Gather 'round: Dining tables turn meals into celebrations

For almost a year now, Diana Grayson’s young sons have used the family dining room as a makeshift wrestling arena. There’s no table there. Not anymore, anyway. Grayson said she and her husband sold their dining table around New Year’s in the hopes they’d have fresh impetus to find a new one.

A dinner table, as the Graysons can attest, isn’t generally something that’s bought on the fly. For one, it represents a sizable pile of money. Then there’s the fact that the selection of styles can overwhelm. More fundamentally, a dining table is much more than a piece of furniture; it’s a place where hours upon decades of memories are made.

No need to spell this all out for Rachel McCalla. When it comes to the significance of her dinner table, the St. Louis resident doesn’t equivocate. “It’s the best decision [my husband and I] made together before we were married,” she said.

Both for the dining room and for the home, the dining table is without a doubt a focal point. “People congregate in the kitchen area and the dining area more than the family room anymore,” said Wendy Noory, owner of the downtown home furnishings store Atom. “The tables need to be large enough to accommodate this.”

Jill Guffee’s dinner table seats 10. “People come and sit forever,” said the co-owner of Bright Spot Studio, an art studio and furniture store in Maplewood. And when people linger long, their conversations will proliferate.

“It seems to me that meals are long enough that you get into something,” said Marshall N. Klimasewiski, writer in residence at Washington University. In his novel The Cottagers, the dinner conversations of two vacationing couples traverse everything from the meal and the weather to the ambitions of youth.

“I think there’s a real tradition of [dialogue scenes occurring at a dinner table] in literature in general – probably not surprisingly because of the way that this is true for us in life,” Klimasewiski said.

Years ago, Klimasewiski ate at a handmade hand-
me-down. His current table came from a bona fide furniture store.

David Blakely, manager of the downtown home design store Niche, said people will often furnish their sitting rooms first. “But then you get someone … who likes to cook and likes to entertain and then [buying a dining table] becomes a priority,” he added.

“[Most of] the people who come in and ask me about tables are in two categories,” Guffee said. “One: They’ve just moved into a new house. I think people view [moving] as a chance to expand, or they didn’t have a dining room before. Two: a family. A couple of people have come in and their kids are getting older, and before [their table] fit … but now they need to get something [bigger],” she said.

John Beck of downtown’s John Beck Paper and Steel said the people who buy his custom steel tables tend to be very design savvy. Often, they’re remodeling – which brings the Graysons’ empty dining room to mind.

As her husband unfurled a tape measure across a table at the West End Antiques Gallery in the Central West End, Grayson said, “We thought we’d start with the table and go from there.” (This was the table the couple eventually took home.)

In with the old

“We didn’t want everything to be so matchy-matchy,” said Grayson, explaining the design concept for her dining room. Salesperson Jeri Finch, who recently consulted with Grayson at the West End Antiques Gallery, confirmed that eclectic ensembles are in. “There are very few people anymore who buy everything to match in a dining room set,” she said. This means antique tables can absolutely have their place in a modern interior.

Beck has enjoyed many memorable meals at his sister-in-law’s narrow antique. “It’s a real old thing – she didn’t redo it, she just sorta cleaned it up. It’s far from perfect. And it’s just so rich with character and life,” he said.

Antique reproductions, which are Guffee’s specialty, offer something old and something new. As Guffee pointed out, they’re also guilt-free. “I grew up in a home full of really old antiques. [My mom would say], ‘Don’t lounge in that chair, that’s old – we can’t replace it,’” she said. The tables she sells, on the other hand, allow lounging – invite it even. Quaint and colorful, there’s an endearing naiveté about them. Plus their crisp lines create a feel that’s contemporary.

Blakely described a Baker table by Laura Kirar as straddling eras, as well. “It’s similar to something your grandmother would have, but it’s more transitional because [Kirar] cleaned the lines up on it,” he said.

In a manner of thinking, even a cutting-edge table could be considered antique. “[Given] the quality of pieces we sell, we’re hoping that it’s going to be something that [customers] want to pass on to their children,” Noory said.

Klimasewiski well remembers the table he owned while getting to know his now wife. “It was a very small, oval table … probably just made of pine. … You could really tell that it was a one-of-a-kind, that somebody had made this table.

“I always say – and I really think it’s true – that I fell in love with my wife the first time I saw her, but it took her quite a few months to reciprocate the feeling. And so there were a number of meals we had over this table … [and] I often think that that table helped a lot,” he said.

Klimasewiski received this table-cum-Cupid from a friend who could spare it. McCalla’s table was likewise a hand-me-down from husband Matthew Fernandes’ grandmother. “I wanted to change it,” she said, and she did so with the help of stencil artist Peat Wollaeger.

“It was a big decision to commission it,” said McCalla of the tabletop’s design, which Wollaeger based on his Dead Fat Comedians series. First, he covered the scalloped-cornered table with ballet slipper, a sassy pink spray paint. (“Pink sounds great,” Fernandes had said.) Then Wollaeger stenciled on five busts of John Belushi in Animal House – a small one in each corner and a large one in the center. Why a belaureled Belushi? “I think almost every straight dude likes Animal House,” McCalla said.

“The table was a fun project because I knew that these folks were going to use it daily,” Wollaeger said. And the McCallas do use it a lot. Ditto their friends. “The table is a total draw. When friends bring somebody over for the first time, it’s typically the first thing they do – they take them back to [show them] the table,” McCalla said.

Part of what makes the table such a curiosity is that the small busts in the corners are anamorphic. Looking at them straight on, they’re distorted. But in the reflection of a chrome cocktail shaker (the table’s accessory), Belushi’s mug shot clarifies.

“I had a book about anamorphic drawings as a kid, and I just kind of dwelled in there,” Wollaeger said. “They were really popular in the 1800s.” And now he’s made them popular again.
Built to last

Patrick Jouin makes plastic furniture. Don’t think rinky-dink patio tables, though – think couture museum pieces. “[Stereolithography is] a revolution in the way objects are designed, produced, sold and distributed,” said Jouin, who currently has work on display at the St. Louis Art Museum.

Can you use this furniture? “Yes, you can, but it’s too expensive,” laughed Jouin. And for now, stereolithography (a type of 3-D printing) only allows him to create small objects.

Woods such as oak and walnut work much better for making dining tables. Noory’s partial to cherry because it darkens over time. Wenge, which according to Noory is the interior design world’s darling right now, starts out dark. This and other exotic woods create something that’s “not your grandmother’s table,” Blakely said.

Beck, a self-taught welder and furniture maker, primarily works with steel, glass and concrete – but never in unison. “Visually, I don’t think all three [work together].” Glass and concrete, he added, don’t blend at all. At the moment, Beck is collaborating on a copper-encased wood table that’s bound for a duck lodge. He’s also working on his second No. 7 table, which has two box-shaped steel legs, a concrete top and a stenciled-on “7,” which Beck feels is “a good-lookin’ number.”

Materials make the No. 7 corporeally substantial, but its design renders it elegant. “To me, it just seems so dainty … like I could walk over and pick it up with one hand,” Beck said.

As you like it

Are people picky when it comes to their dining tables? At times, very. Here’s a look at a few special requests.

Wheels. “One fella is in a small kitchen and when he wants to sit by the window, he wheels it over to the window. Some people do a lot of parties and want to move it out of the room or out of the way. And a lot of times they just want the look of an industrial rolling cart,” Beck said.

Storage. “People [who live downtown] don’t necessarily have the huge elaborate kitchens,” said Noory, who carries a line of aluminum tables that sport removable storage trays. Beck can outfit a table with a metal box that slides in under the tabletop. This compartment makes a nice cache for napkins, silverware and cookbooks.

Extension panels. Todd Lannom, co-owner of Centro in the Central West End, said a lot of customers initially want a table that, when expanded, can seat 10 to 12. “People have these great memories of large family dinners around a table for special events, but sometimes a room won’t accommodate that,” he said. “And they’ll only need that seating once or twice a year. The goal is really to get something that they like looking at, walking by and using every day.”

Personal touches. “Usually, what I do is … find out little things about [my customers] and I try to add personal touches to the piece,” Beck said. One past customer worked in the wine business, and so Beck embellished the table with a permanent drink ring. He did this by dipping the base of a wine glass in an etching material and then touching it to the tabletop.