Typically, in new construction these days, the living room is shrinking — the real "living" goes on in some combination of kitchen and great room.
So the traditional living room has become a small and rarely used parlor. Not so the dining room — it remains sizable. Why? Most people have adequate accommodations for dining in the kitchen/great room and only use the dining room a few times a year. Is it worth it to devote so much square footage to relatively underutilized space? Well, the answer seems to be a resounding "yes."
Families today are prone to popping something in the microwave and eating on the fly and the kitchen/great room is home to many concurrent activities: kids are playing, someone is reading or doing homework, another watching TV and maybe Mom is cooking or chatting on the phone,the dog is underfoot — in short, the stuff of daily life. By contrast, using the dining room marks an occasion as special; it is a room devoted to sharing the experience of sitting down together to enjoy good food and one another’s company. The idea of a sit-down dinner with family and friends is a traditional ritual that we still value highly.
The tradition of the "grand dining salon" developed in the courts of 18th Century France. Whereas daily meals would be served in a variety of locations — the grand banquets at court required a special room dedicated to that purpose. Edith Wharton describes the magnificent dining chamber of Madame duBarry, the official consort of King Louis XV, as having white marble walls divided by pilasters and mirrors, a painted ceiling depicting life on Mt. Olympus, and four niches featuring statues by prominent sculptors of the era: clearly, the proper atmosphere for a sumptuous feast.
Vestiges of this tradition have filtered down to us today as, more often than not, our Dining Room is the most formal room in the house. Crystal chandeliers, silver service for twelve, gold-rimmed dinnerware and Irish linen tablecloths: all this can be found in the dining room of a house that otherwise sports no-nonsense kid-proof furnishings. The intent is not to create an "uncomfortable" sense of formality but rather to honor the importance of the experience of breaking bread together for special occasions whether they be birthday celebrations, rites of passage, holiday meals or gatherings of special friends.
The dining room is also one room where family heirlooms are most often in evidence — the silver service, Aunt Martha’s soup tureen, wedding gifts, a china cabinet or table inherited from Grandparents. There is often quite a large and varied legacy of items associated with eating! One of my best friends inherited a vast assortment of delightful accoutrements, among them a set of spoons for eating "braised pears"; I keep threatening to serve braised pears so that I put her spoons to their proper use (does anyone have a recipe?). If you are lucky enough to own beautiful and or quirky pieces — show them off proudly in the dining room.
Decorating the Dining Room
It is no accident that warm reds and corals are a favorite color choice in the dining room. Red is a stimulating color (the color of blood and hence life itself) and orange is reputed to promote appetite. Sounds like a recipe for a lively party! Formal wallcoverings are popular — and murals. Gorgeous wallpaper panels and murals are available from long established companies like Zuber, known for their classic French-style subjects, and Gracie, a favorite for Chinoiserie panels.
Choose your dining table with care; it should be a piece that you really love. As a child I remember polishing my mother’s mahogany table with lemon oil and deriving such a sense of satisfaction seeing the tabletop transformed from dull to lustrous through my efforts. I prefer a round table if possible; it’s an inclusive shape and fosters lively interaction. It is also a good idea to have a table that can expand and contract. People sometimes focus on getting a table large enough for the biggest party they expect to host but forget that a large table is very awkward if you want to have an intimate dinner for four.
Chairs are very important — they should be comfortable enough to sit for hours — not too soft. I like upholstered seats but I’m careful that you don’t feel the wooden rail at the front of the seat.
It is always good to add sparkle — candles flickering, mirrors, freshly polished silver, and crystals add life to the room. It’s one room where all the lighting requirements may be provided by the so-called "accent" lighting which includes candles, sconces, chandeliers, picture lights and other decorative lighting. By the way, chandeliers and sconces should always be dimmable.
If we all had servants I suppose we could have the tableware re-set for every course but as a concession to our increasingly casual lifestyle, I think it is just fine to set the table all at once for soup, main course, salad, and maybe bring out an additional appropriate utensil for the dessert course. The utensils should be placed in the order they are to be used from the outside in. So, typically on the left side of the plate you would place a dinner fork on the outside and a salad fork next to the plate (if the salad is following the main course). Knives and spoons generally are placed to the right of the plate — the knife would go next to the plate and a soup spoon or any implement for another appetizer would go on the outside. Wine and water glasses are placed in a triangle above the utensils on the right. To get it absolutely right — the white wine and water glasses are placed at the base of the triangle and red wine at the apex. For further information on truly correct place settings, refer to Cheryl Mendelsohn’s wonderful book Home Comforts; she covers place settings (and just about every aspect of housekeeping) in loving detail.
I do find that nothing adds more sparkle to the table than cut glass goblets and stemware, but too many glasses can be a hazard for adults and children alike; when I was a child, I and my three sisters paid an overnight visit to our exceedingly formal relatives in Rochester, NY. At breakfast we each were outfitted with three separate goblets for juice, milk and water. Before the meal was over, we had managed to tip over at least three full glasses; needless to say my poor mother was mortified by this barbaric show of manners.
Which brings me to my last and most important word of advice — my strategy for entertaining is to "set the stage" as beautifully as possible and to make it as comfortable as possible for the guests — the host and hostess must be relaxed and welcoming and have a sense of humor. Ultimately, a party is not about the decorations or even about the food: it’s about the people! So relax and enjoy it. Happy Holidays!
Barbara Sternau is an Interior Designer with offices at 37 Main St., Tarrytown, NY firstname.lastname@example.org