While watching the NBC comedy The Good Place, interiors-minded audiences might perk up when they hear that in the show’s version of heaven, main character Eleanor (played by Kristen Bell) lives in a cottage furnished “in the Icelandic primitive style.” The punchline is that shallow Eleanor would prefer to inhabit a more opulent manor, and she may not even belong in this utopian afterlife.
Despite Eleanor’s misgivings, Icelandic design is a reminder of paradise for many travelers. The country is one of the world’s trendiest destinations right now, with Iceland’s tourism board noting that as of last June, the number of foreign visitors to the Scandinavian island nation nearly quadrupled since 2010.
If you go there for the natural beauty, taking home a piece of the country’s exterior is out of the question. That’s why these design tips — which reveal that Icelandic decor often reflects the landscape — are your best import option.
Extract Colors from the Landscape
“I went on a birthday vacation with friends to Reykjavík several years ago and was immediately enamored by the Icelandic horses and inspired by all of the creativity and natural beauty,” says Sheila Bridges. When the Manhattan-based designer returned to the Icelandic capital to create her dream pied-à-terre, it wasn’t hard to settle on a palette. She simply drew from the colors around her: “everything from the North Atlantic ocean, glacier lagoons, waterfalls, volcanic rock formations and black-sand beaches,” Bridges says.
The inspiration manifested differently in every room of her apartment. In the bathroom, “the tile is white like the glacier caps and snow, but I used thick black grout, which reminds me of the black-sand beaches in southern Iceland. The blue and pink ombre wallpaper is a nod to the ocean, brilliant blue sky and the Northern Lights.”
Wallpaper isn’t big in Iceland, so Bridges brought in a professional from New York to install the bathroom’s wallcoverings, as well as her own Torino Damask print in the hallway and Pratt/Twenty2’s Viking 3D motif in the kitchen. (Indeed, 3D glasses are required to fully appreciate the Viking ships therein.)
In the living room (above), she opted for a deep turquoise paint that she calls New Nordic Blue. A sheepskin-upholstered chair by Ásgeir Einarsson and wooly custom throw pillows call to mind Iceland’s famous sheep (more than two per capita in the sparsely populated country), and a painting of freewheeling seabirds takes up nearly one wall.
Architect and furniture designer Gulla Jónsdóttir has lived in Los Angeles for over a decade, but still references the colors of her Icelandic childhood. To her, white equates to sun-bleached driftwood or bone, rose gold is the tone of churning magma and, like Bridges, she sees black and thinks of volcanic beaches. Plus, Jónsdóttir says, “there is the moss green I’m starting to use, but I’ve always been more drawn to neutrals.”
Borrow from the Neighbors
“There is a large Danish influence, which can be seen in many of the furnishings in most people’s homes,” says Bridges. “It is not uncommon to find Louis Poulsen lighting or Arne Jacobsen furniture mixed in with Icelandic designs.”
For Jónsdóttir, her designs have been a rebellion against Scandinavian modernism. “I grew up with Danish furniture from my grandparents but never liked it. I’m more of a romantic.”
Bring Deep Textures into Small Spaces
Jónsdóttir’s latest furniture collection is completely based on the Icelandic landscape. It’s called Heimaland, which means homeland in Icelandic. Using precious metals and sensuous angles, she weds her romanticism with tactile references to crater lakes, lava flows and hilly terrain. “It’s in my DNA,” she says.
Her tip for small spaces is to avoid defaulting to minimalism. “Don’t be afraid of using dark colors or a metal wall or metal tiles. A small place doesn’t have to be painted white,” she says.
Bridges recommends incorporating Icelandic materials into a cozy Reykjavík apartment like her own: “I would suggest adding any simple design elements that create warmth and texture — for instance, sheepskin throws or rugs, warm woolen textiles, fuzzy pillows and soft, natural colors.”