weekly feature | Jan 24, 2024 |
Is this the end of the dining room as we know it?

If showhouses are any indication of where the design industry is headed, then one message is coming through loud and clear: The dining room may never be the same again.

Long gone are the days of this space consisting of a rectangular table, a china cabinet and not much else. What’s taking its place? For New York interior design firm Georgis & Mirgorodsky at the Kips Bay Decorator Show House in 2023, it was a dining room meets lounge, complete with stools, poufs, a sumptuous curved sofa and a small, knee-high circular table. (A few years earlier, designer Barbara Ostrom also kicked formality to the curb when she introduced a daybed to her dining room/library at the showhouse.) At Kips Bay’s Palm Beach iteration last year, a dedicated dining space was omitted altogether.

The list of unconventional showhouse dining rooms goes on, but House Beautiful’s 2019 Whole Home Concept House was a particularly memorable moment. There, Carisha Swanson tasked Louisville, Kentucky–based designer Chenault James with a challenge that’s been on many designers’ minds in recent years: Make the dining room relevant again.

But when exactly the dining room fell out of fashion (and if it even did) is a matter of debate in the industry. To get to the bottom of it, BOH consulted designers and industry experts across the country in hopes of discovering whether the dining room is truly dead—and what might crop up in its place.

When Swanson presented her challenge, it seemed to her that most dining rooms were set up formally—a choice that restricts the room to just one use. “Given how expensive property is, I’ve never been able to rationalize why anybody would not want to use their home to the fullest extent they could,” she says. Her own home offered a prime example: “In a space like mine, which is under 3,000 square feet, how many places do I need to eat?” Swanson decided to fashion her dining room as a “glamour room”—or, more accurately, a GLMR (games, liquor, music and reading) room.

Is this the end of the dining room as we know it?
An adjustable dining/cocktail/Ping-Pong table designed by Chenault James InteriorsKate Leichhardt

James had a similar impulse. She teamed up with her husband, a carpenter, to transform the most enduring symbol of the dining room—the table—into an object with built-in multifunctionality. The resulting piece could serve as a regular dining room table, lower to become a coffee table, or transform into a Ping-Pong table, and was staged alongside casual elements like a record player and a bar. It made the cover of the House Beautiful issue dedicated to the showhouse—and a splash at the opening night party.

“Everyone was piled into that room, and my team and I looked at each other and we were like, ‘Oh, my gosh, it’s actually working. Everyone’s congregating in this space, and there’s laughing and such great energy—everyone’s having fun,’” says James.

But are showhouses any indication of what’s going on in the rest of the industry? Not always, Swanson points out—after all, they’re an environment where designers can follow their creative impulses outside of the confines of client preferences. Plus, there are logistical concerns to keep in mind: Since designers are often footing the bill for their showhouse creations, they may choose to invest in furnishings that are likely to be used in future projects. In that case, two small tables (such as in Kelly Hohla’s space in the 2020 San Francisco Decorator Showcase) could be easier to reuse than a classic large rectangular one.

For James, the answer came in the weeks and months after the Whole Home showhouse opened to the public, when she began receiving requests (eventually totaling more than 200) from designers and friends who wanted their own multifunctional dining room table. As she and her husband roll out copies of their design for eager customers, the original still sits in their home—aptly, in a space meant to be the foyer but also serving as a dining room, game room or breakfast nook depending on the day.

Other designers across the country have watched the same shift play out in their own practices, as clients increasingly opt to convert their would-be dining rooms into something that could serve multiple purposes—and the reasons for doing so seem to vary by locale.

For several clients in major cities like New York, Chicago and Washington, D.C., New York–based designer Celerie Kemble has eschewed formal dining for a versatile pass-through space with books and a floral arrangement positioned on a coffee table. It makes the room feel more like an entryway—a move that can give the illusion of expansiveness in a condo or co-op that’s tight on square footage. “In a proper house, most people come up with the space—but in apartments, it’s one of the first rooms to go,” she says.

Even in Texas, where acreage is plentiful, homeowners are approaching the dining room with fresh eyes. Lately, Houston designer Rhonnika Clifton has noticed that her clients are split down the middle when it comes to veering toward traditional dining spaces versus getting more creative. “Some people still want their formal dining room—although they may only use it two or three times a year, they still like that traditional feel of a set formal space,” she says. “The other 50 percent mainly comes from new construction. Homeowners are building with the idea that they don’t need that formal space anymore, so it’s becoming the new flex space.”

New uses for the space run the gamut. Clifton has created offices, libraries, piano rooms, parlors, playrooms—even a first-floor bedroom to accommodate aging in place. The shift has become so prominent that she makes sure to ask clients from the outset if they cook, host for the holidays or have a big family. If not, she offers the option of turning the dining room into something else. “Having an open conversation with the homeowner to say, ‘This is how the builder may have set this home up, but how does it work for you?’—I’ve found that is really helpful,” she says.

The dining room’s evolution is as much mindset as it is extra space. On the West Coast, designers Ansley Majit and Stephanie Waskins of Sausalito-based firm Lark + Palm have found that while their clients are still interested in having an intimate dining area, they are looking for a version that eschews formality. Since many homes in the region feature dining rooms that open up to outdoor spaces, Lark + Palm has found incorporating casual elements like a bar with high-top stools to be a natural move. Creating a laid-back vibe can also come down to the floor plan—moving the dining area to a room with a fireplace encourages coziness; adding furnishings like bookcases, octagonal tables and gallery walls makes the dining room far less easy to pigeonhole. “California is a lot more casual, whereas dining and entertaining in the South has always been such an art form,” says Majit. “It’s a matter of culture in addition to the space.”

Nashville-based designer Chad James agrees. “Our really traditional clients, there’s no way in this world that they’re not having a dining room, if for no other reason than that it’s a pretty room,” he says. “They may use it twice a year, but by golly, they’re going to have a dining room.” (Also notable: Southern showhouses like Flower magazine’s annual event have stuck with the formal dining room in recent years.)

Elsewhere, the designer has found that mentality to be more malleable. In his projects in the northern and western U.S., his clients tend to focus on convertibility, preferring dining rooms that can also function as a study or a game room. Still, he maintains that every home needs a dining space—even if the ritual looks different than it once did. “I’m 48 years old, and all through my school years, my family sat down for dinner every night. By no means was it a formal event, but it was a time for our family to sit down, talk about the day, argue—do all the things that families do,” he says. “That stands true today; people still need that place, but it’s happening in the kitchen or the keeping room.”

When did that shift away from regular dinners in the dining room occur? It helps to look back on when it rose to popularity in the first place—an exercise that will land you in the gilded homes of the wealthiest British and American Victorians, explains historian and home furnishings designer Suzanne Spellen. While the robber barons and landed gentry enjoyed elaborate nightly meals at expansive banquet tables with servants and waitstaff, that life was out of reach for most of the population. But as the rise of mass production at the end of the 19th century triggered a surge in conspicuous consumption, having a dining room quickly became a symbol of middle-class prosperity—and interior designers played a large role in making that happen.

Is this the end of the dining room as we know it?
A cozy dining space with a built-in bench designed by Lark + PalmCourtesy of Lark + Palm

“By the end of the century, interior decorators looked around at what the rich were doing—and most of them were rich themselves—and made pronouncements about it, which were printed off in magazines like Godey’s Lady’s Book and Harper’s Bazaar,” says Spellen. “They would have columns telling you the ideal family had this or that, and that included what you had in your dining room.”

In the decades to follow, the tastemakers and manufacturers of the day came up with all of the furnishings and products necessary for a formal dining room: a long rectangular table and sideboards, buffets, and hutches to store silver, crystal, and all manner of serving dishes and cutlery (right down to highly specific items like the asparagus fork, a holdover of the Victorian era). As suburbia exploded in the postwar years, the image of formal home dining immortalized in Norman Rockwell’s famous illustration Freedom From Want spread widely as a domestic ideal.

But as the millennium grew closer, the daily habits of the American family began to shift. Where children were once expected to be seen and not heard, they’ve since become the center of the family. As a result, we see more on-the-go, casual living. Meanwhile, the rise of open floor plans placed a greater emphasis on kitchen and living spaces rather than secluded dining rooms.

Our obsession with kitchens has shifted focus away from the dining room as well. As cooking spaces have expanded and become more of a showpiece over the last 15 years, they have morphed into centralizing living spaces that serve as the epicenter of the home. “Generations ago, there was a cook in the kitchen who was hidden, and the great homeowner entertained people out of sight of that steaming mess,” says Kemble. “Now you look at how magazines represent the kitchen, and there are flowers being cut in the sink, and food is laid out on the island in some tempting display.” General ideas around the “grand lady of the home,” as Kemble puts it, have also changed in recent years. She points to the shift in editorial representation over the last decade as a case in point: “Everybody’s vision of the lifestyle expert is not only that they have a beautiful home and they entertain well, but they also garden and cook—all processes are beautiful and worthy of public life.”

These days, clients are seeking a new balance, says Richard Anuszkiewicz, senior designer at the Nashville-based Design Galleria Kitchen and Bath Studio. For a while, his firm was removing dining areas and breakfast tables to make way for larger islands and kitchen storage. Recently, he says, some of the old formality has returned, with clients requesting table settings, or millwork designs that function a lot like the china cabinets of old.

“We live a more relaxed lifestyle today—people are busy and hustle and bustle, but there’s still a need to come together at a table, just in a more informal manner,” he says. “Many people are practical about getting the most use out of their square footage, so they want these areas to be pieces of their home that they use more regularly.”

Several other designers have noticed a similar pattern: As much as kitchen-forward culture reigned supreme pre-pandemic, the years to follow have inched a step back toward a need for intimate dining spaces and a sense of occasion at mealtime. “The pendulum swings really drastically—it goes to the side of casual informality and then it swings all the way over to this really traditional Chippendale formality,” says James. As for today’s dining room, the new standard may fall somewhere in the middle: convertible spaces that can keep up with their homeowners’ shifting lifestyles.

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