The formal dining room, long considered a symbol of wealth and privilege, has been the subject of much debate over the past 30 years. Some declared it dead, a relic of a bygone era when families sat down together each night for a home-cooked meal. Others clung to it as a place to welcome friends and family for holiday meals. All the while, American families turned toward eating in more informal spaces in the kitchen or — gasp — in front of the TV or on the go.
Then the pandemic hit and families who still had dining rooms began reclaiming that space for home offices or classrooms as people worked, learned and did most of their recreation from home. That put the formal dining room in the spotlight, and now people are pondering the new role it might play in our homes and lives.
Will it revert to its intended purpose? Will it become the new family hub? The answer may be yes to both. “We need to think about how to make the formal dining room the little black dress of rooms,” says Bethesda, Md., interior designer Marika Meyer, “a place we can dress up or down, as needed.”
The coronavirus pandemic is a defining moment in the history of interior design, forcing us to reconsider how our homes function and whether the open-plan concept that has dominated the landscape for so many years is still viable. The dining room plays a big part in answering those questions.
“The pandemic taught people the importance of not having all these open spaces,” says Los Angeles designer Timothy Corrigan, who’s been called back by clients to retrofit homes to include more separate spaces. As lockdown set in, folks scrambled for seclusion. Basements, breakfast nooks and backyards were enlisted in the quest for privacy, but the formal dining room, with its table an ideal work surface and its four walls offering a defined personal space, proved to be prime real estate, particularly if it had a door.
The dining room, which is rooted in the great halls of the Middle Ages, has always been an evolving concept, endlessly in flux and adapting to societal changes. Writing about 17th-century Paris in his 1986 book “Home: A Short History of an Idea,” Witold Rybczynski noted that “people ate in different parts of the house — in the salle, in the antichambre, or in the chambre — depending on their mood, or on the number of guests.”
In grand English homes of the early 18th century, chairs and drop-leaf tables were kept against the walls of reception rooms, or salons, to allow floor space for dancing or games, then brought forward into the room to be set for meals. It wasn’t until the second half of the century that a room devoted solely to dining became fashionable in Europe and America, where it remained a showpiece throughout the 19th century.
In the early 20th century, though, the formal dining room’s status wobbled as new kitchen technologies, such as gas and electricity, made meal prep easier. And post-World War II concepts, such as Southern California architect Cliff May’s suburban ranch houses, ushered in the convenience of the eat-in kitchen. Then came the revitalization of urban centers and the conversion of industrial buildings into airy lofts.
Open-plan homes were the solution for modern living, reaching a zenith in the 1990s, helped in part by HGTV shows that celebrated the great-room concept. Anchored by an aspirational kitchen, the open plan purported to make cooking, talking, parenting and even cleaning easier. At the same time, a revival of mid-century style sent fussy china cabinets and old-fashioned wainscoting to the curb. Formal dining rooms were becoming obsolete, and even homes that had them hosted little more than piles of unread mail. But the pandemic has changed that, and the formal dining room is getting another look.
“People are used to using the room in other ways now,” says designer Max Sinsteden of New York- and Houston-based Olasky & Sinsteden. And with that comes the freedom to tailor the room to our needs, be it a mini great room or a traditional dining space.
So, what might this new iteration of the mixed-use formal dining room look like? Designers have lots of ideas.
“Dining rooms are the most expensive room to furnish, so they’ve got to be more multifunctional,” says Corrigan, explaining that the cost of a wood table and eight or 10 wood chairs can substantially drive up a budget. “Plus, people often want something special on the walls, a specialty paper, to make the room feel more luxurious.” Corrigan’s own dining rooms have doubled as libraries.
“Ask yourself what will bring you in there, and don’t be fearful of what works for you,” says Meyer. A meditation space, perhaps? Pop-up card tables for crafts? Stock the sideboard with games for family night? “It doesn’t have to be a stodgy, patriarchal place,” she adds. She even did away with the large table altogether for a client who hosted Thanksgiving only every other year. “I said, let’s make it a space you use — a cafe table for two and a reading nook. Call the rental company to set up a dining room when you need it.”
For Catherine Olasky, Sinsteden’s Houston-based firm partner, a year-plus of having her own dining table set half for school and half for eating inspired a complete rethinking of the room. “I’m redoing it with a suite of upholstered furniture to make it more of a sitting room, with a pedestal table for six,” she says. There’s precedent for the sitting-dining room combo, especially in Scandinavian countries where daylight is short. Dining room illustrations from the 19th century often show sofas and small worktables near the windows to make the most of natural light.
In a similar vein, designer Lynn Kloythanomsup of Landed Interiors & Homes gave San Francisco artist Michelle L. Morby a dining room that could double as a studio. “There’s the big table where she can spread out, plenty of circulation room, and a banquette and table near the window,” she says.
“I wanted my dining room to be more than a formal place for meals,” says Morby. “The farm table is from the 1820s, and it’s a perfect size for bigger drawings or drawing with friends. And the nook was created for the intimate conversations one has during a dinner party, the kind of catch-ups one has to connect heart-to-heart, or something you don’t want to share with the whole table.” It’s also become Morby’s favorite spot for morning coffee, and her dog’s favorite spot for a nap.
These hybrid spaces offer the best of both worlds, which Kesha Franklin, the New Jersey-based designer behind New York firm Halden Interiors, thinks is a smart option as we continue to grapple with the pandemic. “There’s still the ‘but’ aspect,” she says. “People are excited to be out, but we still need to move with caution. Most homeowners are thinking along the lines of, ‘If we have to go back to working from home, we’re prepared now.’ That’s why the design industry exploded during the pandemic. People weren’t prepared.”
Even with a home office, Franklin’s work spilled over to the dining table, and her husband, hip-hop DJ and producer Clark Kent, set up shop in the sunroom for Instagram Live performances. “We all conformed because we had to,” Franklin says, “but no one wants that.” It’s the conforming, though, that gave us a crash course in how to make our homes support us.
“The reality is, yes, you can have a sofa in the dining room. Yes, you can have a desk at the end of the dining room,” says Sinsteden. But he is also quick to highlight another reality: the health benefits of sitting down to the table for meals. After talking with a nutritionist, Sinsteden gained better insight into “how sitting down and putting your phone away will recenter you, and how good it is for our bodies to eat with intent,” he says. “And I love to set a table!” he adds. Creating beautiful tablescapes for dinners with his husband helped brighten tough times over the past 18 months. “Our dining rituals intensified, and it’s been the saving grace of the pandemic,” he says. “It creates routine and acknowledges the end of the day.”
And while all of that can be said of the kitchen table, or even the island, do we make as much of an effort there as we would in the dining room, a place that still feels like hallowed ground?
Aside from the wellness benefits that come with sitting down, sitting up and eating mindfully, “the dining room creates a forum for conversation,” says Corrigan. And that’s a point emphasized by Franklin, who raised her children around the dinner table.
“As parents, it’s where we got information. Think about it: The dining table is a little bit like a conference room — it’s where business is had and deals are made,” she says. “Everything is casual now, so the structure and formality the dining room commands is a good thing.”
“My children would love nothing more than to have dinner on the sofa and watch TV,” says Olasky, “but the pandemic taught us about negative psychological effects that can come with the isolation of distance learning, so every night we cook, set the table and engage our children.” It’s the difference between what she calls “crisis eating” in the kitchen vs. a proper meal. “I don’t want anything in the evening that echoes the stress of getting the kids ready in the morning. I want a completely different experience.”
That idea — a restaurant experience at home — is very much part of the new dining room story. In keeping with a renewed interest in formal dining is a boom in the tabletop market. The home furnishings industry publication HFN reports that tabletop sales are not only up but driving product development, with companies like Mottahedeh expanding popular patterns and Orrefors meeting the demand for sustainability with a new collection using recycled glass. Sinsteden has also found that people are becoming more confident cooks, and Kloythanomsup says clients are asking for tables that seat 20. Traditional dining room fans are going all in.
For Jenny and Tom Penich (senior vice president at Vice Media and a regional marketing manager for BMW of North America, respectively), a formal dining room was a must as they searched for a Chicago-area home. “A lot of new builds didn’t have them, but I really wanted it,” says Jenny. In less than a year in the house, the dining room had hosted a wedding anniversary dinner for the couple and safe family gatherings to celebrate milestone birthdays and Thanksgiving.
“It’s an entertaining house — that’s part of the reason we liked it — and the dining room is right off the entrance so it’s the first place you see,” Jenny notes. She went bold with a historically inspired red paint below the chair rail, an embossed rose-patterned wallpaper, gray acrylic side chairs and mink-hued velvet head chairs to create something that felt “kind of edgy,” she says. And while the room is reserved for formal occasions, she played with tradition by converting the sideboard into a cocktail cabinet (tucking in a few party games, to boot). “You’re here to have a good time,” she says.
A similar love of hosting drove Orli Ben-Dor, creative director at decorating showroom Hollywood at Home in Los Angeles, “to reclaim the dining room,” when she and her husband, Cameron Mahlstede, moved to a new rental house in the city. The couple’s previous apartment had a dark and seldom-used dining room that had become her pandemic home office, but the house had a bedroom that could act as a workspace. “It gave me permission to make the dining room a dining room,” Ben-Dor says.
And she didn’t hesitate. It was one of the first rooms they tackled, even installing wallpaper with the blessing of the landlord. Its dahlia motif lends the room a garden feel, tying it to the rambling roses just outside the window. Entertaining in years past had meant going out to restaurants, but now the couple wants to be at home. “We’re food and wine people,” she says (Mahlstede is a sommelier and manages private cellars), “and all we’ve been doing since the pandemic is cooking.” Whether hosting relaxed suppers or Shabbat dinners (though less frequently now, as the city’s covid numbers tick up again), they like to make it memorable. Mixing linens, dishes and candles (“Tapers on the table — so magical!”) is a creative outlet Ben-Dor enjoys, and her “colorful and intentional” table settings “put people in the mood to settle in,” she says. “Even more than the food, it’s about being together in a beautiful space.”
Ultimately, the value of the formal dining room comes down to addressing our needs: our work-from-home life, and the care of our families and our own well-being. In that regard, today’s mixed-use incarnation of the space isn’t all that different from its early-18th-century counterparts, or from the medieval great hall, for that matter.
“What works just varies on family structure or the individual’s needs,” Franklin says. For her empty-nester clients, an open plan still works because it can help assuage loneliness, and it gave one recently widowed client a feeling of closeness to her husband because she could easily see things that reminded her of him.
For Franklin’s clients with little ones, on the other hand, it’s more about compartmentalized spaces that help define a daily routine. “It just depends on the dynamic,” she says, acknowledging that people’s needs change. With her own children now young adults, she had downsized to a smaller dining table, but that won’t do as she envisions post-pandemic celebrations. “I want the ability to gather 10 now!” she says.
“It’s all about where you are in life,” adds Meyer. “There’s hope for the formal dining room because it can be whatever you need it to be. It’s definitely becoming a room that’s more important, not less.”
Maile Pingel is a writer in Los Angeles and a former editor at Architectural Digest.