Dining tables are extending to cover different needs in the home, reports Stephanie Baum

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If my grandparents were still alive they would be amazed at the way the younger generation live. By 2021 the number of people living alone is set to rise by 2.7million from 6.5million now. People are coupling up or living alone and putting off marriage to become the fully developed people they aspire to be, focus on their careers and have children only when they’re ready – if at all.

The side effects of these lifestyle choices – lower birthrate and less space in homes, has led to the number of flats surpassing detached housing last year for the first time. This in turn has meant smaller homes in general. But as Pierre Williams, House Builders Federation spokesman says, living spaces have become more flexible as a result.

What does this mean for furniture, particularly in the dining room? It seems furniture is increasingly forced to adapt not only to the dimensions of the room, but also to how the space is used. Flexibility is an issue that has been forced into every room, particularly the dining room which may not even be used for eating. As average property prices rise and rise and space becomes a more limited commodity, furniture that lengthens and shortens on demand is in even greater demand. As a demonstration of the pervasiveness of this trend, extending tables can be seen across traditional, modern and contemporary styles.

In recent years, retailers and manufacturers have seen increased demand for more innovative and visually striking designs. But does this say more about the entrancing power of the silent salesman offering an unusual feature on a table to give friends reasons to coo with envy, or is it in response to genuine need?

`The dining table is the showpiece of the dining room,’ says Paul Downey, Barringtons Furniture Store proprietor in Sunderland. `To a certain degree it is like an occasional piece. A lot of the time they are just getting used for the purpose of display.’ He notes that his extending tables sell best in the January sale when, after friends have visited over the holidays, families realise they need a larger table.

In conjunction with the concept of dining table as special occasion piece, Steve Armitage, Volume Furniture md and designer, says the demand for innovation has fuelled a desire for unique actions to impress.

`We are constantly being asked `I want something like Skovby.’ The Danish furniture producer, for its part, has been feasting on the success of its innovative dining table designs which provide clever storage space for table leaves and extensions and its willingness to push the boundaries of modern and contemporary furniture.

The problem, adds Armitage, is how to satisfy this need and still address the issue of increasing the number of places at one on each table. He points to a common design faux pas of extending tables – that the pieces often can’t get the full seating they boast because the extended version is not long enough to accommodate those who sit at the corners who have to contend with awkward table legs. He points out that leaves should extend at least 500mm on each side to avoid this happening.

Peter Fletcher, Sutcliffe Furniture sales and marketing director, says there is a demand for extending tables to get even longer, so has introduced a larger model for its White & Newton Elm Grove collection. The new model extends from 1,500mm to 2,500mm and the legs can be moved to accommodate two leaves stored inside. `It adds a cost, but adds that flexibility,’ says Fletcher.

Light maple dining table

He says the variety of materials used for tables – maple, oak, wenge, teak etc – has also provided more options. There is a general consensus among manufacturers and retailers that the medium of choice for extendable tables has been in light woods with a natural finish, edging towards a modern feel, but creating the illusion of more space.

Glass and metal are prominent at the contemporary end of the market, but some say that traditional finishes such as mahogany will always be popular. Barrington Furniture’s Downey likens the wood colour to the denim of the furniture world – it will never go out of style.

John Moulton, Quinn Furniture sales and marketing director, says it has done more business with mahogany because so many companies have discontinued it. He adds that the company has seen strong sales for its draw leaf table designs – a style he says was popular in the 1950s – used for its Meridian and Premiere ranges.

But what is so strange about the push towards innovative extending dining tables is how this trend seems to fly in the face of the casual dining trend driven by home entertainment.

Considering this development along with the widespread demand for sideboards, Moulton proffers reasons for the dining set coming back into vogue pointing to upgrades in furniture, new home purchases, the buy to rent factor, and people entertaining friends at home more frequently.

`People like the idea of having a formal setting,’ adds Gavin Douglas, Morris Group marketing director.

But other companies suspect that the extension feature is only used for special occasions. In fact, adding extra features merely serves to make them more attractive in-store, illustrating the table’s value.

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Copeland Kyoto 36″ x 72″ Fixed Top Tables

Be that as it may, companies are introducing extending versions of fixed top tables. Corndell is looking at adding the feature to more ranges. Earlier this year it included the option for its two sizes of fixed Nimbus oak and Linnet ash ranges in response to a perceived demand for more variety.

`Advances in technology with the availability of better hinges and multi-action mechanisms means that table actions can be fun and have become a feature of the table,’ says Mary Ahern, marketing manager.

But given that people do not use their extension feature all the time, what happens to the extra chairs that go with it?

Most companies spoken to indicated that people inevitably find rooms for them to occupy between sittings, such as the bedroom. However, when asked if this has driven a demand for stackable or folding chairs that would be fitting in a formal setting, some manufacturers, if not rejecting the idea out of hand, say there simply hasn’t been enough demand, but they’re working on it.

`We find that although customers want an extending table they don’t necessarily want extra chairs. The larger table may be required to be multifunctional – for hobbies or for children to do their homework, rather than entertaining,’ says Brian Ahern, Corndell md.