Sunday 22 April 2018

Interiors: Come dine with me... in multifunctional open-plan space

Multifunctional furniture and open plan spaces have consigned the formal dining room to history

Dining area interior by Brabbu Design Forces.
Dining area interior by Brabbu Design Forces.
Foundation dining table from Harvey Norman
Industrial look by
Aoife Rhattigan of Restless Design

Eleanor Flegg

I grew up in a family where dinner was the main event of the day. The meal was prepared, the table was laid and everyone sat down to eat together. We sat up straight, minded our manners and asked permission when we wanted to leave the table. Polite conversation was part of the deal.

My husband, in contrast, was reared in a home where you grabbed your dinner, found a quiet corner to eat it, and defended yourself with your fork. His ideal dining spot was as far away from family members as possible. I imagine the typical Irish family lies somewhere between these two extremes.

Now, the formal dining room is on the endangered species list. "Families still like the idea of sitting down to eat together, even if they don't get to do it that often, but they see a dining room as a waste of space," says interior designer Aoife Rhattigan of Restless Design.

"In terms of the footprint of your house, it's a lot of space to give over to one activity, even if you use it every day."

Multifunctional open-plan spaces have long been popular, with the table in full view of the cooking space.

"It's cool to cook," Rhattigan explains. "Entertaining at home became popular during the recession and the theatre of cooking can be part of the dinner party experience."

Versatility is important too, with extendable tables that can be expanded for larger functions. Since dining tables are often orientated towards a window, she finds that a built-in window seat can be a handy way of extending the seating.

It's important also to consider the lighting because you need to see what you're doing when dining, but it's also easy to get it wrong. A pendant light over a dining table can help to ground and define the space, but a badly placed spotlight can leave you eating in your own shadow. Statement lighting gives character to a plain table, but it can be expensive. For the strapped-for-cash, Rhattigan recommends Etsy, where you can buy a quirky chandelier made of ice-cream spoons (€79), soy fish (€59) or glass lenses (€105).

"I always try to theme the lighting around the client," she explains, having recently installed a cutlery pendant for a cookery enthusiast and a bowler hat lamp for a haberdasher.

"It's important to make sure the furniture is the right scale for the room," says Rhattigan, who has seen too many oversized tables shoe-horned into inadequate spaces.

Trendy mismatching chairs look more relaxed than a full suite, but make sure they are more or less the same height, otherwise you will have one guest towering over the table and another with his chin in the soup. You might also want to avoid a large centrepiece.

There's nothing worse than craning your neck around an arrangement of flowers and candles in an effort to talk to someone on the other side of the table.

For the table itself, the Irish preference is for sturdy rustic dining tables with a natural wood finish. If you like this look, and have a lot of money to spend, look no further than Ikea where a solid pine table that extends from 147cm to 204cm in length costs just €275. I recently admired a dining table for its beautiful wooden grain. "Ikea," said my host proudly. The table came in a natural wood finish and she had spent two days gently sanding it and polishing it with high quality beeswax polish.

"Irish people appreciate solid wooden chairs and typically buy full dining sets, with chairs and a table from the same range," says Matja Komu, furniture buyer for Harvey Norman. She comes from Finland, where people understand design with the same innate sensibility that Irish people have for music.

"I don't think that Nordic design really works in Ireland," she says. "We've tried it, but it hasn't taken off. It's clean, simple, and rather modern. Irish people are more practical, they won't compromise on comfort for the sake of looks and they associate chunky traditional furniture with quality. People's habits are different too. Dining is more casual in Finland. We don't do the whole Sunday roast thing and we don't have separate dining rooms."

The design-savvy Finns are quick to pick up on new international trends. The Irish take their time, but there's an emerging taste for finely-detailed painted wooden furniture, rather than plain traditional oak.

Harvey Norman's best selling painted range is New Haven (a nine-piece dining set costs €2,299) and the favourite Irish colour is grey or white. "It's an Irish white!" says Komu. "It's almost cream-coloured. A Finnish white would be whiter."

Industrial style is the dominant international trend in dining, but the vogue for distressed metal furniture, bare brick walls and concrete table tops is only just taking off in Ireland.

It tends to be more popular in light fittings and table lamps than in big pieces of furniture. Harvey Norman's new Foundation dining table (€1,099) has an industrial-style concrete table-top. "It's virtually indestructible," says Komu. "It will last for a very long time."

The table, which has wooden legs, is heavy, but not impossibly so. Two strong people would have no problem in moving it across the room. It comes with leather chairs (€169 each).

Raw concrete is an acquired taste, and some prefer a more refined approach to dining. The Lucci dining table (€1,999) is oval with a smoked glass top rising from a single central pedestal.

The glass is scratch-protected, but you're still going to need to be more careful of the surface than you would of concrete or even wood.

A traditional oak table can take a battering and some say scratches add character to the wooden surface, but a glass table top only looks good if it's perfect.

Consider the audience at home before you invest.

Both this table and the Foundation range are available in Harvey Norman from April 2016.

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