Living in the Dining Room

May Product Focus-webCoastal Living by Universal keeps it casual in the dining room with a pull-up bench.

The space is more than just for meals – your furniture needs to reflect that

Ask a younger consumer – especially one with a family – what dinner time looks like and odds are these scenes will recur: fast food in the car between activities, a quick bite at the kitchen island before bed or, if weather permits, a nice meal on the patio. Images of 1950’s dinner-time nostalgia are reserved for the big screen.

This doesn’t come as a surprise, though. Today’s lifestyles — with jam-packed schedules, technology at the center and a penchant for on-the-go options — just don’t jibe with the idea of a formal dining room.

There’s been much ado about the demise of this category; open-concept spaces, which are conducive to socialization with family and friends, better traffic flow and layout functionality and flexibility, overshadowed the utility of a separate dining room in newer builds. And although the idea of formal dining may be something from the past, the concept of a separate dining space is not necessarily out of date.

While we’ve become so busy and so device-driven as a society, there’s a movement pushing back, pulling people to moments when they can connect with family and friends in an undistracted, high-quality way — free of cellphones, laptops and TVs. What better place to do this than around the dinner table enjoying a delicious meal?

The National Association of Home Builders’ “Home Design: What’s Trending in 2018” report calls open-concept floor plans with defined spaces the next big thing and, following suit, says that the formal dining room is making a comeback. The report cites “weekend chefs who love to entertain” and growing families and multi-generational living as drivers of this trend.

If this open-but-defined concept is here to stay, how does the dining category fit in? New approaches to function, styling and product types are the answer.

Multifunction on the Menu

Twenty years ago, Home Furnishings Association member George Perry of Sherwood Furniture in Danville, Va., did the bulk of his business selling formal dining room tables, chairs, buffet and china cabinets. “I’d say 60 percent of my floor was dedicated to dining,” he says. “It was really successful for us.”

May Product Focus1-web
Mahogany and cherry are out. Nifty shades of gray, such as the Beaumont from Hooker Furniture, are popular in today’s dining room.

Not anymore. Today, a few dining room tables and chairs are on display. Perry estimates that the category makes up about 10 percent of his showroom floor as well as total sales. “People just don’t want the formal room to eat anymore. Well, certainly the older customers do, but the younger families? They’re using that room for something else.”

Maybe it’s a secondary living area or an office — whatever it is, it’s not an area to be used for special occasions only, where white tablecloths and the expensive dinnerware come out several times a year.

But similarly, even in open-concept spaces, dining areas now serve many purposes. They double as a temporary office on a “work from home” day, or a place where kids can do homework or play.

Take an example from HFA member Sergio’s Furniture in Santa Maria, Calif., for instance. Sergio Diaz says dining room furniture – tables, chairs, buffets – takes up about one-third of his store’s showroom space. He sells a few 54-inch-wide tables, but he also sells his share of 28-inch-wide tables for smaller spaces. Many of his customers, he says, end up pushing the table against the wall where it’s used as a desk.

There’s another aspect to this multi-functional angle, both in product and for the dining room as a whole — consumers’ lives are transient. Although the rate of moving is at the lowest it’s been in decades, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, the average American will move more than 11 times throughout the course of his or her life. Thus, when making a dining room purchase, it’s important that the pieces can work in a variety of room sizes and configurations.

May Product Focus2-web
Twin Star is making its dining room tables narrower and elevated to accommodate less space.

Twin Star Home has recognized this trend and designed dining room pieces that consumers can use in all rooms. “From our perspective,” says Lisa Cody, vice president of marketing, “furniture is about being multifunctional and moveable as consumers move or redo their homes to keep things fresh.

For instance, we have sofa tables that convert to dining tables, work surfaces or an extra space to accommodate larger groups of friends. Home entertainment pieces, especially with fireplace inserts, are purchased to use in dining rooms to add ambiance with fire while also adding storage for serving pieces, linens and holiday items that are not used daily.”

Feast on Casual Styling

Today’s philosophy — that homes are meant for living — has translated into an abundance of product that stands up to everyday wear and tear. From performance fabrics to mix-and-match configurations, a casual approach to living and dining together also makes the open concept work while still maintaining the totality of the dining space.

“It’s important to create pieces that flow between open-concept living and dining areas,” says Neil MacKenzie, Universal Furniture director of marketing. “Advances in home entertainment technology mean consumers have more control and more choice. They may prefer to eat in and watch a movie or show at home, so there’s a need for furniture that supports that activity.”

May Product Focus3-web
Alden Parkes’ Etna dining room table falls between formal and casual, reflecting families’ desires to use the table more than a few times a year.

Pieces like counter-height chairs and tables and smaller-size round dining tables answer this call.

“As the popularity of open floor plans continue to gain momentum, consumers are looking for styles and configurations that will work in smaller kitchen and nook settings,” says Michelle Miller, Hooker Furniture’s director of merchandising. Options that take up less space and omit a more casual vibe are key.

And then there are the finishes. Thinking back again to the special occasion dining room where ornate silhouettes of traditional deep, rich and glossy woods resided, what we knew as formal dining is a far cry from “everyday.”

“Today’s consumer wants furniture that’s finished to regularly handle family and friend gatherings, not just to be used for a few special meals a year,” says Lynn McArdle, president of Alden Parkes. “Furniture needs to be used regularly and be an important part of ‘living’ in today’s homes.”

Diaz concurs. “It’s all very casual with my customers these days. They want the pieces that won’t show the wear like a formal cherry finish from years ago might.”

Enter lighter tones — like soft grays and medium browns, plus white oak — along with two-tone finishes and eclectic treatments, like salvaged woods, all of which are more compatible with daily use. “We see casual, family-oriented environments continue to be important, and that works well with mixed mediums and more forgiving finishes,” says McArdle.

Catering to the Bar

A conversation about formal dining wouldn’t be complete without a look at casegoods, in particular the china cabinet. Previously a staple in the dining room, the china cabinet is now a far cry from necessary. This, again, is a consequence of our more casual lifestyles — in an open-concept space where there are fewer walls, there’s just not a clear spot for it. Then there’s the utility aspect: Downsizing and decluttering are on the rise, plus younger consumers just don’t own fine china like the generations before, so the need for a dedicated cabinet has fallen by the wayside. What has replaced it in relevance is the bar cabinet, which gives manufacturers the chance to put their woodworking capabilities no longer needed for china cabinets to good use.

“People want decorative storage for stemware, placemats, trays and beverages, and often this comes in the form of an eye-catching design,” says Universal’s MacKenzie. “Bar cabinets are less formal and typically much smaller than a traditional china cabinet.”

Feeding the Evolution

As retailers try to figure out how to incorporate dining into their offerings, there’s still trepidation about how it will all shake out. Perry of Sherwood Furniture still carries Liberty, Universal, Hooker, Lexington and higher-end Amish lines, but not like he used to. “I like to think the formal dining category will come back around, but for now, we’re not putting a lot into it,” he says.

Carrying pieces that cater to casual lifestyles may be the best solution in the interim.

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Insights Magazine will be replacing RetailerNOW as the official publication of the Home Furnishings Association. With this change, you will be able to find the same great content on the HFA website. All current members/subscribers will automatically receive the new print editions. You can continue to view content on this website until January 2020.

About the Author

Nicole Davis
Nicole Davis is a freelance writer and editor covering the lighting and home furnishings industry. Reach her at