Friday, 29 July 2011

At the table or in front of the telly? Oh, ok then...

It’s a sad state of affairs when that’s the typical question that we ask when we have lovingly prepared a meal for our family. So, what’s happened to the dining room? Historically dining rooms were very formal in their style and design, used less frequently than other areas of the home and, in some homes, reserved for special events such as Christmas Day, Easter Sunday (if you’re lucky) and funerals... with the advent of TV and other media that captivate our consciousness and provide a constant distraction, the dining room has diminished in stature as a used space within the home. What a waste.

As a consequence, the traditional concept of the dining room is being challenged - there is a general trend towards people preferring to eat pretty much everywhere else rather than in a dedicated and separate dining room. This is because dining in other areas of the home is deemed less formal, easier and more in tune with modern living. This is driven in part by the following trends;

  • Living spaces are at such a premium (particularly in urban areas) so dining areas are increasingly becoming open plan or linked directly to the kitchen (or worse still, becoming a nether region between the living room and the kitchen - no more than a glorified hallway) 
  • Evening meals are also becoming a more informal affair. Nearly half of Britons now prefer a casual meal with friends or a barbecue to a traditional three course dinner party 
  • The emergence (to saturation point) of celebrity chefs on television has taken the joy out of dinner parties - as a consequence, today's host or hostess is feeling under intense pressure to perform to their exacting standards and to create something that looks just like the pictures in a recipe book or on TV. As a result, the dinner party is becoming a declining pastime with fewer Brits choosing to take on the pressures of entertaining. In fact, over 60% of people (not based on deep analytical findings by the ‘trusted estate agents’) considered it worse than attending an interview or going on a first date 
  • The tradition of gathering round the table as a family also appears to be disappearing, with less than half saying they eat together and most preferring to have their meal in front of the TV instead. From an evolutionary perspective there is an upside - the male of the species has in fact learned to multi-task. They now appear to be able to watch TV and play with their WiiStation 360s at the same time as they eat their dinner 
I personally feel that, irrespective of where your dining table is - in a dedicated dining room, within an open plan kitchen or in the kitchen itself, there is something special about sitting down to eat without the distractions of the TV (particularly when there is nothing on that I want to watch). In order to achieve this you have to make a concerted effort to make the dining room a space where we (and others) all want to spend time. Here are some of my key considerations when thinking about designing the perfect eating area:


  • Table: The main table of the home can be the focus for a whole range of activities, from family meals and celebratory dinners to hobbies, homework or general household admin. Your choice of table will depend on how much you use it, where it is located and what you use it for. A multi-functional table, especially one in the kitchen (where it is also likely to act as a culinary workstation and, in my recent experience, a chewing post for puppies), needs to be sturdy, resilient and accommodating.
  • However, if the table is going to be exclusively used for dining then aesthetics can prevail (Woo Hoo from a design perspective). The choice between; traditional and modern; wood, glass, metal, marble or plastic; round, oval, square or rectangular, is otherwise a matter of personal taste and style (and, obviously, available space).
  • A round table works best for informal dinners. However, if you frequently seat more then six, avoid large circles as they will take up far more space (with a lot of wasted table space) and it’s harder to converse across the table - something you may want to do if you are sitting beside the most boring person in the room.
  • Whatever shape you choose and, as obvious as it may seem, you need to check that there’s enough space to pull out the chairs and to move around the table comfortably. In many homes the dining table is left unused because you have to move stuff around to either gain access to it, or to create enough room for all the chairs. Why bother?
  • Chairs: You have the choice between rustic, contemporary or antique (or, put more simply, old and new). Other choices you will need to make include the scale (dimensions), colour, upholstery material and degree of comfort. Comfort is probably one of the most important considerations - if you ever do get round to hosting that dinner party (and overcome the intimidation created by the celebrity chefs) then people may be at the table for over two hours (not including ‘comfort breaks’). My husband has a great measure of dining room chair comfort - whether or not he has successfully fallen asleep at the table by the time dessert is served.
  • When considering size and dimensions always check that the seats and the legs fit easily under the table. Measure your dining table and figure out how wide and high the chairs should be to fit under it easily (both for dining, but also when not in use). Also make sure that you leave some space either side - you don’t want your dining guests to be wedged in like sardines. Avoid buying chairs that are less than 50cm wide as they won’t be wide enough for sitting comfortably (more so by the end of the meal if you have done a good job in the kitchen). Also think about the shape of your table. If it is round or oval the space underneath may be limited so (again), make sure all the chairs can be pushed under easily when it is not in use. As a practical guide, allow around 60cm of tabletop for each person at a rectangular table and about 75cm for a circular table.
  • If you want to add a splash of cool contemporary to the dining area, really think about options for your dining chairs; you could opt for a fifties classic such as Arne Jacobsen’s ant chairs in bent plywood or Ero Saarinen’s moulded fiberglass ‘Tulip chair’. The least expensive choice (and one that I absolutely love) is a collection of old non-matching chairs from a junk shop or auction room. These can be stripped back to bare wood and finished with wax or painted in the same colour to create a sense of unity. Old and new pieces can look really good together as long as you follow a few simple rules. Contrasting styles work best when the surroundings are understated... so, think plain walls and plain floors. Link different aged items using the texture and colour of upholstery fabrics.
  • Lighting: Lighting is critically important for setting the right mood in the dining room. Hanging a pendant low over the dining table literally puts the table (and unfortunately for some, your food) in the spotlight. But make sure that it isn’t too low - you don’t want dinner guests ducking under the light to speak to one another, banging their heads or, when tipsy, thinking that a UFO is landing.
  • Lighting is also a key feature, especially in open plan areas where you are trying to delineate between the cooking, living and eating areas. For instance, in the kitchen you will require sharp directional lighting for food preparation. However, in the dining room the lighting should be soft and atmospheric. So, in the kitchen you may use spotlights but in the dining area you may want to complement this with a pendant (as described earlier). This helps create a distinctive space and an atmosphere of intimacy, quite different from the surrounding area.

Below are a few examples of eating areas that I love - you will probably notice that I haven’t focused on statement objects and artwork in the dining room as part of this article, but you can see from the images below that they can also have a huge impact...




(Image from Danish Magazine Rum)

(Image from Plastolux via The Diversion Project)
(Image from LLoyd Ralph Design - James Tse Photography)

(Image from Style Files)

So, what’s the measure of success? Well, if you can drag your clan away from the multitude of distractions that are part of our everyday life to eat a meal round the table then you are doing something right from a design perspective. If you can’t, you can always order out for pizza and join them round the telly...

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