Monday, November 05, 2012

Are dining rooms going the way of the dodo?

"Freedom from Want" by Norman Rockwell

It seems that for a while now, dining rooms have been getting smaller and increasingly irrelevant to modern living. For several years, real estate sites and building surveys have been predicting that the formal dining room will become extinct (quick Google search here). I've recently done a series of small design consultations for a group of relatively young married couples, all new homeowners within the last year. None had any specific needs or plans for formal dining space in their homes. The homes themselves ranged from antique to relatively new and most had designated dining rooms that were either going to be swallowed up by kitchen renovations or used for other purposes such as playrooms or home offices. While I'm all for making the best use of space in the home and I love multi-functional spaces, I am also a little wistful about this trend - and not only because of its potential impact on the bottom line of a design business.

Merrill family dining room, styled by Linda Merrill, photographed by Michael J. Lee.

Of course, formal dining rooms are expensive propositions - especially today. When my parents were married in the mid-1950s, they used their wedding money to purchased their bedroom set (still in use), living room set (no longer in use) and dining room set - which is still in use and used by me in my 2011 Holiday Style issue of my digital magazine (see above). It's not common today that the average newly married couple in their 20's with comparable income levels that my parents had at that time will be able to purchase three formal rooms of furniture all at once. Especially furniture that was of good enough quality to still be going strong nearly 60 years later. And yet, I do think that the formal dining room holds an important place in the home. First, let me say that by "formal" I really mean "dedicated" space, it might be less traditionally formal in appearance and it might still be used for other purposes as well.

New England style dining room by Linda Merrill. Photo by Michael J. Lee

More and more, today's families are taking their meals while perched on tall stools at the kitchen island. Busy lives call for streamlining, that's for sure. And social gatherings are casual affairs spent standing up in the host's kitchen or sitting around the television set. I love a great dinner party with family and friends sitting all together and breaking bread. The formal nature of a dining room reminds us of how special this can be.

Boston Magazine Design Home, built by Eugene Mattie Associates , interiors by Vani Sayeed Studios, photo by Linda Merrill

Many report that they never use their dining room more than once a year and certainly, this is a waste of precious space. Why spend thousands decorating the room only to spend more time dusting it than actually using it? When I was growing up, my parents were part of a "Gourmet Group" where participants were broken into small groups of 8-10 and every couple of months a dinner was held in someone's home. The dinners rotated throughout the group and the themed menus were created by the organizers of the group. Recipes and shopping lists were distributed, special ingredients were pre-ordered to make sure they were available, wines were carefully selected and ordered, and each participant was responsible for a specific aspect of the meal. These were adult-only events where the good china, silver and crystal were brought out. My brothers and I pressed into service - setting the table, delivering courses to the table, clearing and washing the dishes. All in our good clothes. For reward, we got to eat the great food and finish off the deserts (and possibly a glass of wine or two - shhh). My parents weren't tyrants and we weren't enslaved. This was part of teaching us how to behave in adult situations and how to hold a decent conversation with adults who we may not know very well, or even at all. Plus, it meant that my parents could enjoy the dinner themselves.

Family meal time was always pretty sacrosanct in my family.  One of our traditions was that each Sunday during the winter months, we had dinner in the dining room (not the actual room shown at the top, but on that furniture set), dressed in our Sunday church-going clothes which meant jackets and ties for my Dad and brothers and dresses or skirts for Mom and me. Cocktail hour started at 5:00 and I set the table while my mother made dinner (yes, very traditional roles) using the good china and silver. Everyone helped bring the food to the table and no one sat down until my mother and I were seated. To this day, my brothers remain standing until all the women are seated at the table. My Dad and brothers, and I, would clear and clean up. Dinnertime was usually not over until 7:00 or later - I remember I always wanted to run off to watch The Wonderful World of Disney (so dating myself...). While this may seem an antiquated, overly stuffy and borderline elitist kind of ritual, it was done for a very specific purpose. My parents wanted us to not only have good manners for children but to learn how to be comfortable in any situation - social or business - that we might eventually find ourselves in as adults. These days there are etiquette coaches who are brought in by companies to teach young professionals (specifically sales people and others who have significant dealings with clients or the public) basic table manners. Again, manners are not about being elitist, they are about feeling comfortable oneself and making others comfortable in any situation.  I would argue that these are important life-lessons that will pay dividends personally and professionally throughout one's life.

While I was writing this post, I did a quick poll via Twitter and Facebook asking if dining rooms were In or Out. The results were pretty split - several quickly replied "out!" while said "In In In!". Some were bi-partisan in their opinions, saying that the dining room is out "unfortunately" and some designers reported that the are currently working on several formal dining spaces. Ultimately, it is personal preference, available space and lifestyle. But, oh, I hope they don't really go out! The dining room is a kind of shrine to family and friends, and beauty. A place that is beautiful just because it can be.

What do you think?

What do you think??


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