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mesa: Support for Solo Dining

Eating alone together in the new millennium

 

MFA industrial design

Wei hsiang Chiu

Rama Chorpash/Julie Lasky

Short abstract

 

Mesa is a restaurant fixture that improves the experience of urban solo diners. Eating alone is a growing problem, especially in urban societies. Mesa welcomes solo diners back to restaurants by creating an enjoyable and comfortable dining experience.

 

Long abstract

 

The goal of Mesa was to create a comfortable dining experience for people uncomfortable with dining alone in restaurants. Social changes in education, occupation and marriage have resulted in more people living alone. As more people live solitary lives, they confine their meals to their homes. I’ve extended the comfort of home dining into restaurants through a new furniture typology that mediates privacy. Mesa does not completely isolate users; instead, Mesa provides the user control over social interaction. Mesa manipulates visual exposure and sightlines in restaurant through form and transparency. Traditionally, restaurants assign solo diners to bars or communal tables. By more sensitively considering how restaurant arrange solo diners, mesa replaces the social pressure of communal tables and the marginalization of bars with a relaxed but integrated dining experience.

Why solo dining?

 

For thousands of years and across cultures, food consumption has been associated with social interaction. In the last fifty years new styles of living have shifted from almost universal dining with friends or family to eating alone. A study found that families in many regions of the world have become smaller in recent decades, and there are also more one-person households. The study authors concluded that at the same time families were shrinking, “eating patterns have become irregular, informal, and individualized in the form of more eating alone.” In this new millennium lifestyle, the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics found nearly 60%, of all meals taken by adults are solitary occasions. Among the people who eat at restaurants at lunch time, is almost as lonely these days, nearly 70% are unaccompanied. In certain settings, such as the workplace, solitary eating has become so pervasive that many of us are too preoccupied with our jobs to realize we’re doing it. Eating alone is the new norm now.

 

Though eating alone has become normalized, restaurants designers have not satisfied the needs of solo diners. Mesa —support for solo dining is an investigation into making the activity of solo dining in an urban restaurant more enjoyable. Because eating has for so long has been centered on social interaction, individual diners have no social scripts or etiquette for how to eat alone in public. Solo diners are made to feel awkward, stigmatized, or under psychological pressure to socialize. One study of consumer psychology found that solo designers felt more than twice the pressure to socialize compared with people eating with friends.

 

However, eating alone no longer connotes social isolation for all people. A shift to solitary dining habits in the new millennium is deeply rooted in daily life increasingly chaotic and fragmented by new work practices and technology. After interviewing thirty-two people about their dining habits, I concluded there are two categories of people who eat alone in urban areas: people who already feel comfortable eating alone in restaurants, and those who would prefer to dine out, but eat at home because they are uncomfortable eating alone in public. Mesa can help these people feel less exiled from social interaction. Data from a 2016 study of restaurants by a consumer research group suggests this second group expands at lunchtime as modern urban workers choose quick light meals. Restaurants have increasingly designed single meals for urban workers in response to this trend. In the workplace or in front of the television, eating alone has become so normal that many of us are unaware we are alone— underscoring the ubiquitous behavior that solitary eating has become. Through interviews I found that those who find eating alone socially awkward are more inclined to avoid the social environment a restaurant to order takeout and eat in the comfort of their home.

 

Research

 

The goal of Mesa is to create a restaurant that brings the same comfort of eating alone at home to a space surrounded by people to enhance the pleasure of dining. A 2010 study of the economics of consumer discovered a trend to create public settings where consumers feel comfortable and relaxed within a shared space. Sociologist Ray Oldenburg described spaces that create affordances for both social interaction and privacy are categorized as “third places”— between the total privacy of the home, nor the public space of work. Third places are informal public gathering places (e.g., cafés, clubs, libraries, parks) where people can comfortably forge social connections that weave together society without the formality and politics of home or work life.

 

To create a third-place that encourages solitary people to eat at restaurants, I needed to better understand why individuals were reluctant to dine in restaurants. I understood that dining alone in public made them feel awkward or uncomfortable, but where did those negative feelings come from? Awkward feelings originated from internal and external effects.

 

The internal effect relates to human instincts. Territorial behavior is innate and explains why people feel a need for personal space and privacy. Social psychologist Irwin Altman defines territorial behavior as:

a self/other boundary-regulation mechanism that involves personalization of or marking of a place or object and communication that it is” owned‟ by a person or group. Personalization and ownership are designed to regulate social interaction and to help satisfy various social and physical motives. Defense responses may sometimes occur when territorial boundaries are violated.

Solo diners feel awkward in restaurants because their personal space overlaps with the personal space of other diners. When the territorial space of individuals intersect social interaction occurs and people can feel uncomfortable. Japanese restaurant have found one solution to how to create enough personal space for solo diner (Figure 1).

 

Solo diners feel the external effects from being the subject of the gaze of other diners. Humans are social creatures with an innate care about what other people think of us. To better understand the psychological effect on solo diners of being viewed by others I conducted a survey of 22 solo diners (Table 1). I asked respondents to describe what they feel when dining alone in restaurants. I discovered feelings of awkwardness are not consistent throughout the duration of restaurant experience but are episodic. Breaking down the experience, I identified five moments that emphasize feelings of discomfort: entering the restaurant, ordering the meal, waiting for the meal, eating the meal and leaving. Several uncomfortable moments happen in those activities. First diners feel negatively judged when a waiter or host asks them at the door if they are “Just one?” The question makes individuals avoid going to restaurants. Regardless of whether the waiter was truly judging them, the question makes solo diners feel an uncomfortable difference from the norm.

 

Another awkward moment occurs when people waiting for their meal to arrive make eye contact with groups of diners. Almost all solo diners interviewed feel discomfort being watched while they wait with nothing to do. The awkwardness of solo diners being watched is felt across cultures. Dutch designer Marina van Goor emphasized those awkward moments in the design of her pop-up restaurant design Eenmaal, tables for one (Figure 2). Eenmaal was a restaurant filled only with single-person tables. Van Goor turned individual tables in different directions to eliminate eye contact and awkward feelings during waiting and eating, activities when group diners are often occupied in socializing. To better understand the impact of distinct external factors on individual diners, I undertook a second round of interviews and observations at restaurants. I noticed solo diners looked uncomfortable when they had eye contact with group diners. Interviewees said they feel themselves being judged by other people.

 

Restaurants are not welcoming to solo diners, because it is in their financial interest to many people as efficiently as possible. Solo tables are not efficient because they take up more space, require a server for each table, and more trips back and forth to the kitchen. To maximize efficiency, restaurant owners typically present solo diner with two options: a place at the bar or at a communal table (Figure 3 and Figure 4). Restaurants seat single diners at communal tables because collecting them in one place is more efficient. Bars also collect diners and reserve the pleasure of the dining room for group tables. Both choices mean that solo diners often have to sit next to or across from strangers in the uncomfortable position of making eye contact.

 

Design opportunity

 

There is a clear opportunity to design restaurant furniture that offers a different mode for solo diners while also ensuring their privacy and comfort. In designing for solo dining, there are two directions: to create more interaction between people who are alone and let them feel part of a larger group; or to create privacy within the public space to let diners eat comfortably by themselves.

 

Criteria: Communal privacy

 

I decided to provide privacy for individual diners within the main dining room of the restaurant. I respect the solitary diner’s choice and provide them with “me-time” and privacy. I was inspired by the success of coffee shops like Starbucks that bring in many solo customers (Figure 5). Coffee shops, libraries and museums are public spaces designed to separate individuals within an overall communal space. Social interaction is not the priority. The design development for Mesa evaluated each iteration’s ability to put this idea of communal privacy into the open restaurant setting to make solo diner feel relaxed and comfortable.

 

Iterative Experimentation and Testing

 

At the beginning of the process, I started with the extreme: a solid boundary to create total privacy. Workplace designers have explored privacy in the workplace through different kinds of screening and divider. I analyzed existing privacy furniture designed for offices such as De Vorm's Workspace Divider (Figure 6). To experiment with scale, I built several different size frames and dividers. This experiment helped me understand how much solid area is needed for people to relax while eating in public (Figure 7). I found a solid divider created too much social isolation and made people feel the space was uncomfortably close and small. By eliminating the solid surface and turning the divider into an open frame, I discovered I could give people enough of a sense of privacy while still allowing them to see through the barrier and feel part of a social area (Figure 8). This result fit the “third place” concept of creating privacy within public space.

 

Based on the outcome of the frames experiment, I began to combine frames and apply transparency into the design. I considered the effect of sights, sounds, smells and physical or psychological distance on the solitary diner’s feelings and I decided to focus on reducing eye contact among diners to decrease awkward moments. The design of existing restaurant tables for groups of two or more people place each diner opposite another chair, increasing the potential of making eye contact. Whereas at bars or windows, diners do not face another person.

 

To eliminate the forced eye contact of tables, I adapted the bar to the main room and began to play with the angles and body positions of diners in order to develop different methods to reduce eye contact. The range of peripheral vision is 60 degree to each side, resulting in an overall cone of vision of 120 degrees. Because of this wide human visual range, it is hard to entirely avoid eye contact. However, reducing face-to-face arrangements reduces the most direct eye contact. Therefore, I researched body positions and seat arrangements that help people to interact so that I could do the opposite. Anthropologist Edward Hall found people who sit diagonally from one another have twice as much conversation than those who sit side by side and three times more than those who sit face to face. In other words, diners who sit on either side of a corner have more frequent interaction than in other positions. Modular tables placed at different angles inspired me to change table geometry and layout to eliminate eye contact. Commonly seen in offices and schools, this arrangement was used in the design of the Tetris table (Figure 9). The Tetris table has geometric modules that can be used separately or fit together into a single large table. To work out the influence of body position on eye contact I build cardboard models of different geometries that changed the spatial relationship between individual diners (Figure 10). Through this testing I discovered that small differences in angles increase psychological distance between people. Using what I learned from those first studies, I made several additional modular tables (Figure 11). I created a solo dining experience where every diner faced a different angle; however could still sit opposite and create face-to-face interaction. I decided to design a table that only allowed a person to sit on one side (Figure 12). The next stage was to reshape the modular table to achieve the efficiency of communal tables and bars, but not the undesirable social pressure. I started to smooth the sharp edges and connect the lines into a continuous curve. I found that a curve creates more flow and a wider range of diner positions than more angular geometry (Figure 13). Based on these insights, I shape the traditional communal table into a wave that situates the bodies of diners away from one another at different angles.

 

Up to that point, all my research and experiments focused on the relationship between individual diners, but my goal was to integrate solitary diners into the group experience of dining. Most of the awkward feelings of solitary diners come from their interaction with and feelings of intimidation when seated among diners in groups. As one of my interviewees said, “I feel awkward to make eye contact with other people when I eat alone. I’m afraid they think I’m weird or I don’t have any friends.” She also said, “I want to have the ability to look at people but without making eye contact with them.” Her comments fit my observations of restaurant diners. No one thinks a diner in a group is weird when he or she looks around and makes eye contact, but that is not true for solo diners. This insight inspired me to create a restaurant area that equalizes the relationship between groups and individuals and lets the solo diner have the freedom to look around without being seen.

 

Based on interviews about eye contact, I explored how to empower solo diners with the ability to look around the restaurant. I set a design constraint that solo diners should be able to see throughout the restaurant, but group diner should not be able to see solo diner. Based on this constraint, I made mocked up a model with translucent material (Figure 14). A curved panel with translucent material created a dining space with a visual privacy screen to protect solo diners. I then explored possible materials and strategies for achieving a one way visual function. I tried the most obvious use—a one-way mirror film typically applied to a window. Users told me that a one-way mirror creates too much isolation and was especially awkward for group diners who felt as if they were under surveillance. That result did not fit my criteria to create relax dining environment for everyone.

 

To reduce negative feelings from group diners, I researched a new architectural strategy used by skyscrapers. These skyscrapers apply a pattern to windows that allows transparency at close distances, but becomes a solid boundary from further away. Architect Jean Novel used the technique in his design of the Doha tower (Figure 15). I used a frit glass (matte) pattern to create a similar result. By using a frit pattern upon a transparent curved panel, I created a semi-permeable visual barrier that provides enough privacy for solo diners but not an entire solid divider that overwhelms group diners. I experimented with different patterns and shapes. (Figure 16 and Figure 17).

 

Base on the results, I produced a new scale mockup model (Figure 18). I combined the curve concept to manipulate body position into the glass and attached a table directly to the panel. When I considered the design in the overall space of the dining room, I found the curve panel was too long. It divided the restaurant space into a solo area and group area that did not meet with my criteria to integrate solo diners. Individual tables isolated diners and produced the a feeling like Japanese ramen restaurants that sit people into dining boxes (Figure 19). To fix the isolation, I connected the individual tables together again. The result was a design with a similar typology to bars, but that face the dining area not the wall or bartender. I reduced the length and height of the glass panel to decrease the sense of division in the dining room and to reduce the manufacturing difficulty and cost. After several full scale mockup and detail design, the height of mesa is lay around the people sitting visual height (Figure 20). The frameless form is based on the success of my early experiments into how much structure is necessary to create a sense of ownership over space (Figure 21). The glass panels gave solo diners enough private feeling so I removed the frame structure to reduce the sense of a solid boundary.

 

Manufacture and structure detail and material choice

 

Through additional cardboard mockups, I developed structural and manufacture details for attachments and safety (Figure 21). To reduce difficulty of installation and reinforce stability, the base of Mesa is screwed to the floor. The restaurant rearranges mesa base to suit their unique space. A through-bolt attaches the table surface to the glass panel. The table is made from ultra-light honey-corn laminated plywood (Figure 22). Tempered glass has the strength to create a free standing structure without further support and the material qualities to create a curved form. For safety and flow the corner of mesa is cutoff at a 5 degree angle (Figure 23). Mesa forms the illusion of a continue line when viewed from different angles (Figure 24). In manufacture, the cutoff will be made after the curve glass is cast to give more freedom to the restaurant to rearrange curves.

 

Outcome

 

The result is Mesa — a table that supports solo dining. Mesa uses a three-foot wide and five-foot high patterned glass panel to create a semi-transparent visual barrier. When diners stand, Mesa does not block their vision across the dining room. The proportions and materials preserve an open and transparent restaurant space. Mesa gathers solo diners together in one place but unlike communal table or bar place solo diner in an uncomfortable position. Mesa helps restaurants increase income by bringing solo diners back to the restaurant. Mesa gathers reduces the number of empty seats and increases efficiency. For solo diner, eating on mesa can have more relaxed experience and achieve their desire to look around the restaurant with less eye contact.  

 

I carefully considered how Mesa can be used in existing dining rooms. Placing the mesa tables all facing the same direction could divide dining rooms solo and group areas. Therefore, I recommend that Mesa tables be placed in opposite directions to face different sides (Figure 25). By facing different sides, mesa creates an affordance for interactions and relationships between solo and group diner. Solo diners and group diners facing the same direction are linked together (Figure 26). Rather than a dividing line, the design becomes a mesa that stands in the middle of restaurant.