Nanopapers formed from aqueous dispersions of cellulose nanofibrils (CNFs) combine stiffness, strength, and toughness. Yet, delicate interactions operate between the CNFs during nanopaper formation and mechanical deformation. We unravel in detail how counterions, being either of the organic alkyl ammonium kind (NR4+) or of the earth metal series (Li+, Na+, Cs+), need to be chosen to achieve outstanding combinations of stiffness, strength, and toughness, extending to previously unreached territories. We relate structure formation processes in terms of colloidal stabilization to nanostructural details such as porosity and ability for swelling, as well as to interfibrillar interactions in bulk and macroscale mechanical properties. We demonstrate that our understanding also leads to new levels of ductility in bioinspired CNF/polymer nanocomposites at high levels of reinforcements. These results contribute to future rational design of CNF-based high-performance materials.