ROOMS TO FEAST YOUR EYES ON Dining rooms are re-emerging in a clearly defined space and with eclectic flair

THE BALTIMORE SUN

While kitchens often get the nod as the room that conjures the most memories, I have to vote for the dining room. My grandmother's dining room, in particular, still lingers in my mind because it was always the place of celebrations and ceremony as I was growing up.

My family gathered there for holiday dinners, birthday parties, wedding showers and christening brunches.

The dining room was probably the most elaborately furnished space in my grandmother's small, simple home. She had saved pennies after the Depression to buy the mahogany-veneer set of furniture -- pedestal table, formal chairs, china closet. Everything matching, of course.

The wallpaper changed over the years -- from large cabbage roses to refined stripes to miniature prints. And the rug changed with the seasons -- fake Persian for the winter; sisal for the summer. But the furniture remained the same for nearly three decades.

The table was my grandmother's pride and joy. It had several leaves and when extended to maximum length, all the many family members could crowd around.

We children were relegated to the kitchen table after grace was said, but when we finished eating, we were allowed back into the dining room. And at an appropriate age, say 14 or 15, we found a permanent place in my grandmother's room.

As an adult in my own home, I found myself with a small dining area -- one of those L-shaped spaces that appeared on the architectural scene in force with the advent of the 1950s rancher. I wasted little time converting an old screened porch to a dining room and over the years have tried to celebrate important family events by filling it with the people I love. I think my grandmother would like that.

The '90s dining room

I am not alone in my fondness for dining rooms. Today, interior designers are reporting that dining rooms are enjoying a resurgence in popularity. Of course, they never really disappeared, but they did get slightly lost in the great-room phenomenon.

"About 10 or 15 years ago, we were being bombarded with the great room," says interior designer Marie Schwartz. "We were told [by architects that] the formal dining room was passe. Walls were coming down and the kitchen and dining room were being merged with the family room to make one grand space."

The dining room became the dining table, a piece of furniture placed among assorted sofas and chairs, a counter top away from the kitchen.

While architects and interior designers promoted the great room, many families were having second thoughts. By the 1990s, they were opting once again for a more formal dining space -- a separate room if possible; if not, at least a more defined dining area than that found in the great room.

(Not all homeowners are eschewing the great room, however. For a different attitude about combining living spaces, see the story beginning on Page 4.)

"My clients, many of them young professionals in their 30s and 40s, are definitely requesting dining rooms," says Schwartz. "They want a formal space for entertaining at home and they want to be able to seat 10 or 12 people for dinner."

Interior designer Sandy Glover has always been a fan of formal dining rooms. She sees them being used more frequently not only for entertaining but for regular family dining. "I think one of the biggest complaints I hear from my clients when they look at a new house is that the dining room is too small," she says.

While size can't be changed easily, other factors that influence the character of a dining room can be manipulated to suit the taste and style of the homeowner. Designers agree that furniture, floor coverings, window treatments, lighting and color play important roles in creating memory-making dining rooms.

"Whether the room is traditional or contemporary, furniture pieces should be unique, not bought as a set," advises interior designer Curtis Cummings.

The trend is to throw glass, wood and metal together in a sophisticated mix. Antiques, reproductions, even contemporary pieces coexist. My grandmother's notion of every piece of dining room furniture matching every other piece in style and finish is definitely outdated. "Dining rooms are more eclectic, more layered," Cummings says.

The newest twist is to find chairs that complement but don't match the table. Painted or stained chairs, often highlighted with gold, are turning up with all types of tables. Upholstered seating, particularly for host chairs, is definitely an upscale look.

While you can't have a dining room without chairs, interior designers agree that the table is the most important piece of dining-room furniture, and they say the pedestal or double-pedestal base is hands-down the most practical.

"If you are concerned with getting the maximum amount of people around a table, forget tables with corner legs," says Schwartz. "It is much easier to place chairs around a table with a pedestal base."

Table size and shape are dependent on room size and shape. A round shape is popular because it allows for easy conversation, but round tables often don't expand. Round tables are great choices if you never entertain more than eight people at a seated dinner. Rectangular tables are good for growing families and if you entertain a lot, because leaves can usually be added as the crowd grows.

"I've noticed in newer homes that although the dining room is smaller, the architect often leaves the space somewhat open so that the dining room can invade the living room if necessary when a table is expanded to maximum length," says Cummings.

Dining rooms also need space for storage and for serving. Armoires or custom built-ins are in vogue for storage, and a buffet of some type usually fulfills the requirement for serving space.

Rugs and walls

When Sandy Glover is designing a dining room, she usually starts with a rug, because it's a basic element. From a rug she gets cues for the wall color and fabrics.

Rugs are tricky, though. They need to be just the right size so that when the chairs are pushed back, they will still be on the carpet. Resist the impulse to scale down rug size for the dining room.

But buying a large-enough rug doesn't mean you should pay a lot for it. Schwartz says, "I don't think you want to buy an extremely expensive rug and then put it under a dining room table because most of it won't be seen, and there is always the danger of spills." She suggests a wool rug with a handsome border design or sisal rug edged in fabric.

Window drama is important in dining rooms. "Usually dining rooms are used at night, and if the windows are bare, guests will be looking at a depressing black hole unless you install some outside lighting," explains Schwartz.

A dining room is often the most dramatic place in a house, but windows there don't have to be swathed in yards and yards of fabric to be effective. Interior designer Ed Stough used a small, fabric-covered valance and silver vertical blinds to decorate patio doors off the dining room of a Pikesville condo.

Lighting the dining room has traditionally been an exercise in finding just the right chandelier to put over the table. But creative designers often opt to go chandelierless. "Once you have a chandelier in place, you are really limited to what you can do with the dining room space," cautions designer Glover, who has no chandelier in her own dining room.

"Without a chandelier, you can move the table around or bring in smaller tables to accommodate more guests."

Schwartz says, "I really like lighting around the perimeters of the room. Dining rooms don't have to be bright. I like soft lighting, which helps guests to relax. Two candles on the table will usually suffice."

Designers are choosing wall scones, track lighting and recessed lighting for dining rooms. Ed Stough likes to use halogen lights, which, he says, "make everything, including the food, look better."

Like light, color is a major factor in creating ambience in a dining room. There is really no right or wrong hue. "Color is very personal," says Glover, "but I like dining rooms that are very dramatic, and that usually means using a dark color on the walls."

Popular choices among designers are burgundy, dark green, deep blue and rich yellow gold. Peaches and pinks, often used in restaurants, are good colors for dining rooms because they flatter most skin tones and make people look younger and healthier -- a nice way to compliment quests lingering over dinner.

The dining room is also a place where designers feel free to use faux finishes on the walls. Such finishes create elegant and rich textures.

While furniture, rugs, windows, lighting and color play important individual roles in a dining room, the test of a room's success is not how those elements look separately, but how people respond to the room as a whole. Pay attention to how long your guests linger.

Says Glover, "When getting people to adjourn to the living room for coffee is like pulling teeth, then you probably have a very inviting dining room."

Pub Date: 4/20/97

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