

Scandinavian Dining Room Ideas

scandinavian decor dining room ideas

Scandinavian-style dining rooms should reinforce the simple, clean theme. Create a space that feels open and sophisticated, yet casual enough to dine comfortably. Start with a dining room table as your focal point (a table in light-colored wood, like pine, is a great option).

Pendant lighting is a modern alternative to chandeliers, and perfectly complements the Scandinavian aesthetic. Achieve an inspired look from lighting fixtures such as the PH lamp, Artichoke lamp, or Snowball lamp, all introduced by Danish architect Poul Henningsen in the 1920s. These bold yet simple fixtures create a bright, localized light source that works well above a wooden table. Top your table and surrounding area with potted plants and flowers.

Scandinavian decor often bears high contrasts, so don’t be afraid to go all-in on an all-white dining room and a blue or black sculptural centerpiece for a more dramatic approach.

Scandinavian Kitchen Ideas

scandinavian decor kitchen ideas

A Scandinavian kitchen is a comfortable, functional, and sleek area to prepare meals in. To emphasize the decluttered, minimalist aesthetic, keep countertops and shelving free from unnecessary wares and appliances. Except for a few Scandinavian-style adornments such as a wooden bowl with fruit or vase with greenery, the kitchen should remain light on decor.

Have fun when designing. Opt for herringbone or light wood floors. Add wooden accents throughout bar chairs and kitchenware. Paint cabinets white or grey. Choose backsplashes with geometric motifs to introduce new patterns and textures without compromising the chic, minimalist feel.

Scandinavian Outdoor Space

scandinavian decor backyard ideas

Scandinavian design channels the outdoors through bright, natural lighting and lush greenery, so your backyard is the ideal space to embrace the style. Patios both big and small can adopt Scandinavian characteristics to transform the space into a minimalist haven.

For smaller patio spaces, look for an intimate wooden table and chair set. Add potted succulents or other low-maintenance greenery atop your table for a modest Scandinavian display. For those with more space, look to all seven of the principles of Scandinavian design to bring your outdoor space to life. Utilize types of wood, incorporating the material into panels, side tables, decks, and other elements. Find modern outdoor furniture with white or grey cushions, and an equally bright outdoor rug to anchor your seating area.

Scandinavian decor has made an indelible impact on the way interior designers approach a space, and countless influential designers like Arne Jacobsen and Alvar Aalto have changed the course of Scandinavian design. Draw upon the seven guiding principles of the aesthetic to create a Scandinavian-inspired room with understated elegance and utilitarian purpose in your own space.

Sources: FreshHome | Decorilla | Elle Decor | My Domaine | The Spruce