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Nordic by Design: 16 Ideas to Steal from Iceland (and Icelandic Turf Houses)

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Nordic by Design: 16 Ideas to Steal from Iceland (and Icelandic Turf Houses)

February 25, 2022

Perhaps you’ve wondered at them on a drive around Iceland’s Ring Road, or just in photographs: dwellings seemingly built into the land, doors and windows cut into a hillock—Icelandic turf houses, their gabled roofs covered over with green.

Turf houses are a tradition that dates to over 1,000 years ago in Iceland, to the 9th and 11th centuries, according to National Geographic. A very abbreviated history: The concept of turf houses was first brought to Iceland (and other parts of Europe) by the Vikings; turf was renewable, readily available, in no short supply, and extra insulating—the ideal building material for living by the Arctic Circle. Early turf houses were single structures called long houses, where households lived communally and one space served multiple purposes, though later they evolved into gatherings of smaller peaked houses. Most had a lava stone foundation, then a timber structure covered with thick turf bricks that grew lush with grasses.

Fortunately these places have been nominated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site (they’re on the “tentative list”)—and many have been preserved as open-air museums. So when photographer and photojournalist Greta Rybus emailed a few months back with plans to make a pilgrimage to two of them—Skógasafn, or Skógar Museum, in the south of Iceland and Glaumbær in the north, both with historic Icelandic houses, both turf and traditional timber—we were eager to make a (virtual) visit.

Here’s a look at a few singular design takeaways.

Photography by Greta Rybus.

1. Look to the earth.

first, a visit to skógar. the turf house may just be the original green ar 9
Above: First, a visit to Skógar. The turf house may just be the original green architecture, self-insulating and made from renewable resources.
the roofs at skógar are made of flat rocks covered with turf; the frame is 10
Above: The roofs at Skógar are made of flat rocks covered with turf; the frame is mostly driftwood.

2. Salvage building materials.

another house on the property is a historic wooden house moved to skógar f 11
Above: Another house on the property is a historic wooden house moved to Skógar from the Síða district of Holt. “The first wooden house in the county of West Skaftafellssýsla, the house was built entirely of driftwood by district commissioner Árni Gíslason in 1878,” according to the Skógar site. Some of the wall panels were salvaged from the wreck of the hospital ship St. Paul, “which ran aground off Meðalland in 1899.”

3. Paint colorful cabinets.

the kitchen cabinets are painted in an unexpected colorblock motif: pale blue o 12
Above: The kitchen cabinets are painted in an unexpected colorblock motif: pale blue on the frames, a dash of red on the front panels.

4. And a bright plate rack.

a wooden wall mounted plate rack is painted in teal for a tone on tone effect i 13
Above: A wooden wall-mounted plate rack is painted in teal for a tone-on-tone effect in the blue kitchen.

5. Hang from pegs.

turns out the shakers aren&#8\2\17;t the only ones to use peg rails: a simp 14
Above: Turns out the Shakers aren’t the only ones to use peg rails: A simple wood board studded with nails serves as storage for no-tech kitchen tools.

6. Keep a pretty towel within reach.

a wall mounted dowel keeps a hand embroidered tea towel readily available. (the 15
Above: A wall-mounted dowel keeps a hand-embroidered tea towel readily available. (The lettering at the bottom translates to “We who do the kitchen work.”)

7. Paint in shades of blue.

interiors are stripped back and simple, with wood board floors and a wash of pa 16
Above: Interiors are stripped-back and simple, with wood-board floors and a wash of pale blue on the walls—a common Icelandic palette.
another room in teal blue—bright and cheerful in a snowy climate. 17
Above: Another room in teal blue—bright and cheerful in a snowy climate.

8. Add earthy color.

Above: Glimpses of color, in a painted vase and Icelandic needlepoint pillows.

9. Bring back embroidery.

unlike fancier mainland european traditions, icelandic embroidery was historica 20
Above: Unlike fancier mainland European traditions, Icelandic embroidery was historically more minimal, made using the supplies at hand, mostly “woolen threads on a woolen or imported linen ground,” according to the Textile Research Center. Step by step instructions on how to make a modernized chair cushion like this one can be found in Icelandic Handknits.

10. Sleep end to end.

in a circa \19\20 farmhouse from skál, síða, there&#8\2\17;s 21
Above: In a circa-1920 farmhouse from Skál, Síða, there’s a traditional baðstofa: a communal room for sleeping, eating, and working. “It’s built over the cattle shed to benefit from the warmth of the animals,” according to the Skógar website; as in many historic Icelandic houses, simple wooden beds were placed end to end—ideal for maximizing space as well as heat.

11. Ensure a green view.

in the turf farmhouse, glimpses of greenery are never far. each of the small bu 22
Above: In the turf farmhouse, glimpses of greenery are never far. Each of the small buildings and rooms date from different periods; the oldest is the storehouse, from 1830.

12. Layer with sheepskins.

iceland is famous for its sheep, and wool appears everywhere in icelandic life& 23
Above: Iceland is famous for its sheep, and wool appears everywhere in Icelandic life—like a built-in bed laid with a sheepskin for warmth.

13. Find pattern possibilities in unlikely places.

Above: Blocks of turf can be stacked in a variety of patterns. At Skógar, they’re laid in a herringbone motif called klömbruhnaus.

looking out at the landscape. 26
Above: Looking out at the landscape.

14. Paint half a wall.

at glaumbær in the north of iceland, &#8\2\20;a farmhouse is said to h 27
Above: At Glaumbær in the north of Iceland, “A farmhouse is said to have stood on the hill since the Age of the Settlements (900 AD),” according to the museum’s site. “The present buildings vary in age; the oldest—the kitchen, ‘long pantry,’ and middle baðstofa—are believed to have been preserved much as they were in the mid-18th century. The passages connecting the individual units have also remained unchanged for many centuries.” Here, a lofty bedroom is half-painted in green.

15. Bring back the bed curtain.

we&#8\2\17;ve been admiring bed curtains of late (see classic curtained bed 28
Above: We’ve been admiring bed curtains of late (see Classic Curtained Beds, for a Long Winter’s Nap), and it’s no surprise they make an appearance in Iceland, too, for extra warmth and privacy in a communal sleep setting.

16. Don’t forget a lantern.

an icelandic must: a wall mounted lantern. 29
Above: An Icelandic must: a wall-mounted lantern.
tea in another blue room. 30
Above: Tea in another blue room.

For more ideas to borrow from a historic spot, see In the Dwelling House: 16 Design Ideas to Steal from the Shakers.

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