scandinavian interior design
The bedroom of a Scandi-influenced New York apartment designed by SheltonMindel.Michael Moran

Scandinavian Interior Design: Everything You Need to Know About This Winter-Friendly and Nature-Inspired Style 

We talk to a few experts about what defines the style that originated in Scandinavia in the 1950s

Above all else, the design of your home should be an extension of how you want to live. For those who crave calm spaces that are comfortable for socializing, Scandinavian interior design just might be the ideal aesthetic. But what exactly are the main principles of this style, and how do you put them into play? (Certainly, there has to be a tad more to it than a trip to your local IKEA.) To help us get to the bottom of Scandinavian style, we spoke with Lindye Galloway of Lindye Galloway Studio; Rob Blood, principal at Elder & Ash and founder of Lark Hotels; and Megan Kennedy, principal at Elder & Ash and creative director of Lark Hotels. All three experts have worked on projects that center the style’s principles so they definitely know the ins and outs of it. 

Whether you’re intrigued by Scandinavian design because you’re on the hunt for decor ideas or are just curious about its colorful history, everything you ever wanted to know can be found below—no trip to Stockholm required! 

The bedroom of a Scandi-influenced New York apartment designed by SheltonMindel.

Michael Moran

What is Scandinavian interior design style?

Scandinavian interior design emerged in the 20th century and stands among the most popular interior design styles in America today. Its focuses on simplicity and coziness are two of the many facets that inspire homeowners to this day.

“Scandinavian design is not over-thought. It’s not overdone, it’s just intentional,” interior designer Lindye Galloway tells AD. “I think that it has this natural blend that feels approachable. It’s a nice blend between between styles, oftentimes people would think about it being a blend of a little bit of midcentury modern and a little bit of modern but then there’s this warmth to it. I think it’s a very approachable design that is easy to love.” Simple but not careless, Scandinavian interior design has become fundamental for home decorators across the world in the past decade. 

A Swedish living room with furniture designed by influential Carl Axel Acking, circa 1945, as seen in The Studio Year Book: Decorative Art 1943-48

Photo: Print Collector/Getty Images

The history of Scandinavian design

The history of Scandinavian design is intertwined with the culture and lifestyles of the Nordic countries, namely Iceland, Sweden, Denmark, Finland, and Norway. Although of course the region’s art and culture is as varied as it is in, say, North America, their attachment to local materials and the natural environment stands in stark contrast against many homegrown American home design traditions. 

What we think of as Scandinavian design emerged “in the 1950s alongside the modernist movement in Europe and America, Scandinavian modern style prioritized democratic, affordable, and sleek furnishings and interiors. Clean lines, functional furnishings, and a neutral palette were hallmarks of modernist style everywhere,” as Meaghan O’Neill wrote for AD PRO in 2017. “But the Scandinavian design of the era was also heavily influenced by the Nordic region’s cold, short winter days and a desire for interiors to be cozy yet bright.”

Even though the design style emerged in the 20th century, a spike in interest in the 2010s has given it a lasting relevance here. An obsession specifically with “hygge”—i.e. the concept of spaces and lifestyles that prioritize calm, sociable comfort—swept America in the form of essays, New York Times best-selling books, and home decor products that would help anyone interested bring the concept alive in their own day-to-day lives. While the word itself might not come up quite as often these days, it’s undeniable that the wave of appreciation for it made a lasting impact on American interiors.

The defining elements/characteristics of Scandinavian interior design
  • Functionality
  • Clean lines
  • Natural materials
  • Neutral colors
  • Natural light
  • Quality craftsmanship
  • Distinct textural elements (sheepskin rugs, mohair throws, etc.) 
  • White or light, neutral-colored walls
Examples of Scandinavian interiors

Light wood furniture contrasts with a black coffee table, light fixtures, and artwork in this space by Lindye Galloway Studio. 

Wood walls add dimension to this bedroom by Lindye Galloway Studio. 

A woven basket, chunky rug, and tufted throw blanket add texture to this bedroom, also by Lindye Galloway Studio. 

This minimalist lounge space by Lindye Galloway Studio centers on its natural light.

How to achieve this aesthetic 

Keep the walls light

“Scandinavian design, I would say, goes right down the middle stylistically,” says Galloway. “If you’re not sure what end of the spectrum you prefer, whether it’s really minimal design or really crazy design, it’s a palatable middle ground. One of the easiest ways of bringing Scandi design principles into your space is to lighten up your walls with a soft off-white or cream tone. “No matter what budget you’re working on, or if it’s a small house or big house, go in and if the walls are dark, you lighten up those walls.” 

Add textiles 

A Nordic design–inspired space is incomplete without textiles, whether they’re in the form of a chunky knit blanket or an area rug. “It’s amazing what just a few accessories can do in a fairly minimal space to make it feel warm and cozy,” Blood says. “Like a throw blanket, a couple throw pillows on the couch, or maybe a couple layers of rugs, a rug over a rug, really helps [to warm up a space].” Pieces that are handmade, or at least appear to be handmade, suit the signature Scandi style best. 

Consider your natural light sources

“Ultimately Scandinavian design is centered around the Scandinavian way of life,” says Kennedy. “In that part of the world, there are very cool, dark winters and so they focus a lot on natural light, which is a very simple thing that people can start to identify. Which rooms in your home get the most light? How can you accentuate that?” While there’s little you can do to bring additional natural light in, understanding and accentuating the natural light your space gets is essential. In a living room that doesn’t get much natural light, center the natural light it does receive and keep the colors otherwise light.

Refine your color scheme

One thing Scandinavian interior design is not is maximalist. With that in mind, keep your color scheme limited to a few colors—if you want one of them to be a bright or bold shade you can certainly make that work, but you shouldn’t have too many tones at play in one room and the most devout Scandi-style spaces stick to light neutrals. “A light color palette is used to kind of keep with that light, bright, airy sort of feeling for the cold and the dark,” Kennedy notes. “Keeping it all neutral and monochromatic we like to, in this case especially, play with the textures and patterns. That doesn't mean that they have to be different colors at all, they could simply all be white or tan and it just adds that layer of coziness.” 

Look for heirloom quality pieces

Scandinavian interior design prioritizes quality craftsmanship, so when you can, invest in well-made pieces that will last for years. In spare spaces, small details in quality matter most. 

Add wood furniture 

Scandinavian furniture tends toward natural materials and wood most of all. Whether you’re into modern furniture or vintage, wood furniture can help set that Nordic design tone. "[Go for] a lot of natural wood,” Galloway suggests. “What really makes [something feel like] Scandinavian design versus just modern design is those natural wood elements that are brought in. That can be on furniture, on the arms of furniture, it can be on beams on the ceiling, but definitely that influx [of wood] is really a big piece of it.” If your space has wood flooring, make sure to keep some of it visible to tie into other wood elements in the space (rather than covering it entirely with an area rug). 

Pare down your belongings

This could be the simplest or the most difficult step to creating Scandinavian design–inspired interiors, depending on how inclined you are toward sentimentality. Naturally, having less clutter around is an important step to creating a living space devoted to thoughtful simplicity. While you don’t need to purge everything to create your space, you should carefully curate the belongings that are out in the open to keep that calm mood intact.