Thursday, November 19, 2009

The Janus Home Holiday Guide to Dining Tables, Pt. 1

In honor of the impending holiday season, we thought we would take some time to focus on that most important piece of furniture, the dining table. There's a certain je ne sais quoi to a dining table. Part of it is that it's the single piece of furniture that people gather around and eat on. Eating is a big deal, and eating with other people, specifically friends and family, even more so. It's also the centerpiece of a dining room, which sometimes, depending on the layout of the house, can translate into being the centerpiece of the entire house. The point is - dining tables are kind of a big deal - even more so around the holiday season! So, if you're considering thepurchase of a new dining table, there are several things you need to take into account.

  • Shape. Most dining tables are either round, oval, square, or rectangular. However, when paired with their extension leaves, round tables can become oval and square tables can become rectangular.
  • Versatility. Some dining tables, such as farm-style tables and most tables with glass or stone tops, are fixed and cannot expand or contract. Others, usually made of wood, havevarious different types of expansion mechanisms, which we will discuss below.
  • Materials. Wood? Glass? Metal? Stone? Some combination of the above? If wood, what kind of wood?
Perhaps the easiest decision of these to make is shape, as it is largely determined by the shape of your room. In general, rectangular tables are more efficient, space wise, than round or square tables (i.e. you can get more people per square foot around a rectangular table than you can around a round or square table). However, if you have a large square dining room, a big round table might be just the thing you need.

Versatility largely depends on your intended use of the table, and also the space that you have available for the table. Do you have a tiny space, but nevertheless like to entertain and have lots of people over? Then perhaps you would consider a table that breaks down fairly small, but has a number of extension leaves to make it bigger when you are entertaining.

When it comes to leaves, there are several types. You have your basic drop-in extension leaf, where the table pulls apart in the center and one or more leaves simply drop in to make the table bigger. Usually this type of leaf needs to be stored in a closet or somewhere else, although some tables have mechanisms for storing the leaves underneath the table. The advantage to this type of leaf is that sometimes a table like this will have the capacity to get very large, such as the Paul McCobb for Calvin dining set pictured below.

This dining table by Paul McCobb starts out at a very modest 44" round.But, with the addition of 6 12" center extension leaves, the table morphs into a 10' monster, roomy enough to seat 10 comfortably.

Often, a table will actually expand to accept more leaves than actually come with the table - and sometimes leaves get lost, leaving you with a table that will expand to accept leaves, but no actual leaves.

This is a solvable problem, however, because you should be able to find a local carpenter or woodworker who can fashion you a leaf that will fit into the table. Of course, the leaf will probably not match the table exactly, but the fact is that most times when we put leaves in our table to have company over, we put a tablecloth over the table, so the fact that the leaves may not match becomes less of an issue. It's also quite possible to fashion a leaf out of a complementary wood, so that while the leaf may not match, it will contrast nicely with the wood of the table, giving a pleasing aesthetic effect. For instance, just last week, we made a leaf out of poplar wood for a client who purchased a rosewood table from us that had no leaves. The whitish-greenish-yellow of the poplar wood contrasted quite nicely with the purplish brown of the rosewood, and the clients were quite happy!

Another type of leaf that is quote common in mid century tables, especially Danish tables, is the draw leaf. These leaves are stored underneath the main table surface, and pull out from either end of the table by means of runners. This is a very popular design, mainly because it is extremely convenient, as the leaves automatically store right underneath the table. Another advantage of this design is that the leaves are usually very easy to operate, and can be expanded or contracted by one person, making this a smart choice for a single person shopping for a dining table. In contrast, it can sometimes be difficult for one person to pull a table apart to accept a drop-in leaf. Perhaps the only drawback to this type of design is that unlike drop in expansion tables, which can sometimes expand practically to infinity, these tables are limited in the amount which they will expand. However, unless you own a castle and need to seat 24 people comfortably, a large draw-leaf table will usually suffice for the needs of most families. A teak draw-leaf dining table with oak base by Hans Wegner. This view shows the table extended.

A similarly designed teak table by J.L. Moller. The extension leaves fit neatly underneath the main table surface.

One other less common, but still worth mentioning, leaf design is the butterfly leaf. This is a leaf that folds in half and stores under the table, and by means of a mechanical device, pops up when the table is pulled apart. These are very fun, and can be entertaining to your friends and family (especially small children), and also have the advantage of storing underneath the table. The only drawback to this type of leaf is that they are usually limited to a single leaf, so you don't get a whole lot of expansion potential - it is seldom possible to seat more than 8 people at a dining table equipped with a butterfly leaf. A contemporary hand-made Koa wood dining table featuring a butterfly leaf.

However, if you don't plan on entertaining large groups of people, or simply have a small enough space that won't let you open up a big dining table no matter what, a butterfly leaf can be a very viable (not to mention stylish!) option.

Please join us for our next installment, when we will discuss the question of materials. Until then, happy holidays!

The Janus Home Holiday Guide to Dining Tables, Pt. 2.

As always, thanks for reading, and welcome back to part two of our (admittedly belated) Holiday Guide to Dining Tables!

Now that you've decided on shape and size, it's time to discuss materials. The vast majority of mid century dining tables out there are made of wood. There are many different types of wood used in dining table construction, but for mid century tables, you will find mostly teak, walnut, rosewood, oak, maple, and birch. The type of wood you choose will usually revolve around what else you have in your home, and what type of floor you have. Generally, it's best to choose a wood that will contrast with your floor rather than blend into it. So, if you have light oak hardwood floors, it's maybe not the best idea to get a light oak (or birch or maple for that matter) dining table.

Although other woods such as rosewood, oak and walnut do appear with some frequency in Danish modern dining tables, teak is by far and away the most common wood used. In contrast, it is fairly rare to find a vintage teak table that is made in the USA. In lieu of teak, walnut is seen much more commonly in American mid century dining tables, as is birch and maple. The reasoning for this is pretty simple - walnut, birch and maple are all trees that are found very commonly in many parts of the USA, whereas woods like teak and rosewood are "exotics", found only in parts of the world like India and Southeast Asia. Since the majority of the lumber-producing forests in Europe were cut down hundreds of years ago, Danish furniture makers were unable to rely on indigenous woods as were their American counterparts, which is why exotics like teak and rosewood are much more common in European furniture of the era.

Another thing to keep in mind when considering a wooden dining table is the possibility of having it refinished to a different color. This mainly applies to lighter woods such as birch and maple, which can be stained or lacquered practically any shade or any color you want. While it's not as common to do this to darker woods such as walnut, rosewood and teak, it is possible. It's just that more often than not, these woods have very attractive grain patterns that you wouldn't want to hide under coats of dark stain. In contrast, most lighter woods don't have very exciting grain patterns, so it's no major crime to stain them very dark to achieve a more dramatic effect. A good example of this is the Paul McCobb Planner Group dining table that we refinished and sold awhile back.This table is a great looking, extremely functional table with its combination of drop leaves and center extension leaves. However, the maple wood in its natural state was just a little plain. The ebony stain that we applied to it gave the table a fantastic presence, and made it look just that much more elegant as well.

When choosing a material for your dining table, the most important thing to consider is the other pieces in your home. If you have hardwood floors, a wooden credenza and a wooden china cabinet, you might want to consider a metal and glass table to break up all the wood. Likewise, if you have an extremely clean, modern interior with lots of chrome and leather and polished concrete floors, you might think about a wooden dining set to warm things up a bit.
In the end, if versatility is an issue (the ability to have your table go from small to large), you are most likely going to be stuck with a wooden table. Although expandable glass tables do exist,
they are much less common than their wooden counterparts.

The glass and steel dining table shown below offers a very specific look, and also needs a very large room to live in, measuring in at around 7' x 4'. Although quite attractive, it offers little in the way of versatility.

When putting a room together, perhaps the worst thing you can do is to have everything match. Our brains thrive on contrast and how things play off of each other, and if everything in a room matches perfectly, well, there's no contrast and nothing plays off anything else, and the end result is BO-RING. That's not to say that if you have the opportunity to purchase a matching dining set of table, chairs and sideboard, that you shouldn't do it. If you find such a set that meets your needs - by all means, go for it. However, there's no need to get hung up on whether or not the chairs you buy to go with your table "originally" went with the table. It's also worth noting that many vintage furniture dealers have the rather annoying habit of "marrying" a dining table and set of chairs that don't really go together, trying to sell them as a set, and refusing to "break up the set" when it is pointed out that the table and chairs don't actually even belong together. Which is to say, even if you think you're getting an original set, it may not always be the case.

Of course, you don't want to go overboard and have every piece contrasting wildly with every other piece - that'll just give you a headache. What we're looking for here is a happy medium. Strive to bring different elements together so that they complement each other instead of clash with each other. Keep in mind that materials are only part of the picture - you can draw a room together using pieces made from different materials so long as they all possess a complementary line.

Having said that, the first rule of Interior Design (at least in our book) is that THERE ARE NO RULES! If you play strictly by the "rules", you might never put together this modern industrial dining table with these black lacquered antique French chairs. And that would be a shame!

Happy Holidays!