Formally speaking: The dressed up dining room isn’t going anywhere anytime soon…or is it?

For her client in Stanardsville, Andrea Gibson created a dual library-dining room space to increase functionality. Photo: Virginia Hamrick For her client in Stanardsville, Andrea Gibson created a dual library-dining room space to increase functionality. Photo: Virginia Hamrick

News on the state of the formal dining room is conflicting. Some area designers see more and more people repurposing their formal spaces, while others insist a core group will always demand a place for nice meals.

“We’re seeing the traditional buyer that has the heirloom piece and the formal set with leaves, and they need a room where they can fit 10-20 people,” says Ben Davis, sales director for custom home designer Craig Builders. “The other side is the informal dining area, where they’re looking for a space to have at most six to eight guests.”

Whether you’re fancy or just want a spot to get your grub on, look to these pro tips to guide the structure of your next dining room.

Business casual

Andrea Gibson, ASID, of Gibson Design Group says there are no two ways about it: People are requesting fewer and fewer formal dining rooms. And they’re using their newfound space in interesting ways. In both her own personal dining room and in a client’s recent project, she made a space where people could both eat and relax with a good book.

“It’s not so much in the finishes as the function,” she says. “I recently did a combination of a library and a dining room, where the customer lined the walls with shelves.”

Gibson said she’s also seen clients converting their dining rooms into playrooms. Since the space is often adjacent to the kitchen, it offers kids a place to play where they can be supervised by their parents.

Davis said he’s seeing customers use portions of their formal dining space to create more storage space, then incorporating the remainder into a great room with an informal eating area, such as an eat-in bar, table top built into an island or a large farmhouse-style table tucked into a corner with built-in banquettes.

“For the informal, you are going into more of an open concept,” Davis said. “The challenge is, how do you create an open space and make it feel defined?” The solution, he said, is using ceiling beams to limn out the area or relying on square or rectangular lines to give the illusion of enclosure.

Black tie

Despite formal spaces giving way to more open, less purpose-built rooms in the past decade or more, formal dining rooms have managed to keep a seat at the table. And they’re still defined by distinct, must-have features: a design element that creates two-part walls, two-piece molding on the ceilings, hardwood flooring, tray ceilings designed to highlight chandeliers.

Sarah Knicely of Summit Custom Homes of Virginia said that while she’s noticed a slight dip in the number of customers creating dedicated formal dining spaces, there’s a core group that’ll always want the traditional. She said wainscoting and paneling are more popular than chair rails to give the walls the formal look. Davis agreed.

“Wainscoting is a must,” he said. “When we design a formal dining room, we consider the size and space: Is there enough space to have the table leaves fully extended? Our clients want the floors finished the same as the adjacent room, and columns are also a must.”

Davis was reluctant to say which types of customers tended toward formal dining spaces but conceded that people with bigger houses were often willing to sacrifice the square footage. Gibson was more straightforward: The higher end clients demand the formal space.

“They may have multiple homes, a formal home and an informal home,” she said. “People don’t dine like they used to, but some people still want the formal room that gets used maybe five or six times a year.”