Dear Fiona: is the dining room truly dead?

House & Garden's friendly resident decorating columnist and agony aunt Fiona McKenzie Johnston considers whether the dining room has had its day in favour of kitchen dining, and if so, how do you create a sense of occasion when the washing up is in your eyeline?

A separate, proper dining room, such as ‘An Appreciator of Formality’ desires, in a Scottish country house

Paul Massey

Dear Fiona,

We’ve recently bought a fairly standard terraced house in north-west London, and, like so many have done before, we’re planning to extend the ground floor out into the garden in order to have more room. However, before we find an architect, we need to know exactly what we really want – and here my husband and I differ in opinion. I would like a proper dining room and a smaller kitchen, and he thinks we should go all out on a vast kitchen-diner that’s also sort of a playroom for the children, so that the sitting room can (occasionally) serve as his study. What’s more, every single one of our friends thinks that he’s right, and I’m wrong, and tell me that dining rooms are dead and we’ll never use it and that, if I do have one, I’ll always regret it.

However I think I would use it. I grew up with a dining room (he didn’t) so they’re already ingrained in how I live, and I like the idea of all of us – including our young children – sitting down to Sunday lunch, and my husband and I eating there together once the children have gone to bed, and it being a proper meal – not a meal with the detritus of cooking and life spread all around us, and a television on (yup, my husband wants a television in the kitchen, and he’s a sports addict, so I know we’ll end up with it on during meals.) Most of all, I want Christmas there, with the table beautifully laid and special china and the silver polished and candles twinkling. Can Christmas really be as special if the washing up is always in your eyeline? Also – I’m just a bit over the whole massive kitchen thing. Kitchens don’t really do it for me – I simply can’t get excited about cabinetry and appliances.

Please let me know how I can persuade my husband of the need for a dining room – or tell me why I should focus on a kitchen-diner after all? I mean, which approach is better? Is the dining room really dead?


An Appreciator of Formality XX

Dear Formality,

It was Dorothy Draper who wrote “eating is really one of your indoor sports. You play three times a day, and it’s well worth while to make the game as pleasant as possible.” So thank you for your letter, and bringing up an issue which is not to be sniffed at. It’s also not something that I can resolve on your behalf. For while, yes, Nicola Harding advises in her Dos and Don’ts of Decorating that you should consider your house fantasies, asking “have you dreamt about Christmas looking and feeling a certain way?” (and evidently, you have), a house has to function for all those who are living in it – and this particularly applies to houses where space is not necessarily in abundance.

A colourful kitchen-diner in Rosi de Ruig's London extension

Paul Massey

Let’s start with looking at how this conundrum came to be – for you’re not the only one pondering the benefits of a separate dining room and kitchen over a kitchen-diner. Often knowing past reasoning can be helpful when it comes to contemporary decision making, and it may surprise you to know to that a dining room is a comparatively modern invention, at least in western Europe. In the Middle Ages, the nobility and their courts ate in great halls, which were the original multipurpose room (entertainment also took place there, and it was the room where most of the household would sleep – on the floor). It wasn’t until about the mid-18th century that the idea of smaller, more refined parties took hold, and great houses started to have separate dining rooms (which frequently necessitated significant building work and the addition of further wings.) The trickle-down effect meant that by the mid-19th century, the dining room was mainstream – not least because the Victorians loved a separate room for every function.

The kitchen, meanwhile, was the preserve of servants, and that remained the case until the great employment shake-up that followed the second world war – the number of men and women employed in domestic service dropped by half between 1940 and 1950. At the same time the housebuilding programme of the 1950s (one third of British houses had been seriously damaged or demolished during the war) produced smaller houses, with fewer – though larger – rooms that could be used as general living areas. And, as the kitchen became the location of dinner parties – cooked by the hostess herself – so it became a hub for design trends (including the fitted cabinets du jour) and the most up-to-date appliances. Seemingly, Victorian and Edwardian terraces have been being extended to match ever since, and, seven decades on, many are those who aspire to a kitchen by Plain English, deVOL or Neptune, and agonise over an Everhot versus an Aga.

This Nicola Harding-designed dining room doubles as a library

Paul Massey

Unarguably, there are benefits both ways. “If you like to cook and entertain at the same time, having the dining table in your kitchen allows you to do both in a relaxed manner,” points out Stephanie Barba-Mendoza, who has just extended her ground floor to enable exactly this. Tori Murphy has recently renovated her home to incorporate the same; “we have three small children and I could not imagine any other way of preparing meals, feeding, chatting, doing homework, dancing around etc. with them all – it’s where we all hang out and I love it.” Having said that – and having young-ish children myself – I know that there are times when we need to be able to close doors so that the child who needs silence to do a maths worksheet isn’t distracted by a younger sibling’s out-loud phonics work. However, if you are going for separate rooms, there are a couple of important considerations, relating to light (worth remembering is that many Victorian dining rooms tended towards distinctly gloomy) and flow. Both affect the comfort of use. For, whatever your hopes and dreams, I do know of several houses with seldom visited dining rooms and they inevitably become, as Penny Morrison identifies, “the most boring room in the house.” Her solution for these circumstances is secondary use: “double it as a library – fill it with books and flowers – and it will come to life.” It could equally serve as the room that your husband uses as his (occasional) study, somewhere for you children to do their homework and music practice (providing it’s easy for you or your husband to be near them in that room or an adjacent room, which comes back to flow), the room that you use for boardgames or sewing projects – or indeed all of these.

But before you think that I’ve answered in your favour, I’d like to return to the idea of the kitchen-diner, and suggest that you reconsider what it could be – for, as we all know, there’s more than one way to skin a cat.

Rita Konig's country kitchen-diner is a smart alternative

Paul Massey

Firstly – as you’re more interested in dining rooms than kitchens – I want to point out that this extension could just as much be a dining room which has a bit of kitchen in it, as vice-versa; it’s simply a question of giving it a finish that leans more towards glamour than utilitarian, more towards the great hall of the Middle Ages than the living room of the 1950s. Focus on freestanding kitchen furniture rather than fitted cabinets, use copper instead of stainless steel, find tiles that will glint in the candlelight, and absolutely indulge in your love of pattern via wallpaper and textiles. Regarding the detritus of cooking, Louise Wickstead of Sims Hilditch suggests creating a small pantry or utility space with a sink and a dishwasher to “keep pots, pans, and prep items neatly concealed during significant events.” Alternatively – or as well – put the lighting on different circuits so that, as Tori puts it, you can “shut down parts you don’t want to see and illuminate the areas you do,” which basically comes down to leaving the washing up in the dark. Add a beautiful ottoman as a toybox, and a comfortable sofa, and you’ve also got an area for pre-dinner drinks.

Then, while of course you’ll know that you can create different areas in an open plan room with rugs, different levels and ceiling treatment, remember that you can also physically separate them (without installing full-run walls) by way of floor to ceiling bookcases, Crittal doors, curtains (consider channelling John Fowler for the ultimate in theatricality), or a combination of all of these. And in this manner, both you and your husband get what you want. He’ll have his large open plan kitchen-diner, and you’ll have a (sometimes) separate dining room where you can have the Christmas of your dreams without a view of the kitchen, and a sitting room area cum children’s playroom with a television that can similarly be shut off (although the occasional tele-supper can be rather lovely.)

The ultimate decision over separate rooms versus open plan is going to be informed by the space you have available, and how you think you can best use it. I’d suggest that you go through the gallery of images of dining rooms and kitchen-diners on this site, for there’s a variety of clever ideas that may provide inspiration, and please remember that whatever you decide, the location of a table does not affect your ability to dress it, and thus convey a sense of occasion. Which isn’t to say that dining rooms are dead – they’re not – but as how we live evolves, so do our houses. As Elsie de Wolfe frequently said, it all comes down to “suitability, suitability, suitability!”

With love,

Fiona XX