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The dining table’s new role in the pandemic

The bookshelf backdrops in Zoom calls may have been emblematic of the pandemic, but it is our dining tables that took on the load

The dining table, once the centre of large meals, long conversations and raucous parties has become a workspace during the pandemic
The dining table, once the centre of large meals, long conversations and raucous parties has become a workspace during the pandemic (iStock)

As I type this out, my laptop, a set of papers strewn around, a notebook, some pens, a bottle of water, an abandoned coffee mug with stains, are all placed in what has come to be their synchronous state over the last few months. They are on a marble slab atop a sturdy old wooden frame that serves as a four-seater dining table in my single bedroom suburban Mumbai apartment. This was not always the case. A wireframe fruit basket, wooden coasters and an empty bottle of craft gin that makes for a thrifty flower vase are remnants, even reminders of what it once was; a place for shared meals, conversation, laughter and music. I don’t own a writing table and there is no space for one.

I now eat my meals on the couch aided by a low coffee table, not too far away from this setup, streaming a new series on an OTT platform for company. My dining table, the visceral centre of my home, has become more than a spectator to the changing pandemic life. I am not alone. Scrolling down on my Instagram feed, I see propped up on a bar stool against the dining table, facing his laptop, comedian Kunal Kamra is all set for a virtual show, an attempt at embracing the new normal. On the feed again, is Neysa Mendes, of the Good Slice (a page for healthy recipes and food) sharing with her followers, a recipe. But, she isn’t in her kitchen. The ingredients are piled up neatly on her large solid wood dining table. Her blender finds space on the table, too. On another other occasion she is rolling out pastry dough for a tart. Set against an expansive window and a shadowy tree, it renders an illusion of the now forbidden outdoors. “It has the best spot in the house,” she says. As it must, hers is no ordinary table and made an appearance in the official video of indie musician Prateek Kuhad’s Tune Kaha.

The dining table in millennial homes was coming of age. In this case, quite rapidly aided by a pandemic that had ensured everything from work to entertainment was now concentrated in our shrinking apartments.

On a visit to my brother’s shared apartment in a northern suburb of Mumbai, I saw laid out, with some disdain, a collection of packaged and fresh produce. Sanitizer sprays and tissue boxes lay close by. The table, once privy to raucous parties was now a humble sanitising station. Meals were secluded affairs demolished in the privacy of bedrooms and the presence of multiple screens (laptops and televisions). At a journalist’s Bengaluru home, the dining table is being used for online classes.

The dining table, an almost imposing piece of furniture, leaving little in its wake in spatial terms, has seen little structural change since it first arrived, centuries ago. While a dedicated room for meals finds mention in ancient Greek and Roman history, the surfaces used were of small, functional tables. The dining table in its current form is a shrunken version of the opulent Victorian sets of the 16th century that seated royalty and courtesans.

Over the years, it made practical sense and became a piece of furniture given to functionality. Yet, not much changed in its design. It remained a slab of wood, glass or stone, supported by a set of four angular legs. They were carved, with or without joineries, but deviated little in form. Nuclear families and smaller homes brought in the circular and square varieties. The round dining table is almost an instant reminder of 90s television, ubiquitous in every set, a sign of upward mobility in a newly liberalised country. Later, the carved gave way to the minimalist and plastic covers to solid surfaces.

Closer home, the dining table was simplistic, chosen for comfort and long hours of entertaining. The seats cushioned and upholstered, in the same colour scheme as that of the living room. It was where noisy cousins dipped into pots of Sindhi kadhi over the summers, spools of crepe paper fastened in numeric shapes signalled birthdays, and where expensive china was laid out to dry following a dinner party. The dining table, when you think about it, by virtue of its use, is also the seat for nostalgia.

Thus, Mumbai-based comedian Abbas Momin who is often seen at a round glass dining table, camera balancing on a stack of books, in his virtual shows, remembers it not for the meals, but for the sombre conversation. “In my memory every important conversation took place at the dining table; whether it was about pursuing dentistry for a career or the dressing down after I was caught stealing money at home,” he recalls. “It was white and always stained even though my mother was cleaning it vigorously all the time,” he adds.

The lines between living, dining and work areas have blurred this year and become an extension of the same experience
The lines between living, dining and work areas have blurred this year and become an extension of the same experience (iStock)

Anjali Mody, founder and creative director of Goa-based Josmo Studio, says it is the most important piece of furniture in the house. “It is because it belongs to everybody,” she says adding that she sees beauty in the simplicity of its design and its placement in a home. “We try to blur the lines between living and dining areas, so they are an extension of the same experience,” she says.

Archanendra Azad, a Gurugram-based brand manager cannot recall the last time he saw the dining table in his shared apartment being used. It stood in a corner even before the pandemic, while he and his flatmates chose to have their meals on a couch or bed in their own rooms. This seems to be a commonality in shared living spaces where privacy takes precedence over a designated dining area.

Sripriya Ganesan, co-founder of Chennai-based Neon Attic, has noticed an increase in the demand for breakfast counters over dining tables in recent projects. “Especially in millennial homes,” she says. She also receives requests of flexible dining setups that utilise the outdoors. “If there’s one thing I’ve noticed, it’s that millennials love their plants and want to spend a lot of time in their balconies,” she says.

In smaller homes, in metropolitan cities where space comes at a premium, the dining table turned out to be the last hope for adaptability in the new normal. Workstations were setup in record time turning homes into bustling offices. So, while the bookshelf backdrop may have been emblematic of Zoom meetings, it was the dining table taking on the load, quite literally.

Mody believes that functional design may be the order of the day. “There needs to be a product that can switch from work table by day to a dining table by night,” she says while her mind is buzzing with ideas about the design for one such.

She points out that following the initial rush of having to find spaces within our own living space for work and other activities, the dining table is in the process of being reconsidered again. “The act of dining together has become more pure and precious in times like these and people are looking at other solutions for dedicated work setups within homes. I don’t think the dining table is the answer in the longer term,” she says.

Our pandemic lives and imminent social bubbles also call for quieter, more intimate gatherings in homes as opposed to bars, restaurants and theatres. Ganesan is half expecting that it will call for more decorative dining tables to accommodate entertaining.

Maybe, it isn’t in the design after all. For a piece of furniture that has survived centuries with minimal design intervention, a name that designates its purpose is turning reductive.

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