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Why the formal dining room is back in fashion

Nicky Rampley-Clarke's dining room is an orangery extension adjoining the kitchen of his country home
Nicky Rampley-Clarke's dining room is an orangery extension adjoining the kitchen of his country home - Clara Molden

Call me old-fashioned, but I’ve always loved the idea of a formal dining room – probably because my parents used to host glamorous dinner parties in theirs back in the 1980s and 1990s. It was the theatre and downright camp of it all: the Royal Doulton being presented with pride on each place setting; the Philips hostess trolley being wheeled in to keep dishes warm; the After Eights being served up before cigarettes and nightcaps.

It’s hardly surprising that a separate dining room was top of my wish list when moving from London to Surrey on the cusp of the pandemic. And I struck gold in the form of an orangery extension adjoining the kitchen of the country house my husband and I bought after just one viewing. I always say it’s this space that sold it to us, and as committed foodies and die-hard entertainers, it’s the first room in the house that we decorated – way before the bedrooms and bathrooms – because, to us, it’s the heart of our home.

Nicky Rampley-Clarke is seen in the dining room at his home in Surrey
A separate dining room was top of Nicky's wish list when he made the move from London to Surrey - Clara Molden

We’re not alone in our desire for a separate dining room. Matt Siberry, head of home at social media platform Pinterest UK, says: “In the past, open-plan living/kitchen/dining room combinations were considered ideal for hosting dinner parties.

Over the past six months, however, people have started looking for ways to bring to life a ‘separate dining room’ on Pinterest. Having a room dedicated to eating makes mealtimes special. Distractions such as the television or the clattering of pots and pans are no longer in your peripheral vision, and table conversation takes centre stage instead.”

Interestingly, searches for “dining room inspiration” have increased tenfold on Pinterest between June and November, while searches for “dining room ideas” have jumped by 40 per cent in the same period.

Many people are choosing to recreate that restaurant feel at home, rather than spend money eating ou
Many people are choosing to recreate that restaurant feel at home, rather than spend money eating out, says Nicky - Clara Molden

Online interest is spilling over from social media into real life, too. “Open-plan interiors have been popular for many years, but dining rooms have been making a slow and steady comeback,” seconds Daniel Copley, a consumer expert at property portal Zoopla. “Period properties are constantly in demand thanks to the character and heritage they can offer, and as a result this can often mean a return to more traditional living and entertaining spaces.

Thanks to the economic climate, many people are also choosing to recreate that restaurant feel at home, rather than spend money eating out, so it’s no surprise that more formal separate dining spaces are once again proving popular.” Linda Wesson, director for prime country sales at Hamptons, adds: “Recent times have definitely seen a renaissance of a dedicated space for dining, particularly when it comes to entertaining guests. There’s something so luxurious about it. Imagine a cosy room lit by soft candlelight, the comforting glow of a hearth and a beautifully dressed table.”

It’s a trend all the major players are tracking. “The dining room, once considered too formal, is experiencing a second life as a space to use on a daily basis and get together with others,” says Lisa White, director of strategic forecasting at trend forecasters WGSN. “Shared meals around the table are increasingly important for people in these turbulent times. Our data reveals that the dining room has shown the most growth over the past year in the ‘cosy living’ conversation on social media.”

For my husband and me, our dining room is a comfortable and calm oasis to retreat to after the day is done, and especially when the weekend begins. A local restaurant we never need to leave the house for, if you will. Sunday lunches are now proper affairs preceded by weekend papers and Bloody Marys; and a serious effort is made for Friday-night suppers at either end of the table, rather than on the sofa in front of the telly. In the depths of winter, it’s where we sip breakfast tea in the morning, soaking up the sun through the windows when it’s too cold to go outside.

When decorating it, we took inspiration from traditional British style, with a nod to 1990s chintz in the Cole & Son wallpaper, a traditional-style mahogany dining table with matching chairs, a Soho Home chandelier and leafy house plants. 
If you’re thinking of creating your own, there are some inspiring examples by interior designers such as Anouska Lancaster, whose formal dining room at her Georgian house in Cornwall contrasts heritage features with contemporary furnishings.

Anouska Lancaster's formal dining room at her Georgian house in Cornwall contrasts heritage features with contemporary furnishings
Anouska Lancaster's formal dining room at her Georgian house in Cornwall contrasts heritage features with contemporary furnishings - Darren Chung

“I’ve noticed a huge surge in clients wanting to have a separate dining room to escape to since the pandemic,” she says. “It becomes a treat, almost like going out for lunch or dinner, so I took the concept to another level in my own house with an underwater-themed bespoke wallpaper. The fireplace is the main focal point, and the teal Everhot stove complements the deep-sea colours on the walls beautifully. There’s an abundance of joy.”

Evin Rosa Hancock, owner of Orpheus, a manor house in Suffolk available to hire via Unique Homestays, drew on her expertise for breathing life into traditional spaces to design hers. “For us, a separate dining room is the epitome of true family time in a modern world full of distractions,” she says. “It’s a room in which to talk, reflect and connect over good food and wine with those you love.”

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A dining room by American designer Jonathan Adler - A dining room by American designer Jonathan Adler

You don’t need to have a huge dining room to host unforgettable gatherings, either. “Invite as many people as possible and cram them in like sardines,” is the advice of American designer Jonathan Adler.

And so, it turns out I’m not that old-fashioned after all. The formal dining room is the hottest reservation in town right now.


Ten ways to spruce-up your dining area...

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Bird & Bluebell mural wallpaper

£262 a roll, Little Greene 

Birds, bees, butterflies and bluebells feature in this elegant mural, inspired by a wallpaper found at National Trust house Felbrigg Hall in Norfolk.

Rose Garden ruffle-edge tablecloth

from £85, and napkins, £20 for two, Rosanna Falconer 

This traditional-with-a-twist design is hand-block printed in Jaipur and works beautifully with plain white china.

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Stratford elliptical table

£2,450, Neptune 

This oval-shaped table can seat up to eight people, and thanks to its pedestal design there’s no jumble of legs to get in the way.

Frame leather dining chair

£379, John Lewis 

Comfortable chairs will encourage guests to stay for longer; where space allows, opt for chairs with arms.

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Bow candle holders

£30 a pair, Host Home 

A playful and festive addition to the table, this clever bow-shaped candle holder comes with a “candle cap” that can be slotted in to ensure a snug fit for slimmer dinner candles.

Poppy’s Prosecco Bundle

£65, Maison Flaneur

Designed by model Poppy Delevingne, these coloured glasses will make a statement on the table, and come with a bottle of Della Vite prosecco to get the party started.

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Clara velvet seat pad in Merlot

£10, Dunelm 

Add comfort and colour to plain wooden chairs with a seat cushion.

Buchanan drinks trolley

£289, Where Saints Go 

Station a drinks trolley at the side of the room to keep bottles, glasses and ice buckets off the table.

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Scalloped abaca placemat

£22, Rebecca Udall 

Not just for protecting the table, this pretty place mat adds texture and will work with any colour scheme (also available in green or mushroom).

Palazzo Re-Jute rug

from £169, Ruggable

With a pattern inspired by the floors in Italian palazzos, this jute-look rug can be thrown in the washing machine.

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