Predictions on formal dining’s demise are premature. Retailers should pull up a chair and prepare to feast.
Remember that time not so long ago when industry oracles were bemoaning the demise of the formal dining category. Admittedly, sales of traditional wood tables and chairs were in decline. Some chalked it up to consumers’ changing lifestyles. On-the-go families just found it too difficult to coordinate over-crowded activity schedules to gather for a formal meal. Even when consumers chose to entertain friends and family, all the action was moving to expansive kitchens or out to the patio, where meal preparation was being elevated to, if not quite theater, at least something of a group exercise.
Plenty of industry reports also noted the lack of actual dining rooms in new home construction. As the McMansions of the ‘90s began to give way to smaller footprints and more efficient use of space, so began the rise of open plan design. The term great room, for better or worse, permanently entered the industry’s lexicon. It was followed soon after by “multi-function.”
“Homes now are still being built with specified dining areas, but it’s not as compartmentalized as it was in the ‘90s,” says furniture designer Catina Roscoe, president of the American Society of Furniture Designers (ASFD) and a finalist in the casual dining category for a 2017 Pinnacle Award. “It’s much more casual and open, with a flow between the kitchen, prep and other living areas. Entertaining that begins in the kitchen still flows into the dining space. It’s just not as formal today, even when there’s a chandelier hanging over the table.”
Adam Tilley, senior vice president of product and marketing at A.R.T., isn’t convinced that designated dining rooms are destined to go the way of the dinosaurs either, even where new home builds are concerned.
“Certainly, you see concept homes that have no formal dining rooms, but I think it’s a bit like the concept cars at the Detroit Auto Show that never actually go into production,” he says. “My observation is that most new homes that are actually being sold today still have a dining room, even if it’s an implied dining room. Now, whether that space is being used as a dining room can vary.
Chew on This
These days the focus for many is on nurturing relationships with those closest to us and for a growing number of people that means sitting down to dinner. Lynne McArdle, president of Alden Parkes, is among them. “My husband is my business partner, and while we work together all day, he’s in his office and I’m in mine,” says McArdle. “When we get home, he’s the cook, and I’m the sous-chef. We’re in the kitchen talking and laughing and it gives us a chance to discuss the day and work through things that may be going on in our business that need our joint attention. Then we sit down and have a meal together at the dining table and I have to say, it’s kind of romantic. Dining is becoming an experience again and I love what’s happening. I see it pulling the whole family together.”
McArdle is not alone in her observations. According to The Washington Post, nearly three-quarters of respondents to a National Association of Home Builders (NAHB) Home Buyer Preference Survey, said they considered a separate dining room “essential or desirable.”
The leader of taste-making case goods manufacturer Alden Parkes is not surprised. “In my estimation, what we’re seeing is not a reduction in or a lack of dining rooms, but simply a trend to a less formal approach in the dining room,” McArdle says. “When I was growing up we had a very formal, traditional dining room that we used on rare occasions. There was a stark white table cloth and you had to be on your best behavior in there. Now, people want to make dining more a part of their everyday lives, so our job is to create pieces that are beautiful and elegant, but more forgiving, so that they are more functional.”
Take a Seat
Indeed, the most important trend in the dining category now just may be an upholstered chair. Watch for them in High Point this month in both case goods and upholstery showrooms across the Market. Toronto-based manufacturer Decor-Rest Furniture, which introduced a retail display devoted to performance fabrics in Las Vegas, is refining its concept this Fall with the addition of dining chairs upholstered in fabrics that are moisture repellent, stain resistant, and offer exceptional cleanability.
“Our program is focused on superior storytelling to engage shoppers,” says company founder Christina Marzilli. “We come from an Italian heritage where the focus is on family and food,” she says with a laugh, “so developing a retail program that features dining chairs upholstered in performance fabrics just made sense. Expect to see my children, grandchildren and dog in the advertising!” Retailers that install the inviting and educational environment will also see branded hangtags, tear sheets, fabric handles, posters and even vinyl signage with messaging that touts a new era in style and outstanding fabric performance. “It’s a very professional presentation created to make our dealers look like the performance fabric authority in their marketplace, and a solution-provider in the dining room,” she says.
Josh Tatelman, vice president of merchandising at HFA member Jordan’s Furniture in Boston was among the first to identify performance fabrics as the next new frontier, not only in living rooms and family rooms, but also in the dining room. He led the charge to add 2,000 to 3,000-square-foot Sunbrella galleries in each of Jordan’s stores a little less than three years ago. Based on their success, Tatelman has expanded the offering to include dining chair programs.
“We went to Casual Market a couple of years ago and we’ve got a whole display of Parsons Chairs and things like that upholstered in Sunbrella,” Tatelman says. “We’ve also got companies like Canadel now that never would have considered offering any type of performance fabric with a handle of Sunbrella. The problem that we faced in the dining category was that a lot of our dining furniture is imported and those companies are all about price. They are not going to pay $10 or $11 a yard for a seat pad, so we’re trying to partner up with more of our domestic case goods resources that can offer special order. Kincaid, for example, has had success with Sunbrella, and for them it just makes sense. They are already at a price point where adding $100 worth of cost to six dining room chairs is not a big deal.”
Initially, the retailer says he tried to incorporate dining chairs into the Sunbrella gallery with the sofas, sectionals and loveseats. “We were looking to capitalize on our partnership with Sunbrella, but the way our stores are merchandised, dining is dining and upholstery is upholstery,” Tatelman reports. “We’re having a lot more success with our Sunbrella dining products in our dining areas now. We just didn’t seem to capture as much business in the Sunbrella gallery itself.”
Enter retail strategist Connie Post, chief executive of Affordable Design Solutions, who says the newest trend in retail store planning is based on the way customers want to live. “Their desires mean it’s necessary now to move away from total departmentalization of categories to the merging of living rooms and dining. It’s as simple as adjacencies and showing dining with upholstery and vice versa,” she says.
Post’s team is executing the simple strategy in most of the stores the company designs, including Cardi’s, Steger’s, The RoomPlace and most recently and dramatically, The Showroom in Denver. “Shoppers need to be able to envision how dining, living room, kitchen and family room upholstery will work together and we need to make it easier for them.”
“Performance fabrics are changing the game,” designer and creative strategist Jena Hall reports. “In the past, consumers would look at upholstered dining chairs and say, ‘Oh, they’re beautiful, but our kids like spaghetti.’ Now, performance fabrics have opened up an entirely new direction in the way consumers can and do decorate. They make formal dining less formal, but more elegant, because you can use more casual fabrics in the dining room to soften the look. And upholstered dining chairs are gaining fast in popularity because they are more comfortable for lingering around a table and sharing family stories over dessert. I’ve featured them in both my Hemingway Collections and my Elements & Origins Collections at Thomasville. You can mix and mingle them with wood chairs by having side chairs in wood and host and hostess chairs in upholstery.”
“From a chair standpoint,” says A.R.T.’s Tilley. “I’m not ready to say that we are selling more fully upholstered dining chairs than wood chairs, but the growth of our fully upholstered chairs has been much, much faster than the typical wood chair with fabric seats.”
“Upholstered dining seats are just flat-out more comfortable. And as Hall says, the performance fabric story on dining chairs makes total sense. Why wouldn’t you want something that is more stain resistant and cleanable than something that is not?”
“Unfortunately, chairs happen to be one of the most difficult items to manufacture,” Tilley acknowledges, and that has meant that historically speaking, dining chairs have rated among the most price-sensitive products in the industry’s oeuvre.
“This means you’ve got to differentiate yourself from a style standpoint and add some sizzle to justify a higher price,” he relates. “One of the ways that we’re doing that is by producing more fully upholstered chairs, using more decorative fabrics and more embellishments like nail heads and wood overlays.
“I will tell you that you could very strongly make the argument—especially now that the fabrics are getting so much better and so attainable—that it’s time to fully convert over to performance fabrics in the dining room,” says Tilley. “Obviously, we’ve got a ton of chairs in stock right now, so it’s not like we can just shut the lights off on all that and start over. It’s going to have to be a slow roll in. But it’s absolutely on my radar screen. This is a really important category and we’re excited to see what’s going on in upholstery and dining.”
“Performance fabrics have really evolved,” agrees McArdle, “and we have incorporated them into our offering because we see this as the wave of the future. It’s really a no-brainer in dining, especially when you want to be able to let your children learn how to sit at the table. There are always going to be accidents. Now, consumers don’t have to worry that they will be a total disaster.”
While dining is on the upswing, don’t expect china cabinets to make a come-back anytime soon. “I was with Stanley for eight years before joining A.R.T., and I’ve been here five,” Tilley says. “I can’t remember the last china cabinet we did. We still do some tall pieces, like curios, but the main focus now is on multifunction.”
Hall believes china cabinets lost favor for two reasons: First, the shift to open floor plans and great rooms meant the removal of a wall in new home designs. Second, consumers have abandoned the collectibles market with a vengeance as the move to de-clutter their lives.
Consumers still require storage however, and furniture designer Roscoe sees a growing need for movable pieces that can transition between multiple spaces, including the outdoors. “People are starting to live more outside where the big focus is on dining al fresco,” she says. “The HENRYs—High Earners Not Rich Yet consumers—especially enjoy hosting dinner parties, and they are often doing it outside in sheltered and rustic spaces with seating covered in Sunbrella fabrics and movable pieces like serving carts and credenzas that make entertaining outdoors easy.”
The trick, say both Roscoe and Tilley is that outdoor spaces often intersect with dining rooms, kitchens and other interior living spaces. “A lot of manufacturers still have a conventional mindset. It’s bedroom, dining room, living room or occasional product,” Roscoe says. “But we need to re-think this approach and design for how consumers are really living. What we’re facing is more transitional space, and that means furniture pieces can no longer remain static. I don’t think most manufacturers have completely connected with that yet.”
At A.R.T. at least, Tilley says “We’re pushing our team for highly functioning pieces that no-one has ever seen before.” This Market, watch for a counter-height “dining table.” [Quote marks intentional], because A.R.T.’s contract approach means that the piece is also a work station/activity table designed for partners, complete with hidden power strips and an internal mechanism that opens and tilts to support iPads.
“Real life informs a lot of this stuff,” Tilley notes. “I have an 8 and 13-year-old and we come home to crayons and toys on the kitchen island and my daughter’s math homework spread out, and it drives my wife and I crazy. They have desks in their rooms, and a playroom downstairs, but they want to be where all the action is. So, we’re playing around with these kinds of concepts, pieces that could be used in a dining room, a great room, a kitchen or even outdoors. You’ve got to have harmony between all of those spaces now because they all fit together in today’s homes.”
One last bite
From a furniture standpoint, just how to achieve a livable flow in modern homes will remain an ongoing challenge for manufacturers and retailers, but open plan designs that extend beyond the physical confines of a structure with access to multiple rooms can also be anything but relaxing for consumers trying to put it all together. “My wife is an interior designer and she’s been so busy these last few years she can barely keep up,” Tilley sums. “Everybody needs professional design help now.”