When I was 12 years old, my mother sent me to a manners class. “It’s where you’ll learn which spoon to use,” I was promised. “The right way to sit at dinner.” Then, a warning: “The world is not forgiving to people who don’t know how to eat right.”
It was summer in small-town Arkansas. Other kids were waterskiing and tubing, yet my fellow heathens and I were locked inside a white-table-clothed prison on a Monday afternoon. For the next five days, Miss Jamie Sue—who would go on to work in the Clinton White House— drilled us within the drawing room of her Federal-style mansion. On Friday, we assembled to enjoy a seven-course dinner at 10 a.m. Dressed in suits and gowns, we fidgeted outside doors the color of limoncello. We entered a room with the unmistakable stale smell of church. Candelabras glowed from the center of an eight-person Louis XV dining table. Every surface was covered, place settings punctuated by eight calligraphed names, eight butter domes, and one curiously placed ashtray. The effect was a dollhouse built inside a snow globe.
For the next three decades, that tableau shaped my ideals of dining rooms and raised my expectations at dinner parties. It’s a high I’ve never stopped chasing. And yet...woe is the state of the dining room in 2020. We’re working from home, socially distant, and increasingly emotionally unavailable. Once the room was the center of pomp; now it’s the victim of circumstance. Is it a plate museum? A home office? Or an endangered species?
For New Jersey–based designer Gail Davis, the Sunday dinners of her youth were on Long Island, around her grandmother’s round cherrywood table. “It was the place to go, to sit around the table, to eat. We were dressed and we dined.”
Davis still remembers the pomp and circumstance. “The dining room was done up. Even as children, we got to eat off of beautiful china. We got to drink from these ornate glasses with gold on them.”
The experience has shaped her design mind. Today she detests rectangular tables for herself and for her clients. (“Why does someone have to be the head? Then everyone is leaning back and forth to look.”) She also can’t imagine the room going unused, or worse, as with some clients, becoming a showcase for forgotten silver. “Meanwhile they’re standing around their kitchen eating with their hands.”
But Davis admits her protocols are loosening during the pandemic. Her own recently redecorated dining room now has orange walls, a soft-pink ceiling (“the color of a kiss”), an oversized Murano chandelier, and...a wingback chair, ottoman, and reading lamp. She sighs. “These days, my dining room has become an office.” But she builds in options, using pieces that can be tucked away easily so they “blend into the formality.”
Across the country, for Kelly Wearstler, the notion of a formal dining room feels as out-of-date as a formal living room. The L.A.-based designer is known for a maximalist aesthetic that could also be described as Gwen Stefani in Beverly Hills—which is to say “grown-up rock star.” (Indeed Stefani’s home was one of Wearstler’s projects.) Growing up in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, her family didn’t have a separate dining room. “It was connected to the kitchen. We used the area for everything, from eating to schoolwork.” Since the pandemic, her own 14-person dining table—she prefers round too—has been functioning as her desk for much of the day, and the walls of the area hold her mood boards.
When the pandemic first hit, designer Richard Mishaan’s Hamptons dining room was transformed. The designer— and author of Artfully Modern—was raised in Colombia. He grew up eating in a dining room every night. Before the country’s “Miami Vice” era, says Mishaan, his upbringing was quite traditional. “We were like a Leave It to Beaver family.” And as the pandemic started, a new generation of family comedy began.
Mishaan, his wife, their two kids, and his mother were all in Sagaponack. “The dining room became the mail room and the sanitation station,” he says with a grimace. “Bottles of rubbing alcohol, wipes, X-Acto knives. All on top of the most gorgeous tablecloths and underneath a grand Tony Duquette chandelier. The horror,” Mishaan says. “It was depressing everybody in the house—an indication of how our lives had been transformed.”
So he changed the room again. This time, it became a center of joy—a diorama of memories. “The dining table, two long rectangular tables that come together as one big, giant square, became this exhibition space,” says Mishaan. “A gallery of objects we love. Pagodas, Buddhas. I put them all on one table as a console, next to a mirror made out of encrusted shells. It’s like walking into a movie set.”
Meanwhile, the family began eating together in smaller, more intimate spaces. They dined outdoors or in the kitchen. “Who needs to be schlepping all this stuff to a dining room, then bringing it all back? For people who ordinarily have staff, anything like that, meals became, well, meals. I told my family, ‘We are going to sit down and eat. Somewhere in this house. Together.’ ” He realized he hadn’t done that with regularity since his childhood.
He admits they’ve run out of things to talk about. “But wherever we eat in the house, I still make sure it looks right.”