Gray Matters

Winter is here. Dressed in a dark, wet overcoat like an old crow, rapping on the door.

In my first winter in Seattle, I found myself browsing garden shops wherever I could find them. At City People’s Mercantile on Sand Point Way I was somewhere between contemplating a root grubbing tool and musing over a new kneeling pad when suddenly, an announcement came over the store’s loud-speaker.

“We’re having a sun break,” the voice on the intercom cried. “Everyone step out, staff included!”

And we all ran out to raise our serotonin levels.

So where am I going with this?

I find it interesting that the Pacific Northwest and Scandinavia, both modern and progressive regions of significant light deprivation for well over half the year, deal with the phenomena so differently.

A sense of geographic isolation pervades both regions as well. “Geographically Scandinavia is a cul de sac, on the road to nowhere but the old enemy, Russia, across the Baltic Sea,” notes Jocasta Innes, author of Scandinavian Painted Décor. And I think we feel much that way, like a half way point to Alaska, in Seattle. But because of that isolation, each region has had the opportunity to create a highly developed style.

“All this green means that we take more rain than any but the most dreary of souls could find tolerable,” writes Ann Wall Frank, in her intro to Northwest Style. “Rain dulls the color of the skies. Rain seems endless. Rain soaks our psyches. When the Gods are spoon-feeding you rain, you deal with it, sometimes by creating the perfect shelter,” she continues.

In The Pacific Northwest we muddle through long rainy winters and much of spring and fall in rooms painted in somber colors, taking our color palatte “from the bark of a single Douglas fir,” notes Frank. We find warmth in full-toned woods and heavy textiles. Even our coffee shops are dark, like pubs. We tend to dress in darks or drab, and are easily startled by bright color.

And although the temperature is moderate, the architecture of our homes in the Pacific Northwest is designed with overhanging roof lines protecting us from the elements: rain, snow, pine needles, and I might add, light. What little light there is.

Whereas Scandinavians endure sub-zero temperatures and months of near total darkness, yet embrace the light by painting their interiors in shades of white, keeping their wood blond or painted light, and their fabrics lightweight, such as linen. It’s counterintuitive to our way of thinking, but Scandinavian interiors draw from a cool color palatte of pale muted blues and grays. Their rooms speak of summer houses, cottages, boathouses and such.

Remarkably different approaches to lack of light. One region is wet, the other, snowy. And therein lies the difference. It turns out to be not about the light. It’s the dampness, and that makes all the difference in the world.


Filed under absence of light

4 responses to “Gray Matters

  1. SingingBones

    Hi. I lived in Denmark for the past three and half years, and I can say, it too is very damp much of the winter, combined with the absence of daylight, and often windy and cold. Most humans there wear black all winter long. It is a depressing place to be from now until April…. I have also lived in Oregon, and though the rain did get to me at times, overall it was a much more pleasant experience to live there, even in the heart of winter. namaste, Leigh

  2. interesting…. I wonder if the white, light worshipping Scandinavia of which I read might be more Sweden or Norway?

  3. Hi!
    Thank you for an interesting post!
    I’m Norwegian, living in the southern part of the west-coast. We never get much snow in the winter, but lots and lots of rain. July is the hottest month in Stavanger with an average temperature of 15°C (59°F) and the coldest is January at 1°C (33.8°F) – with the most daily sunshine hours at 12 in June. The wettest month is October with an average of 110mm of rain. The best month to swim in the sea is in August, when the average sea temperature is 16°C (60.8°F)
    Denmark has a very similar climate to ours, which actually undermines the truth of the rain versus snow theory.

  4. As a Seattle native and Scandinavian-American, I say: paint your walls in warm, bright colors and let in as much outdoor light as you can. This is what helps me get through the Northwest winters!

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