Thirty years ago the death of the dining room was announced – somewhat prematurely perhaps, judging by the number of rooms still to be found, smelling of stale food, institutionalism or blue blood.
To those under the age of 30, however, who have not been brought up in either a stately home or a young offender’s institute, the concept of a room set aside specifically for eating is as bizarre as a landline phone.
The problem began when the open-plan concept was applied to the rest of the house
Along with the death of the dining room came the birth of the open-plan kitchen: it was a long gestation that began with the demise of the servant.
The breakthrough – both physically and psychologically – was the serving hatch. It was a practical solution in the servant-less house to the problem of food getting cold on the way to the dining room. But by the Sixties and Seventies, it was viewed as both suburban and demeaning to woman.
Admittedly that last bit is my own theory, but it’s evidence based. My husband and I used to rent a Thirties holiday house that had retained its serving hatch. At first it had a rather quaint novelty appeal as I fed the family through the hatch, feeling like a cross between a mother bird and a 1950s Good Housekeeping advert.
But gradually it turned me from bountiful earth mother to raging virago, boiling over with resentment at the servile status inflicted on me by the hatch.
Meanwhile in the dining room, propped up by the throne-like serving chair, my husband was morphing into a Victorian patriarch. The architect Robert Kerr knew what he was talking about in 1864, when he wrote: “The whole appearance of the (dining) room ought to be that of masculine importance.”
So by the 1970s, when walls were being knocked down and the rather absurdly named ‘farmhouse kitchen’ was emerging from the rubble, it could be seen as a feminist move. But it also suited the more informal style of cooking that had replaced cordon bleu. And as a model for today’s lifestyle it still works well, particularly for those who regard cooking as a spectator sport.
The problem began when the open-plan concept was applied to the rest of the house. ‘Loft-style living’ was appropriated from dockland warehouses, to give a smattering of misplaced cool to housing developments while increasing developers’ profits. (Walls cost money.)
Suddenly everyone was knocking down walls, and it felt like liberation. Tiny terraced houses had hallways bashed through, so that you walked straight from the street into the living room (the small amount of extra space being no compensation for the eradication of the entrance ceremony, the act of shaking off the outside world before you set foot in your private domain).
At the other end of the extreme, large houses and loft spaces wallowed in their freedom from walls, only to find that they missed the psychological security – and realised that not being able to slam doors severely limited their emotional outlets.
Also, what seems like a good idea when your children are young – you can keep an eye on them while getting on with things – does not translate well to the teenage years, when the only way they can escape you is to spend 24 hours in their bedrooms. Open plan, which seemed such a statement of liberation and cool, is slowly losing its appeal. I tell you, walls are on their way back.