The great dining room revival
After years of casual kitchen suppers, the dedicated dining room is making a comeback
Ian Galvin’s dining table in his Tramore home. Photograph: Ronan Lang/Feature File
At the turn of the millennium, many homeowners began realising that formal, mahogany-filled rooms were no longer conducive to modern family living and a waste of precious square footage. Since then, the traditional Irish dining room has been dying a slow death. Cue the conversion of dining quarters into playrooms, home offices and man caves, or knocking through to create larger, open-plan kitchen and living spaces.
But the tables are turning and the formal dining room is having a quiet renaissance. Which is a good thing surely, as entertaining in the kitchen is getting old. Inevitably guests end up propping up the island, amid dirty pots and kids’ homework, while proffering advice on how best to stew rhubarb.
The structure and formality a dining room brings to dinner time can also be viewed as a plus now that mealtimes have become so haphazard and cannibalised by technology. We’re all too busy WhatsApping to talk, let alone mindfully sup our soup.
Interior designer Sara Cosgrove, who has recently finished refurbishing her own Georgian home in Dún Laoghaire, uses her formal dining room several times a week.
“It’s the only place where we down phones and properly talk. My husband and I try to eat in there most evenings, and when my mum comes to visit it is non-negotiable. With two kids under two, we entertain more during the day, so it’s the perfect space for big brunches on Sundays with friends or family, or afternoon teas to celebrate a birthday. I love how it keeps the prep out of sight and when the plates disappear to the kitchen, people tend to linger and relax and chat. Whereas when we eat in the kitchen the pots taunt me and I can’t sit down until everything is cleaned up. All that rattling and activity ruins any sense of unwinding after a meal.”
Cosgrove has also seen a re-emergence of the dining room through her work in recent years. “If a room is too formal, difficult to clean or fussy you will most likely avoid it, so to ensure the dining room is used, stay away from fussy, precious furniture. Design sensibly, starting with a robust table and comfortable chairs, and if you have raucous kids, add lockable storage for any occasional ware that needs protecting.”
Meanwhile Ian Galvin, a key player in Irish fashion since the 1980s, says the dining room in his Victorian house in Tramore is the best restaurant in town. “My dining room is the focal point of my home and where all the action happens. When you walk in the hall door, your eye is drawn straight to the big Italian onyx dining table, which overlooks the roaring sea and wild beach outside. When the fire is lit and the table dressed, it’s the most stunning setting for a dinner party,” says Galvin, who hosts a dinner at least once a fortnight. “It’s the best way to socialise in the countryside, and frankly it’s much cheaper than dining out all the time.”
“I always remember as a kid not being allowed to touch anything in the dining room and everything was covered up with protectors or else locked behind brown doors. They were miserable rooms so I’ve made sure my dining room, which Helen McAlinden and Karen Millen helped me design, is warm, stylish, comfy and inviting, with loads of mood lighting and textured surfaces. And if I’m going to spend €50 on a crystal glass, I’m certainly not going to lock it away.” Hence Galvin’s dining room is almost bejewelled in Tipperary crystal, and collecting glassware has become one of his pet passions.
When it comes to tablescaping, Galvin has it down to a fine art and aims to style the dining room to coincide with the seasons.
“I pick all the flowers and foliage from my garden and make centrepieces and garlands relative to the time of year or celebration. Sometimes it’s big dramatic bouquets or hydrangeas and roses, but come January, snowdrops and daffodils make a simple but pure statement. I also try to set places with different crockery (including Sybil Connolly ware), china and decorative mats (from Satina, a boutique in Tramore), depending on the mood of the evening.”
An avid pastry chef, guests are often treated to homemade cakes which are presented on beautiful antique stands to add even more drama.
“I lived in open-plan apartments for years in Dublin and you just don’t get the same wow factor as you do when entertaining in a dedicated dining room.”
Mícheál de Siún of de Siún Architects says the problem with the old dining-room model was not just the formality or austerity of the room but rather its proximity to the kitchen.
“In the olden days, the kitchen was located in the basement and the servants would cook and carry the food up to the formal rooms on the piano nobile or noble level. Today, the host is also the cook, the waiter and the sommelier. Proximity to the kitchen, and in particular the fridge, becomes essential if the room is going to be user-friendly.”
If considering reinstating the dining room or planning building work, de Siún advises positioning the kitchen adjacent to the dining room. “In recent period-house projects, there’s a move away from the classic basement kitchen conversion, in lieu of building beautiful kitchens in one of the good rooms on the hall floor now, with an opening to the dining room next door. This allows a more graceful engagement with the noble level of the house.”
Just be sure to put comfort, over wear to lock away all the crystal before you revive the noblest room of the house.
Four to buy with classic dining rooms
1. Tudor Hall, Monkstown, Co Dublin
2. Glencar, 99 Templeogue Road, Terenure, Dublin 6w
3. 4 Gulistan Terrace, Rathmines, Dublin 6
4. Field Lodge, Killiney Heath, Co Dublin