Creating the Formality
The components that go into a formal dining experience begin, of course, with a table and chairs that are of sufficient quality to evoke elegance. Whether contemporary or traditional, select chairs that are comfortable, as the formal dining experience is often longer and less hurried than other meals.
Next comes the addition of a china cabinet, or at least a serving buffet piece, or both, where the fine china can be kept and enjoyed as decorative artistic pieces -- and not just at meal times. Objects of art often are displayed proudly in china cabinets. A buffet cabinet, which is usually the lower section of the casepiece, is ideal for silverware and serving tools.
Under the table, choices include hardwood floor, wall-to-wall carpeting and an area rug such as a designer or Oriental rug coordinated with the furnishings. Look to area rugs as a possibility for an add-on sale.
Many formal dining room walls are wallpapered or have other lovely treatments such as moldings or specialty painted walls. Wall coverings that have a dramatic pattern such as a large floral often are used in dining rooms because they can add to the ambiance so effectively -- contributing pattern, color and thematic detail. Some stimulating patterns make people feel hungrier and carry on more lively conversations. However, be careful to choose colors that are appreciated by many, and a color combination that is supportive of all the other elements such as window treatments, floor coverings, wood and even the colors of the china.
Another reason why wall coverings do well in dining rooms is that by the time people grow tired of the stimulus, the meal is over and guests can retire to another area to continue conversation or other activities.
Window treatments deserve particular attention not only because daytime meals may well need to screen and soften light and nighttime meals may need complete privacy, but because they often are an important focal point of the room.
Because these rooms don't receive the amount of use as other rooms, they likely will stay untouched, meaning that long draperies, complex top treatments, fringe, sheers and more costly fabrics can be used here with confidence. Remember, you are selling a feeling and a look, and the higher cost may reflect the elegance of the formality of the room. Layered fabrics, perhaps coupled with alternate window treatments, are a natural choice for formal dining areas.
Don't forget the power of suggestion. Even if the formal dining area is not what the customer was planning to cover when you were called to the home, ask for a tour or say, "May I see your dining room?" Then, after careful observation, suggest a treatment with sincere enthusiasm. Describe colors and trimmings just as you would describe a delicious entree. Create a want.
Though many homes do have both formal and informal dining, more homes are being planned with informal dining spaces only -- a dining area adjacent to or in the kitchen -- and perhaps a second informal eating area such as bar stools at an island or peninsula.
However, there seems to be a trend away from bar stool eating. What's so fun about lining up side-by-side to eat your food while looking at the stove? Rather, the trend is toward in-kitchen dining, sitting down at a table where people can look at each other and carry on conversations.
The big, old-fashioned kitchen has returned. The bar or island is becoming a butcher block or funky old table that serves as another food preparation area. Regardless of the arrangement, it is our job, as design professionals, to ensure that informal dining is a pleasant experience, even if it is solo dining or rushed because of time constraints. We do this by making the surroundings warm, friendly, personal and lovely.
Some informal dining areas receive a lot of use, and repeated wet clean-up with detergent-based solutions on tables and chair seats may be common. In this case, advise your customers to select easy-to-maintain woods or laminates (medium to light in value with graining or finishes that hide high use marks). Wood chairs, perhaps with removable or reversible cushions rather than upholstery, would be a good choice.
Window treatments should be low-maintenance as well. Specify controls that are easily reached and operated, even with one hand in case a sandwich is occupying the other. Select fabrics or alternate window treatments that can be readily cleaned and that resist soiling from air-borne impurities (such as steam or oil). This is a great place for valances, decorative rods and creativity!
Colors for Dining Areas
Color is an important consideration in dining areas, as it has the power to set the mood and evoke happy or satisfying feelings that aid digestion and enhance conversation. Whether the setting is formal or informal, avoid garish colors or those that are too harsh or stimulating.
Formal dining areas: Certainly rich, stimulating colors -- jewel tones, for example -- are appropriate especially if darker woods and more traditional furnishings are selected.
In general, more neutral colors, those that are soft and relaxing, will be pleasant to view but may not create the stimulus for conversation. However, soft tones and pastels are restful and can prolong the dining experience resulting in contentment with the meal and the company.
Informal dining areas: Bright or trendy colors can be delightful in informal areas because people tend to redecorate those areas more often and the desirable atmosphere is more lighthearted. Also consider colors that are homey, welcoming and, yes, even safe. Chose colors that the clients will want to live with and around which they will be comfortable and contented.
Planning the Space
Dining areas are most comfortable when there is adequate space for seating and to move around behind the seating area. Here are some space requirements for dining areas:
Each seat along the table requires two feet. This allows diners to slide their chairs in and out without bumping the next person.
From the table to the wall or to the casepiece (china cabinet, buffet, or built-in cabinet) there should be at least a three-foot clearance in order to slide the chairs back to sit down or get out.
If space is required for circulation around the table while people are seated, add two more feet making the table five feet from the wall (this is ideal but not always possible).
Suspended lighting such as pendant or chandelier luminaries should not be lower than about 30 to 35 inches off the tabletop -- low enough to cast soft light on the table and on faces but high enough to allow eye-to-eye contact.
Dining in Multi-use Spaces
Another major trend in new and remodeled homes is to open spaces onto each other so that dining becomes part of a multi-use area. In this way the dining table can serve for more functions than just dining. For example, the great room has at its heart the dining table flanked by the kitchen on one side and the family room on the other side.
Another space planning trend combines living and dining rooms into one large space, sometimes in addition to and sometimes eliminating the separate living and family rooms.
The level of formality certainly varies according to the home owner's taste, but the concept is that the dining area can be used for both formal and informal dining, family councils, study projects, playing board games, etc. The list of possibilities goes on and on.
Decorating the space, and furnishing the windows there, can be fun and challenging. Keep in mind that multi-uses may mean different lighting needs. Select treatments that can be flexible in controlling light and add valances, curtains, draperies and hardware that provide charm and personality.
Dining spaces are becoming the places where people want to spend time, alone on projects or savoring the company of others. The interior itself can and should be a delightful and enchanting place where these many activities can be graciously enjoyed.
Karla J. Nielson, Allied ASID, IDEC, WCAA, is assistant professor of design at Brigham Young University. She is a practicing interior designer and has authored several books including Window Treatments and Understanding Fabrics. Nielson is a regular correspondent for Draperies & Window Coverings addressing the areas of fashion, education and merchandising.