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How to Design an Intelligent and Sustainable Dining Room

“To eat is a necessity, but to eat intelligently is an art.”
-François de La Rochefoucauld, 17thc. writer

After reviewing the research on the many physical and psychological benefits of people eating together, Delistraty (2014) suggests that eating intelligently means eating meals, even simple meals, with your family, roommates, or friends. I agree and would add that eating sustainably is also intelligent. By eating sustainably, I mean that both the food and the room’s furnishings are from sustainable sources. Research has shown that it is important for us to consume more sustainable, plant-based foods in our diet (Project Drawdown), but it is also important that we purchase sustainable home furnishings. This blog will detail why it is important to keep sustainability in mind when purchasing furniture and how to design a sustainable dining space that people will enjoy gathering in!

The Basics

The minimum requirements for an intelligent dining space are to find a dining table and chairs, lighting and at least one accessory. Although it’s nice to have a dedicated dining room, it’s not necessary. Any space you have that will seat the number of people you want to dine with will work.

A Dining Table and Chairs

The first items many people think about when creating a dining space are the table and chairs. With these items dimensions and sustainability are very important.

Critical Dimensions
The first step is to measure your dining space so you know how large a table it can accommodate. You’ll need at least 30-36 inches of space between your table and the nearest walls to be able to comfortably pull out your chairs.

For round tables to seat:

Four people you’ll want a 36”D table
Six to eight people you’ll want a 48”D table
Eight to ten people you’ll want a 60”D table

For other tables:

The minimum space per person is 24”W x 16”D (+5” if they’re sitting across others)
The best space per person is 30” W x 18” D (+9” if they’re sitting across from others)

Sustainability Considerations
Sustainability simply means focusing on meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs. Many people don’t realize that the furnishings industry is the number three consumer of wood. When we purchase new wood products, we want to make sure we are not inadvertently contributing to deforestation. According to the Sustainable Furnishings Council, North American hardwoods, fast growing wood alternatives such as bamboo, and Forest Stewardship Council certified woods are considered sustainable.

In addition, we want to make sure the furniture is not finished with dangerous Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs). VOCs are compounds that react with nitrous oxides in the atmosphere to form smog. Furthermore, the vapor that VOC’s release depresses the nervous system, damages livers, lungs and kidneys and can result in headaches, irritability, decreased concentration and fine motor skill deficits. Unfortunately, we don’t know how long it takes high VOC products such as paints and finishes to off gas. Our best guess is years. One study found that only 50% of the VOCs in one finish had been released after one year. So, instead of conventional finishes, choose low or no VOC finishes, natural finishes such as waxes and natural oils, or water-based lacquers.

There are many companies that now manufacture dining room tables and chairs with responsibly sourced materials and no or low VOC finishes.

Lighting

You will also want to make sure you have sufficient lighting for dining. One overhead fixture, such as a chandelier, will work. I highly recommend placing a dimmer on the fixture when possible. It can also be nice to add sconces or table lamps.

Critical Dimensions
The bottom of the chandelier should hang 30-36” above the top of your table and it shouldn’t be any wider than your table. Ideally the chandelier will be about 12” narrower than the width of your table.

Sustainability Considerations
Light Emitting Diodes (LEDs) is a lighting technology that uses 90% less energy than standard incandescent lighting and 50% less than fluorescent lighting for the same amount of light. In addition, LED’s last much longer. One LED bulb will last 27 years if used for 5 hours each day!

To reduce energy consumption, you can also look for lighting with the Energy Star certification. Energy Star is a program run by the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the US Department of Energy (DOE) that promotes energy efficiency. Energy Star provides information on the energy consumption of products and devices, such as lighting using standardized methods. Energy Star certified products use less energy than other products.

The good news is many companies now offer a wide variety of LED and Energy Star lighting options.

Accessories

Last, but not least, be sure to have a vase with at least one flower in it and/or at least one candle at the table (Arbor & Whiteside, 2020). One of the basic principles of design is to have one point of emphasis known as a focal point. A room without any emphasis is boring; a room with too many items competing for attention is unsettling. Three focal points is generally considered the maximum. Flowers and/or candles can serve as a focal point that helps draw people into a room.

Vases
Even a small simple vase with a single flower will work its magic. I try to avoid highly fragrant flowers so that they don’t interfere with the aromas of the food. And I look for local and/or organic flowers when possible.

Candles
Make sure your candles are all-natural soy or beeswax rather than the conventional petroleum-based wax. Not only are they more pleasant, but they are much better for the environment. As with flowers, I try to avoid fragrant candles at the dining table. Big Dipper Wax Works and Bluecorn Candles are two of my favorite sources.

The Nice-to-Haves

If you already have, or can purchase, a large primary focal point such as a distinctive rug and/or art for use in the dining room, then flowers and/or candles can be the secondary or tertiary focal points.

Focal Points and Color

The most cohesive rooms will use the primary focal point as the starting point for a color scheme. Although color psychology is complex because there is individual variation, I generally recommend people choose reds for dining rooms because people linger longer in red rooms and avoid blues because blue can be an appetite suppressant. That said, you can use any color found in the focal point for a dining room as long as it passes the “squint test”. If you squint while looking at your focal point, what colors do you see? In a rug that is predominately white, red and orange with a tiny bit of blue when you squint the blue will drop out. Therefore, it might not make a lot of visual sense to paint the walls a shade of blue. Unless one looks very hard one simply won’t see the blue in the rug. Also bear in mind the colors you select don’t have to be the same intensity as they appear in the focal point. Keeping with the rug example, you might select a pale shade of orange for the walls even if the orange in the rug is intense.

In the same home, however, it’s a good idea to decide what intensity of wall color you are comfortable with. Do you prefer light, medium or dark walls? Then, use that same intensity in all painted or wallpapered rooms except for rooms or halls that will be a shade of white.

A note on neutrals: It is very hard to successfully mix multiple neutrals with color. Our tip is to pick one neutral (black, brown or gray) and stick with it throughout the room. The only time we recommend mixing neutrals is when there is no significant color in the scheme. Then use as many as you want!

Rugs

Rugs can be nice to have in a dining room even if they aren’t a focal point because they help define the space.
Critical Dimensions
You’ll want a rug that extends 24-48” around the dining table while still showing about 6-18” of the floor. Keep in mind that you can always have a custom rug made from carpeting such as the very sustainable Earthweave carpeting.

Sustainability Considerations
The least toxic rugs are made with organic wool, no dyes or natural dyes and no chemical treatments or off-gassing adhesives which often contain VOCs. Wool is inherently flame retardant so there is no need to add chemical flame retardants.

Art

Art makes a great focal point for a dining room but be sure to hang the art at your eye level. Most people hang art too high.

Critical Dimensions
Is the space where you want art horizontal or vertical? Select horizontal art for a horizontal space and vertical art for a vertical space. You can use groupings to make horizontal art look vertical and vice-versa. If you are grouping art, make sure each piece is no more than 4” apart.

If you want to place art above a piece of furniture, such as a buffet, make sure the art is at least 2/3 as wide as the furniture.

Sustainability Considerations
There are lots of ways to find sustainable art such as looking for vintage pieces or pieces that make use of recycled materials.

Storage

It’s really nice to have a piece of furniture to store serving pieces, flatware, glassware, tableware and or table linens in the dining room. Even a simple console can be useful as a place to put out a buffet.

Critical Dimensions
You will want at least 30” of space between the table and a console. If the piece has storage, you’ll need 36” of clearance to be able to open drawers and/or cabinets comfortably.

Sustainability Considerations
As with the dining table and chairs, you’ll want to make sure your storage piece is made with materials that are not contributing to deforestation and have a low or no VOC finish.

Sustainable Table Linens

I like to use my organic cotton table linens at least once a week even if I’m just serving pizza. According to US law, just as with food, for fibers (such as cotton or linen) to be labeled organic they must be grown without pesticides on fields that haven’t been in conventional crop production for at least three years and be fertilized without the use of chemicals or sewage sludge.

Dyes can be natural, low impact or synthetic. Many synthetic dyes contain chemicals that are harmful to the planet and/or humans, so it’s best to look for natural or low impact dyes that don’t contain harmful chemicals. Low impact dyes are less likely to cause allergic reactions, require less water, contain smaller quantities of salts and soda ash, and work at lower temperatures than conventional dyes.

You can also look for Oeko-Tex labels which confirm the human-ecological safety of textile products from all stages of production (raw materials and fibers, yarns, fabrics, and ready-to-use end products) along the textile value chain. The labeled textile products have undergone laboratory testing for a wide range of harmful substances, and the content of those substances remains below the limit values established by the independent Oeko-Tex Association.

Whether you are able to dine with other people or not, one of the keys to dining intelligently is to do so sustainably. It’s now easy to select sustainable basics, such as a dining table, lighting and a beeswax candle, and to add the sustainable nice-to-haves, such as organic napkins, when possible!

Image Attribution

Perkins Harnly, Dining Room, 1935/1942, National Gallery of Art.

References

Arbor, R. & Whiteside, K. (2020). Joie de Vivre: Simple French Living for Everyday Style.

Delistraty, C.C. (2014, July). The Importance of Eating Together. The Atlantic. https://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2014/07/the-importance-of-eating-together/374256/.

Project Drawdown. Plant-Rich Diets. https://www.drawdown.org/solutions/plant-rich-diets.