6 small ways to make a home feel cozy
Last week, I explored what coziness is, and why it feels so important to us in our homes. If you missed part 1, you can read it here.
In last week’s post, we landed on a kind of definition of cozy:
- A state of warmth and ease that is both physical and emotional
- A sense of being held in a space that is safe, in contrast to danger, cold, or discomfort outside
- Familiar and orderly, but not too perfect
- Marked by closeness, rather than expansiveness; human scale
- Cultivated especially by senses beyond the visual: touch, taste, and smell
- And, most importantly, an intimacy (social or personal) that makes you feel held, where you can be vulnerable and feel you belong
A helpful summary, but how do we actually bring these feelings to life in a home?
I started wondering this recently as I began to notice that my own home, which has felt distinctly un-cozy for most of the year and a half that we’ve lived here, has suddenly started to feel cozier, and I’ve been wondering why.
Now that I’ve had a chance to look at the house again with these insights in mind, I have a few thoughts to share on the small changes that have made the space feel cozy, and more ideas for what to do to heighten the feeling in the future.
(Quick note: one thing I’ve resolved to do better here is share more real home images. While I love the beautiful, highly styled images I find on Pinterest, the reality is that my space is a work in progress, that my blankets are wrinkled and the toys are visible, and that there are things I want to change but haven’t gotten to yet. And my hope is that by sharing imperfect images, it will make it feel easier for you to accept your “in progress” space too.)
Places to be together
Coziness is about intimacy, but we don’t often think about intimacy when decorating our homes. Truly cozy spaces in a family home are ones where we feel drawn to be together, to be so close that we can feel the warmth of each others’ bodies.
Moving into a bigger space, you naturally adjust your orbits, and many of the little collisions that happen in smaller space (which seemed so annoying when you felt you were all on top of each other) no longer happen. In a bigger space, you need ways to make sure you get close.
This happened by accident in our home when a few months ago Graham caught sight of an 1000-piece puzzle in our local bookstore and would not let go. He thought it was a set of stickers, and we decided to humor him even though we were sure he’d lose interest as soon as he figured out what it really was. But as we laid out the pieces on one end of our long dining table, he became giddy with excitement. For twenty to thirty minutes at a time, he would sit with me poring over pieces, looking for ones with flashes of red and helping me snap them into place.
He’s still little, and having him standing on the dining table bench is precarious enough that I feel the need to keep one arm wrapped around him while we work on the puzzle. Nestled in together, it’s impossible not to feel cozy. We love it so much that we’re now on our third puzzle.
If you’re looking for more coziness at home, can you create a new place to be together? What’s something that would draw your people in and invite them to linger?
Around the same time as we discovered the puzzle, I started unpacking some boxes from the city and found the long sheepskin we used to have draped over our dining room bench. I laid it on the bench, and suddenly the whole room felt cozier.
It’s simple but true: soft textures are cozier than hard surfaces. Soft things are more physically comfortable, of course. They’re gentle on the body and they dampen sound, making a space feel calmer. There’s also some research to suggest that when we’re feeling sad or anxious, our sense of touch becomes heightened. The evolutionary rationale is that in moments of danger, it would make sense for young mammals to seek out the warmth and softness of a mother’s body, and more generally, as social creatures, physical closeness is often a source of safety.
If coziness is defined as a state of protection from harsh conditions in the outside world, it makes sense that soft textures would be an important aspect of feeling cozy. Seeing the impact of adding just one sheepskin to a wooden bench made me realize that one of the things that has made our home feel less cozy is that the rugs are all a little small for the space. I’ve solved this in some places by layering rugs, but I have a little more work to do in sourcing the right rugs to cozy up our main living spaces.
Another tiny change that had a surprisingly big impact was changing out a side table. In our living room we have a pair of low, Wegner-style chairs separated by a side table that is usually covered in kids books. Graham loves to sit and read in one of the chairs, and for awhile, I couldn’t quite figure out why that space felt so uninviting. (Forgive the lack of photo here — we’re traveling and I forgot to snap a pic before I left.)
Then a couple of weeks ago, I decided to swap out the tall table with a shorter one. The difference was immediate. Even though the old table wasn’t very dense, it felt like a wall between you when you were sitting in the chairs. Now, when we sit there, we feel like we’re sitting together.
In last week’s post, I talked about how the scale of a room can diminish coziness, if it feels too big for human proportions. We can fix this by making sure the furniture is scaled right for the people using the space, and that the groupings feel intimate.
Another example of right-scaling making our home cozier is the table in Graham’s play area. Play tables and chairs are often sized for kids aged 3 and up, which leaves littler kids awkwardly balanced on chairs with their feet barely able to touch the ground. To scale down G’s play set, I ordered custom legs for the table and chairs on Etsy. Now, the low table is the ideal height for him, and adults can comfortably sit on the floor to play along. As he grows, I can switch the legs so the table and chairs grow with him.
Light and sparkle
Holiday decor is interesting because it immediately exposes what’s missing in your everyday decor. If the house suddenly feels bright and cheerful, it might be because the everyday lighting is lacking. If everyone starts spending more time in the room with the Christmas tree, it might be that that room needed a focal point. Holiday decor can add sparkle, which animates a space, and bring the outside in, which is healing on many levels.
In our case, the holiday lights reminded me that our lighting has a long way to go before it’s truly cozy. I usually like to have the walls figured out before I choose lighting and decorative objects, but with our painting projects on hold, I’m realizing I need to reverse engineer things a bit. It might even mean keeping the twinkle lights up a bit longer while I figure out what kind of lighting to add to the space.
I think soft lighting feels cozy because it contrasts with the darkness outside (perhaps why candles are such a huge part of the Danish hygge concept), and because light beckons, creating gathering places in the home. While overhead lighting flattens out a space, smaller pools of light create an intimacy that draws us together.
The heart of the home
Last year we didn’t really use our fireplace. Part of the reason was because Graham was still really little, and we worried about safety. We also know that wood burning fires are not the best for little lungs. Add to that that most evenings we were just so tired, and building a fire felt like an awful lot of work!
But this fall we got an air purifier and have lit a few fires on cold days, and between the scent, the light, and the soft crackles of the wood, it’s one of the coziest things I can imagine. It’s not surprising that the word heart is related to the word hearth — the heart being the center of the body, just as the hearth is the center of a home.
Every home has a heart, but sometimes it’s not clear where it is. For a long time I thought ours was the kitchen, but the kitchen is too small to have a place to sit or rest. Lighting fires, even just occasionally, pulled the energy into the living room and made it feel like a snug, welcoming place to be together.
Rhythms of coziness
But the biggest shift of all has nothing to do with our space, and everything to do with how we use it. Recently, I decided to get serious about meal planning. We’d both gotten sick of all our usual recipes, and were ordering a lot more takeout that was healthy (for our bodies and our budget). As a result, we often ended up scrambling for dinner at the end of the day and wasting a lot of food.
I started planning week by week, aiming to introduce one or two new recipes a week, including at least one from the cookbooks that had been gathering dust on the shelves. Planning the shopping on the weekend meant I could order many of the groceries online and make just one trip to the store during the week.
Pretty quickly, we noticed that this had a big effect on our mood. Knowing what we were cooking each night reduced the cognitive load during the day. No more wondering what we’d eat or if we had all the ingredients, or who was going to be in charge of actually getting dinner on the table. I also started trying out new cooking techniques, and it was fun to be back in learning mode after so many years of cooking on autopilot.
It was definitely more efficient. But what really surprised me was when one day Albert said, “I think your cooking is making the house feel cozier.” It wasn’t the food, exactly, but the rhythm of it. Cooking more has made me feel more at home in the kitchen. The kitchen island has a regular rotation of cookbooks sitting open. If a recipe needs marinating, I’ll sometimes do it in the middle of the day, when I’m making lunch. We know that takeout nights are Fridays (something to get excited about, now that it’s an occasional treat) and that every other night we’ll meet for a home-cooked meal.
One of my big takeaways from last week’s post is that ultimately, coziness comes not from what you put in your space, but you live in your space — and few activities can make a space feel lived in as quickly as cooking. Using your dishes, emptying and filling the fridge each week, warming up leftovers at lunchtime — these activities animate the inert matter of your countertops, your cabinets, your table. They bring your hands into contact with your tools and your pantry. They nourish your body. They create an intimacy that vibrates throughout the whole home.
Cooking a meal each night isn’t exactly a “small” task, but since most of us do it anyway, it’s worth noting that bringing a little energy to this activity can turn it from a chore into a rhythm, one that enlivens the while space around you.
And if cooking isn’t your thing, there are other cozy rhythms too: tending to your space, caring for plants, arranging flowers. Small acts of maintenance and care that make you feel more connected to your home.
I still have a lot to do to make our space cozy. Rugs and lighting are a top priority, and I’m also looking for an upholstered reading chair for the bedroom. We have a bunch of art that needs to go to the framer in the new year, and I think that too will help make the space feel cozier.
But it’s interesting to me that just living in our space and making small adjustments, without spending money on new decor items, has had such a dramatic influence on the coziness of our home. What once felt like an impossible task — something that would require expensive textiles and furnishings — now feels well within reach.