You'd think it would be an easy matter to design a good place to eat your dinner. The only furniture you need is a table and chairs and the only planning requirement is that it be reasonably close to the kitchen. Sounds simple, especially when compared to the kitchen, which is full of expensive and dangerous equipment.
However, when you look into the fine detail of planning a dining room or space, it is not as simple as it may seem. Just how comfortable are you when you are sitting at your table? First, look at the table itself. A wobbly table is very annoying. Many people will have encountered that once-fashionable icon of the 1980s, a stylish table and chairs of Scandinavian design. The round table made of golden oak was very pretty and light, but it had three legs instead of the usual four. This made it easier to fit more chairs around it, but the table itself was rickety. Another common problem with dining tables, particularly older tables, is that there isn't room to cross your legs under the table because of the depth of the 'skirt' that connects the top of the table to the legs.
The height of the table needs to be compatible with the height of the chairs. There are few worse dining experiences than eating a meal served on a table of average height, but with low chairs bringing the table almost to chest height. This can be hard on the elbows, although there is little risk of dribbling down one's shirt. Many dining room chairs are too high for people of modest stature. The resulting pressure under the thighs is very uncomfortable after even a few minutes. Padded chairs are usually more comfortable than wooden or plastic ones, especially for people who don't carry their own padding around with them. Café-style banquettes1 are good for tight spaces, but make sure that the padding is easy to slide along.
The surface finish of the timber is also important. Many a beautiful wooden table is marred by heat and water marks on its surface. To keep your table looking good, simply rub it with polishing oil, which produces a rich glow, and if anything awful should happen to it you can scrub the oil off and start again.
Lighting and Heating
A light directly over the table looks inviting, with the cutlery and flowers basking in a pool of light. However, sometimes it isn't as pleasant once you sit down. A light fitting of the billiard-room type, with all the light shining downwards, can be harsh for the seated diners. For people who wear glasses, the downlight can result in uncomfortable reflections and cast a shadow of the frame of the glasses across the face, making the wearer look ghoulish to the person sitting opposite. It helps to choose a lamp shade that throws light in all directions. Some people go so far as to remove the central light, and replace it with powerful uprights on the walls. In winter, a pair of candles helps, although even these can be annoying if the flames are at eye level. Another puzzle to work on.
Heating can be tricky, too. When people are hungry, they often feel cold, but they warm up quickly once they have had something to eat, so the warmth of the dining area needs to be easily adjustable.
Relationship with the Kitchen
If you are planning a new house, or remodelling an old one, take the opportunity to think about the relationship between the dining area and the kitchen. When you eat, just how aware do you want to be of the stove and sink? Perhaps you want to be able to see, but not hear and smell what is going on in the kitchen. Perhaps you want to feel as if you are in a cosy mountain hut with the pot close enough to help yourself. Perhaps you would rather forget that the food has to be cooked at all. Many restaurants feature an open kitchen. The owners want the diners to see their food being cooked by real people and, equally, they want the cooks to be constantly reminded that they are there to feed people, not make pretty designs on plates. Oddly, although it seems clear that diners enjoy seeing the cooks in action, it seems equally clear that no one would really want to watch their dishes being scraped and washed.
However, the situation is different in the home kitchen, where the cook is also one of the diners. Here, at least for the cook, the open kitchen isn't always the good idea it might seem at first. You might have noticed that the cook often seats herself2 at the table with her back to the stove. This is partly because it keeps her in a handy position to hop up and down and serve the food. But it also indicates that she doesn't want to see the clutter of food preparation once she has become a diner, rather than a cooker.
The so-called breakfast bar also needs examination. In houses that have both a breakfast bar and a dining table, often the table is rarely used. It seems so much easier to perch at the bar. But the more perching that occurs, the more dining becomes an eat-and-run experience, rather than the important social occasion it can be. A friend of this Researcher told him that when she lived in a suburban house with a breakfast bar and a dining room, almost all the family meals were eaten at the bar. It just seemed less of a hassle. But when she moved to a city apartment, with room only for a dining table, meals took on a new sense of dignity. What is more, the previously under-used table became the place where everyone wanted to be, even just to have a cup of tea or read a magazine.
Many homes feature a table in the kitchen as well as the dining room. These, usually less substantial tables, often with easily-cleaned Formica tops, serve a similar purpose to breakfast bars. They are, in the main, used for casual as opposed to formal dining.
An Important Part of the Home
With so much emphasis put on the design of kitchens, it is important to remember that the place where food is eaten is at least as important as the place where it is cooked. Not everyone cooks, but everyone eats. The rituals associated with eating are among the most powerful in our daily lives.