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From Home Furnishing Business

Casual Friday: It’s Every Day in the Dining Room

By Larry Thomas

The days of the big formal dining rooms are long gone – at least from a furniture retailer’s perspective – but it’s not exactly rocket science to understand that people still need a place to eat.

But survey the extra-large kitchens, great rooms and even family rooms of many of today’s homes, and you’re likely to find a dining table and chairs. Granted, it’s probably used for a lot of other activities besides eating, but at meal time, the homework papers and craft projects disappear – only to be replaced by plates, cups and utensils.

So dining room furniture is anything but dead. Producers say the category is still very vibrant, but it clearly has taken a sharp turn away from formal.

“The floor plans in newer homes certainly are more open, so you’re dealing with a space that is being used differently,” said Neil MacKenzie, director of marketing at Universal Furniture. “We’re trying to meet that demand by having something that looks tasteful and elegant, but more functional in terms of everyday use.”

And from the perspective of MacKenzie and other executives, functional usually equals casual.

“We’re still seeing a lot of activity with larger table sizes, but with more casual finishes and a more contemporary, modern look,” he said.

Erin Sullivan, vice president of product development at Fine Furniture Design, said the dining table has become “the central command center of the home,” particularly those with open floor plans that combine kitchen, dining, living and entertainment spaces.

“Casual dining tables serve as more than just a spot for meals,” Sullivan said. “And because of their connection to other rooms, consumers need more choices when it comes to size, finish and fabric options.”

And dining room furniture producers clearly are taking a cue from their upholstery brethren when it comes to customization. And just like upholstery, customization is a rapidly growing segment of the category.

Bassett Furniture, in fact, has an entire factory in Martinsville, Va., devoted to its custom dining program, and even with upgrades that were completed about a year ago, the facility is still running at or above capacity. And Fine Furniture Design has worked with its factories in China to develop a program that offers 14 table base options, 36 finishes, more than 65 chair styles, and more than 200 fabric and leather covers.

“Consumers today want the ability to ‘make it their own’ and express their uniqueness through the products they purchase,” said Sullivan.

Another upholstery trend that has made its way to the dining room is performance fabrics. MacKenzie said Universal is seeing significant demand for such fabrics on dining chairs – largely because they have become more affordable as a dining room option, and it’s simply a common-sense choice. “It’s something livable, as opposed to something that’s lived around,” he said. “After all, when you eat, you’re probably going to spill something once in a while.”

But the open-concept floor plans in today’s homes hasn’t meant weaker demand for smaller sizes of dining tables. If anything, MacKenzie and Sullivan say it has given that niche a jolt because of the predominance of casual styles there.

“Smaller-scale round dining tables are casual in style and versatile in how they are used, whether it’s a casual card game or dinner for four in the family room,” Sullivan said. And in some cases, these tables find their way into a larger, open-concept kitchen, enabling the consumer to “create the dining experience that is just right for you,” she pointed out.

A survey of recent dining room furniture purchasers by Impact Consulting, parent company of Home Furnishings Business, showed that, to no one’s surprise, tables and chairs were the most common formal dining items purchased.

Tables were purchased by 63.89% of those surveyed, while chairs were acquired by 75%.

A buffet or sideboard was purchased by 30.56%, while a china cabinet was brought home by only 11.11%.

Other pieces were cited by 8.33% of buyers, and for Universal, MacKenzie said the company is seeing increases in multi-functional pieces such as bar carts, and bar storage units – often taking the place of a sideboard because of their increased functionality.

When asked the style of furniture in their formal dining room, traditional and country/European tied for the most responses at 22.22% each. Contemporary was next at 19.44%, followed by transitional at 16.67% and country/rustic at 11.11%.

The only other style mentioned was cottage, which was cited by 8.33%.

According to the survey, cherry, mahogany and oak are the clear leaders among the respondents’ preferred wood or finish. Mahogany led the way with 34.75%, cherry was cited by 33.05%, and oak was named by 22.03%

The only others mentioned were maple (6.78%) and pine (3.39%).

When asked how much they would expect to pay for a formal dining room set (table and six side chairs) today, 25% said it should be below $1,500. However, 55.56% said the price should be $1,500 to $3,999, and another 16.67% said they would expect to pay $4,000 to $11,999.

Only 2.77% said they would expect to pay more than $12,000.

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