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Light-Filled Family Home Renovation in Copenhagen

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Hygge House

In a former fishermen’s cottage outside Copenhagen, a young family has carved out a cozy, light-filled home.

Resident Peter Østergaard (with Maja, 6, and Carl, 20 months) and architect and photographer Jonas Bjerre-Poulsen have been best friends since they were 13, which makes for easy collaboration. Says Bjerre-Poulsen: “There are always a lot of challenges in a renovation, but Peter and Åsa trusted my judgment and gave me a completely free hand. Usually it’s hard to push people into unconventional solutions, but Peter has all these wild and crazy ideas.” One such idea was to embed a transparent glass-and-iron door in the floor, operated by a hydraulic pump, which allows access to the subterranean wine cellar. At night, the lit-up cellar glows, lending the compact living room an increased sense of verticality.

A few hours into a visit with Peter Østergaard and Åsa Olofsson at their house in Vedbæk, a coastal town 12 miles north of Copenhagen, the couple is parsing the meaning of hygge. A Danish word that has no direct equivalent in English, hygge (roughly pronounced hoog-eh) describes the warm, cozy feeling that develops when friends gather in a room with some open flames (candlelight, fireplace), alcohol, and plenty of time to enjoy the experience. There’s an aesthetic component, too—worn wood and strewn sheepskins help. So do “small things, and blankets,” offers Olofsson. “On the beach you wouldn’t hygge,” says Østergaard, “and it’s not really partying.” Though it’s somewhat difficult to define, they know it when they see it. In fact, “we’re hygge-ing right now,” Østergaard points out, nodding at the surrounding tableau: a weathered wooden dining table topped with homemade apple pie, half-drunk glasses of red wine, and lit votives. “This house helps.”

As Østergaard says, “With a small house, you really consider everything you own. You don’t have 20 pots and pans, you have only four good ones.”

Indeed, the house, a cottage built by fishermen in 1860, is exceedingly cozy, with sloping ceilings, a sculptural spiral staircase, and “lots of irregular little steps and corners and twisted angles,” as Olofsson puts it. The couple bought the place in 2005 and immediately enlisted Østergaard’s best friend, Jonas Bjerre-Poulsen, the head of Norm.Architects, to help renovate it. The house was originally a warren of small rooms, with an attached greenhouse and a low-ceilinged storeroom. Bjerre-Poulsen fixed it up in stages over the next four years, transforming the storeroom into a guest room and the greenhouse into a long, narrow sitting and dining area. He tore down the interior walls in the main building’s 430-square-foot ground floor, creating an open-plan kitchen and living room, and built custom furniture to fit the tight spaces— a platform bed with integrated storage in the attic bedroom and a pair of streamlined sofas in the narrow sitting room that overlooks the garden.

The snug attic contains the couple’s platform bed, custom designed by Bjerre-Poulsen to maximize storage and fit the unusual space.

The renovated house feels much more spacious than its 1,260 square feet would suggest, thanks to the floor-to-ceiling white interiors (including a low-profile kitchen with appliances tucked behind false drawer fronts) and some architectural tricks. The low ceiling in the sitting and dining room is pierced with skylights to give a sense of verticality, a move inspired by traditional Japanese temples, as well as to create a rhythm of light and dark and “spaces within a space,” as Bjerre-Poulsen puts it. Similarly, an underground wine cellar adds a sense of depth in the living room thanks to the one-and-a-quarter-inch-thick glass door inset into the wooden floor. At night, the lit-up cellar acts like a built-in lamp, flooding the room with an atmospheric glow.

To maintain a uniform look in the kitchen, Bjerre-Poulsen secreted most of the appliances, including the fridge, behind white Kvik cabinets. He installed can lights with brass-colored interiors on the ceiling; the halogen bulbs reflect the golden interior, giving off a warm glow. Every light in the house is an overbright fixture on a dimmer, for maximum flexibility—if you can adjust different levels for every situation, from working to entertaining, then you don’t need to rely on secondary floor or table lights, Bjerre-Poulsen points out.

Though it’s a tight fit for the family of four—baby Carl sleeps in a crib in his parents’ attic bedroom and six-year-old Maja sleeps in a closet-size nook in another corner—it’s not yet cramped, and for a while longer should fulfill Olofsson’s original fantasy: “a house where we could live close together but not on top of each other.” And if things ever feel too squeezed, they can imagine the home’s 19th-century residents, a troop of Nordic fishermen who crammed into the home’s formerly tiny rooms— a situation few would call cozy, no matter how much candlelight, furs, and booze you had on hand.

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