We’re often being told – with or without subtlety – that the meaning of life is financial realisation. A few years back I had the opportunity to talk with a career coach about my job search efforts at that time. “You need a good job,” he declared in a rather sombre tone, “otherwise you won’t be able to afford nice things.” I believed him, and to this day, I find myself slightly bothered by all the “things” that I have which are not particularly “nice.”

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Danish interior decor. Image source: Pinterest.

“Nice things” in Denmark translates, among others, into designer furniture, tableware and décor products, which have come to be embedded in the very Danish identity. Referring to the iconic Kaj Bojensen figurines, I recently overheard an expat admitting to returning “some of those decorative lovebirds” she received as a gift, to “get some towels instead.” For her, nice things should also be functional and be of some instrumental value around the house. Most Danes would not characterise their appeal for designer products as luxurious, although it rests on financial prosperity. The aesthetic and cultural value of these products responds mainly to a lifestyle; desirability extends inasmuch it brings the necessary level of “danishness” to one’s home and daily routine. Expats to Denmark would often say that “all Danish homes look the same,” which is interesting if we consider that most of us would probably invest a lot, if we did, to make our homes be unique and rich in an individual way.

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Danish interior decor. Image source: Wallpaper Magazine.

This approach to luxury covers the sometimes inexplicably expensive purchase in a coat of reserved uniformity, eliminating the expectancy of the bombastic and offering an alternative look and feel of luxury. Beyond the immediate shine and glossy surface we might identify with “luxury objects,” the non-material meanings attached to them are also slightly different. If typical luxury is sought partly for what it represents (social status, class, financial security), this toned-down form of luxury rethinks this immaterial background: social status and class doesn’t have to be grandiose; financial security doesn’t have to mean lavish spending; the aesthetic appeal of luxury is very clearly confined to educated taste and culturally sound choices.

 Philip-Lorca diCorcia for  W  Magazine, 1990.

Philip-Lorca diCorcia for W Magazine, 1990.

Chasing a rich, luxurious life comes entwined with very specific attitudes and lifestyles, easily traced in today’s cultural products. Variations of an exacerbated American dream host popular understandings of what it means to “make it,” to “be successful.” It almost always implies owning “things” beyond a realistic necessity for them. The rush of Wall Street has long been a common trope in popular culture, equating the chase of abundance with a very intense form of living: sleep less, work non-stop, prioritise money. This intensity comes with stretching morality and reinterpreting values, and is eventually translated in ownership. In parts of the world such as Eastern Europe, the years following the end of communist regimes have seen the rise and fall of self-made oligarchs, sports or financial magnates building empires on fraud and corruption. Their careers enjoyed a very typical form of intensity – a flame that burns bright for a very short time.

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Danish interior decor. Image source: Dezeen.

To view luxury as a form of intense lifestyle is illuminating, especially when looking at luxury in the absence of an intense life. History and culture lead some people to value uniformity, commonness, likeness with the others, and call it a “nice life.” Others are pushed by their cultural DNA into almost self-harming lifestyle, in the chase for a “nice life,” which ends up being instead precarious, difficult to maintain and easy to dismantle. In a world where national and cultural borders are increasingly being blurred, can we use others’ approach to luxury to explore alternative understandings of a “nice life?”

Words: Elena Stanciu