For many overscheduled families, "dining" has been reduced in recent years to grabbing a plate of food at a kitchen island or on an ottoman in front of a screen. Even in homes that have a separate dining room, the table is regularly commandeered for homework or, at this time of year, as a tax-prep command center.
But there are signs that we are heading back to the dinner table, designers say. Their clients are tiring of grabbing meals in the "great room," a more informal, open space that often accommodates drive-by eating and lounging. Or they're annoyed with noisy restaurants and want to do more entertaining at home. Many young families are looking for a more structured family dinner hour around a real table.
"Everything is so casual these days, it's nice to be a bit more formal in a room where you entertain or gather your family," said designer Erica Burns of Bethesda, Md. "The room sets the tone, since there's no TV in there and hopefully no cellphones. It's a space focused on conversation and eating."
A separate dining room is on many homeowners' wish lists. In the January 2017 Home Buyer Reference survey, 73 percent of those who responded said the dining room was "essential or desirable," according to a spokeswoman for the National Association of Home Builders.
But how do families turn the dining room from a stiff backdrop for elaborate Thanksgiving and Christmas celebrations into a warmer and more approachable space?
"Dining rooms sometimes give people the chills with memories of their parents' dining rooms filled with brown furniture," Washington designer Josh Hildreth said. "If you want to bring a room like this back, you have to make it useful and fun."
Lots of memorable moments occur in the dining room, yet it's a space that's often at the bottom of the list for refreshing or redecorating. We asked designers to share some of their strategies on making this somewhat formal room, often full of inherited furniture, come alive.
Go for drama.
A dining room is a good place to do something dramatic, if that's your style. "If a client said, 'I want glazed turquoise walls,' I'd say we probably should not do that in a room you're in all the time," Hildreth said. "If you want to be wild or crazy, a dining room or powder room is a good place to do it."
Break up your dining room set.
Many dining rooms have too much furniture. Why not put your buffet or server in a different room? Hildreth moved his sideboard to the living room to use when entertaining. He arranges appetizers on it before dinner, then serves dessert and coffee on it afterward.
"It's nice not to be tethered to your dining room table and to move into another room after dinner to talk with other guests," Hildreth said. "And now my sideboard has found a new life."
Soften it up.
New York designer Katie Ridder said window treatments and carpets are important in a dining room: "There are usually brown tables, chairs and sideboards. That's a lot of hardwood surfaces, so it's nice to soften it with carpeting, curtains and maybe a wallpaper."
Pay attention to light fixture height.
Chandeliers are often hung too high in dining rooms. Washington designer Thomas Pheasant said he likes lighting 30 to 36 inches above the table: "You want to sit across the table and not have the fixture in the way, but you want to bring the light and attention down to everyone's faces."
Install sturdy seat covers.
On traditional dining chairs, it pays to use indoor/outdoor fabrics. Burns said she often uses Sunbrella or Perennials for young families. "There are so many great options now that are soft and don't feel like the slippery outdoor fabric of days past," she said. Additionally, you can take any fabric and get stain treatment applied before upholstering chairs.
Up your chair count.
If your dining room is small but you want additional matching chairs available, you can display the chairs in other rooms. Ridder said: "Buy extra chairs and if you want, do different seat covers for them so you can use them for the living room, family room or bedroom yet still bring them in for a large dinner around your table."
Liven up brown furniture.
Hildreth updated the traditional mahogany china cabinet at his mom's house by lining the back with a neutral grass cloth that has a bit of coral in it.
"It lightened the whole look up," he said. Because china cabinets are going for very affordable prices in auctions and vintage markets, he suggested buying one and lacquering it with a bold paint color.
Ridder said she advises clients who are renovating a dining room to add down-lights around the chandelier. "It's nice to have light pointing down on the table as well as chandelier light and candlelight," she said.
Mix it up.
Don't be so matchy-matchy. A different look for the host chairs at either end of the table can make a statement, Burns suggested. Instead of the usual chandelier over the center of the table, try two pendants.
Make it pull double duty.
Urban clients like having separate dining rooms but are sometimes short on space, Pheasant said. "What do we do if someone will only use their dining room two or three times a month?" Pheasant said. "We might create a library there using a center table and lining shelves with books and photographs."
Rethink your china.
If you have a glass china cabinet or hutch crammed with porcelain and crystal, separate what you really use from what you might want to deaccession. Display only a few special pieces; it will give the room a cleaner look and feel more modern.
And don't be afraid to set a nice table with your best china and cloth napkins, even if it's just for a weeknight family dinner. Pheasant said, "Use your good stuff and enjoy it."