The Design of Things

human endeavor + the natural world

Category: the design of Connection

copenhagen I: design for solstice


Now that the Christmas season is upon us, just as we’ve given thanks, we’re being pressured to think about black days and cyber sales, and things and money and taxes. I am thinking instead of Copenhagen three Decembers ago, when my husband and I encountered a real solstice, in one of the darkest and coldest cities on the planet, realized by just a few design and lifestyle choices there.

Though I love winter, I can get bleakly sad at its start. Around 5:00 p.m. in November and December I want electricity and lots of it. I want light and warmth. I want noise and companionship. I want to turn on every light in the house, turn up the thermostat, and turn on the television and my computer and maybe the radio too.

This leads, of course, to the shopping. Stores are well lit; the car has music and heat, and gathering things for solace seems a way to cope with the winter.

Except that it’s not. As we all well know. Magazines telling us how to “manage” the season and “step off” the treadmill of holiday crazy aren’t addressing the real problem: that we feel the need to escape the sudden descent of cold and dark onto our lives. Like everyone else, by the time Christmas is over I’ve always felt I somehow missed the joys of the season. Until I found Copenhagen.

It seemed a quiet and not especially pretty city at first. Emerging from the central train station, we first saw the brick walls around Tivoli, an old-fashioned amusement park and winter village that was billed as magical but to me looked Hans Christian Andersen-sad and cindery in the already fading grey light.

After taking a nap and waking in a haze of jet lag to complete darkness at 3 p.m., I could feel depression coming on. Dark at 3 p.m.? We ventured outside to see how they handled it.

They celebrate it. Candles are everywhere, lit all day long. From our unremarkable hotel lobby to the many cafes and restaurants, the flickering light eases the abruptness of early nightfall. Grownups drink hot cocoa, stopping for it at midday, and around 4 move to glügg (spiced hot wine) because yes, alcohol is involved in the wintry feeling.

Department stores were not filled to the brim, overflowing in a way that causes grabby anxiety and makes you either spend more than you wanted to or leave in despair. Instead they were set nicely with individual items. This was, after all, Denmark, design capital of the world. The George Jensen candlesticks just look good by themselves. But there were lower priced stores too, with $6 games and toys and even a kind of dollar store with Danish Christmas stuff in the walk-able part of the city.

Every decoration referenced the reality of the season: bare spruce wreaths hung by twine in a hip café with red and white wallpaper adorning one wall against stainless steel and wood, pine cones in bowls, small trees at doorways, paper stars and hearts strung across windows. Silver candlesticks and glass votives. Very little glitter and yet so much warmth and reflection.

Most striking was that people were outside like it was summer, many of them riding bikes. They weren’t wrapped in highlighter yellow nylon, either, but wore overcoats and scarves, skirts or trousers while they commuted or picked up groceries or kids.

For the first time winter solstice became a reality –  a chance to embrace the shorter days, make an excuse to have a hot drink or a cold walk, reflect on bareness and naturalness and light and dark.

At home, Copenhagen has seeped in to my approach to this time of year. I’ve realized I must get outside, even after dark, and this requires a sharp and warm winter coat I’m glad to throw on. On the Saturday after Thanksgiving, my husband and I bundled up, put computers in our backpacks, and rode our bikes through a bracing wind to a Peet’s Coffee the next town over, worked there for awhile over cups of “winter spice” tea, then rode home, lit candles, and ate dinner in the living room.

All this outdoorsiness and calm has led to my inadvertently joining the “go local” movement, discovering or rediscovering stores not overflowing with junk made in China but where the owners have done some of the selecting for me. I’ve picked out things I’m excited about made of nice materials at good prices. Not China prices, but good enough to feel good about gift-buying again.

This year I thought about how to make my house feel warmer without using more energy. I looked at the downstairs windows and realized they become big black holes at 4:30, sending me rushing to the thermostat. I bought creamy white shades to both hide the black and reflect the lamplight more warmly, cheering the rooms.

I don’t need every light on anymore. I’m not panicking or freezing. I do still want to watch movies more than I do in July, but that’s okay.

I’m relaxed enough that this year I’m throwing a party on the solstice itself to celebrate the longest night of the year and kick off Christmas. There will be glügg.

outside in

“The palace is a palace, a brick building. It’s not where the magic is,” Renzo Piano on the Isabella Stewart Gardner museum.

The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum is a rich woman’s palace built in 1901 to house her expansive art collection and share it with visitors from all over the world. Dark and dreary, encrusted with religious art and cathedral relics and cases filled with revolutionary autographs, the house has always been a favorite stop in Boston.

Despite the millions and the masters on the walls, however, the chatter is always about the courtyard. The light, floating greenhouse in the center of the palatial gloom.

“Oh, you’ll love it!” everyone says, after mentioning the art. “It has the most wonderful courtyard.”

We are admiring of buildings – or even rooms – that bring the outside in, whether we realize it or not. Our senses recognize the feeling of expansion even before our eye can see it. Our bodies and minds respond to air and to natural light.

The architect Renzo Piano transformed Isabella’s palace by extending her secret courtyard to the outside with the addition of a soaring glass structure that houses a “living room” complete with shelves of design books and comfortable egg chairs, a café, a concert hall, and, of course, a greenhouse.  Everywhere you sit, you are surrounded by glass, by green, by the city. You are no longer simply visiting a museum but comfortably sitting in the landscape.

There is a gift shop, but the appeal of the building and its surroundings is not stuff. It’s doing, being, seeing, borrowing, reading, thinking, relaxing, eating, reflecting. Living. It’s a great place to go to live for a few hours.

Just what our homes should be, and often aren’t. We can’t change (usually) the architecture of our homes and offices but we can invite the light. We can open our floor plans to windows, making it possible to sit by them, work by their light, feel the passage of the sun and shadows or hear the rain throughout the day.

I worked in three boxes in Washington, D.C. but in each one I had a window around which I oriented my workspace. I live in an old Victorian that was stuffed to the gills with furniture before I moved in so that I did not see the windows, and beyond them, the outside.

Turn your desk to the light. Move an armchair by the bay. Angle the sofa so even if you can look at the television you’re close enough to the sash to feel the breeze and hear the birds and look over the lawn or out at the treetops.

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