Nontraditional dining areas work in small spaces

June 24, 2006|by CHRISTINE BRUN/Copley News Service

Contemporary entertaining is much less formal than it used to be. We're more likely to picnic in the family room or grill on the patio than we are to assemble around a classic dining table. And that's good news for people who live in small homes. If you're not tied to the idea of a traditional eating area, consider these novel alternatives. With some clever planning, it's almost possible to pull a dining room out of thin air.

One-room apartment dwellers have long known how important planning can be to function and visual order. New York interior designer Maxwell Gillingham-Ryan is the author of "Apartment Therapy: The Eight-Step Home Cure," which offers advice on how to make rooms serve several functions ( He lives with his wife in a 250-square-foot Manhattan apartment. Last year's winner of his national "Coolest Apartment" contest lived in a 485-square-foot apartment, and this year the cutoff is at 650 square feet. These folks have to use one space to express their personality, eat, sleep, shower and dress. It makes 1,200 square feet sound positively luxurious.


Ideas from these veterans include a bookcase wall that also features a foldout dining table and flat-screen TV. Positioning a small table next to a mirrored wall or coming out into a room from the window is another trick. Think about bookshelves on two walls and a library-like table with benches next to them. The benches take up less space and allow for four people to dine.

Free-standing modular units are a good idea because they can offer disappearing dining tables. The chrome or wood legs flip up under the table, which then slides back into the unit.

If you have a kitchen bar that serves you well for dining, why not allocate the dining space for another use. It could serve as a home office of maybe a hobby area. An attractive screen could set it apart from the living room.

The idea shown here lifts the eye and would be good in a small room with high ceilings. A bar-height table with swivel stools substitutes for the usual table and chairs. Used with floor-length linens, it could actually hide a storage basket below. If the storage unit were on casters, it would be possible to keep dishes and flatware handy beneath the table. And if the storage element were attractive enough, there would be no real need to keep it draped by a tablecloth.

If you have a large enough storage closet, a folding cafe-type table and chairs might be your answer. Pull them out for dining and then stash them away. If you don't mind eating on pillows or cross-legged on the floor, a dual-purpose cocktail table might fill the bill. Look for antique American oak dining tables that have been cut down and still retain the original leaf.

Naturally you'd want to have an alternative seating arrangement if your guests include someone with arthritis, tricky knees or a bad back - possibly a tray placed beside the sofa or club chair.

The most successful small-home residents are those who are willing to use space in creative ways. Eliminating a formal dining room might be a great place to start.

Christine Brun, ASID, is a San Diego-based interior designer and the author of "Big Ideas for Small Spaces." Send questions and comments to her by e-mail at or to Copley News Service, P.O. Box 120190, San Diego, CA 92112.

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