The Gathering Space: Dining rooms have evolved in both style and purpose over the years
December 12, 2017
If memories of large family meals conjure images of Norman Rockwell's iconic picture "Freedom from Want," also known as "The Thanksgiving Picture," or "I’ll Be Home for Christmas," — the one where grandma and grandpa bring a 20-pound turkey into a dining room — memories are all they are likely to be.
Move over stuffy dining areas where kids aren't allowed to go except for the holidays: Dining in these sanctioned rooms, for the most part, has become less formal and more family friendly.
Most Vail Valley designers agree that an informal multi-function open space affords the best options for dining.
Dallas Lyons, of the eponymous Lyons Design Group, believes you can't give up functionality for the opportunity to be able to have a large dinner party. However, Lyons is not a fan of the traditional dining room.
"If you close the area off people tend to feel very uncomfortable," she says. "If you have a big open room and create a space where everything flows correctly, it is just a table in the room. People don't feel uncomfortable or anxious. They can work on their computer during the day or play a board game; it has multi-functions. But it is also there if you have 15 people over for dinner. It doesn't get in the way and it is not its own formal space where you feel like you are being herded into this room that is uncomfortable or claustrophobic. It is just part of the atmosphere.
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"You are going to walk by this table all the time and if you need to sit down and do something, you are going to do it because this table is right there. Even if you don't have large groups over for dinner you are not taking up the square footage. It is still part of a large space. I think functionality is key," she emphasizes.
Kim Toms, of Slifer Design, is in full agreement. "Even in remodels, I see that we are trying to open the dining room. People still request big dining tables. People can't get away from it, it is the way they are raised and they want that," she says. (Think Norman Rockwell again).
She touched on a key point: matching pillows to chairs.
"If we do have a dedicated dining space, we want enough chairs to accommodate," she says, explaining further that the size of the table should be determined by how many beds a house has.
"If you have a 12-bedroom house and you have a six-person table that just doesn't make any sense," she reasons.
The one exception could be bunk rooms. Nonetheless, that can be addressed by having a secondary table for the children.
Even in rentals or fractional ownerships Toms sees owners looking for that open-concept plan.
Kathy Peplinski, of P Furniture and Design II, also sees floor plans that are open concept.
"The dining rooms aren't separate, it is now part of the living space," Peplinski says.
One couple she is working with in Bachelor Gulch is doing a remodel where previous owners had a formal dining room. "They are knocking down the walls opening the area up to the living room," Peplinski says.
Yvonne Jacobs, principal at Slifer Designs, goes even further by proclaiming, "Formal is not even in my vocabulary. When we are doing 10-to-15-million-dollar houses it is an open concept dining area.
"I think because we live in such a second homeowner situation that cooking and being with family makes sense for the room to be multi-functional. People have a puzzle, play games, do work in a multi-use room," she explains.
The one exception Jacobs noted is an option for pocket doors — doors that virtually disappear into a frame when not needed.
"If you are having something catered and don't want to see the mess, these doors come in handy," she says. You are — for a time being, anyway — creating a separate dining area with them.
Still, there are those who prefer the formal seating. Karen Conley, a fifth-grade teacher at Gypsum Elementary School and a Boston-transplant, Martha-Stewart type, enjoys Thanksgiving in a traditional setting.
"We have a large table and I like when everyone sits at the table together. When doing a formal sit-down dinner I feel it is very important to have a nice long cocktail appetizer time for guests to mingle before they are relegated to their chair at the dining room table. Sitting at a formal dining room table lends itself to people having to converse and socialize with people they normally would not," she says.
And Lyons concedes that a 20,000-square-foot house could have a formal dining room.
The key element in any dining area is of course the table. And as one might imagine there is no shortage of choices.
"We do a lot of homes where the owner wants a table to seat six to eight people; however, they want the option to seat more and a self-storing leaf is ideal for that situation," explains Jacobs. Some of her clients have also requested round tables so they "feel more connected." In these instances clever hosts and hostesses use Lazy Susans to make serving simple.
Taking it down a notch, there are the big farmhouse tables that are "not so precious," says Jacbos. "During the rest of the year when you don't need it, (the table) can become a study area or extra office space."
Lyons is currently creating a custom dining table for a home in Vail. She says a rectangular or even round table would not work in this space. More than six months in the making she waxes poetically on the creation: "It is a yin-and-yang-type table. You can pull the table apart or push it together and it will work both ways. It is a large elliptical oval shape with a curve in the middle — the yin yang."
The homeowners have five grown sons who are each married, so unless there is a full house the tables will not always be pushed together. With that in mind, Lyons wanted the tables to be separate. In addition she came up with a leaf that is again its own table, but curved so it sits between the two yin yang pieces when even more additional room is needed. On its own it is a "beautiful cocktail table," she says. "There are three elements and they all work individually and together."
One trend Peplinski sees in dining tables is a "live edge," which is a slab taken from a tree. The beauty of these, she says, is the customer can pick their slabs and base. The slab can vary with different grains and widths.
She does caution, "You have to be careful with table bases. The tabletop might be big enough, but the legs might not be the right size and you will have chairs that straddle the legs."
In addition to live edge, Kim Toms is a fan of using a piece of quartz as a table top and having a contemporary base made, creating a custom look as opposed to a traditional piece of furniture.
A big element in the dining area, and also Toms' pet peeve, is lighting.
"Almost every manufacturer makes beautiful lighting fixtures that shine up and not down on the food," she bemoans. "You need to consider if the light is going up or down. If you have the perfect space and the perfect table and you want to use your computer or work on a puzzle or homework, if the light doesn't shine down it isn't any good."
There is even a term for this, Peplinksi explains: down lighting. She favors LED lighting, which can create a "very interesting look," as the lighting is on the inside but illuminates down. Both Peplinski and Jacobs agree that more than one light source can be used in the dining setting.
"Not a big glob of crystals in the middle," Jacobs clarifies. "People still love a beautiful light fixture. LED lights create a cool lighting effect. You can hang three pendants over the table and not a huge chandelier. Iron is always a beautiful exciting element."
What about the trendy elk chandeliers that have been a conversation piece in many mountain homes?
"I haven't done one of those in years," says Jacobs, laughing. "People are becoming more creative even in the log homes; they want more modern touches."
"If you do what is expected, I don't call that design," Lyons concludes.
Who knows, perhaps the contemporary owners will replace the traditional turkey with tofurkey or turducken.
—This article originally appeared in Vail Valley Home magazine