Multi-functional furnishings; Party groupings gain appeal

They are called party sets or party groups. This is probably a misnomer for the five-piece sets consisting of a small-scale table and four matching chairs, often low-backed and on casters for easy mobility.

Many people use them for every meal, gather around them for games, and enjoy them for reading, writing, sewing, and other hobbies. Versatile enough to fit anywhere, they can be found in dining and living rooms, as well as family rooms, dens, and great rooms. And, yes, even in the corner of many bedrooms and kitchens.

The story now is not in their availability -- they've been around since the early 1960's -- but in their growing and enthusiastic acceptance. Party groups are now viewed as one of the most multi-functional items in the home.

The tables used to be kept at the continental height of 27 inches. Now some range up to regular 29-inch dining-table height. Most measure from 40 to 42 inches in diameter. Some tables even come with leaves, which extend their seating capacity.

Why the popularity of party sets? The smaller size of homes and apartments, for one thing. Vanishing dining rooms, for another. Party groups have become the ideal substitute for more formal dining-room suites - and they come in just as many styles, including Italian, colonial, country, and modern.

Ted Van Benfchoten, director of design for Daystrom Furniture, says: ''In many new homes today the formal dining room is becoming as extinct as the dinosaur. So dining now occurs at a number of different areas in the home -- at the end of the living room, in a corner of the family room, or in a prominent place in a great room. Of necessity, a new type of flexible dining furniture has come into being which is simple, functional, and stylish. Most party groups are distinguished by their style, scaling, and by the somewhat lower height of the table. The lower height of table and chairs enables them to ease into the overall decor of homes a little more gracefully.''

Andrew H. Wilhite, president of Chromcraft Furniture, comments: ''These newer designs for dining offer compact, casual styling and a lot of comfort. We think, too, that their scaled-down dimension provides far more decorating flexibility. The easy mobility of chairs on casters has proven very attractive to homemakers.''

Some companies include the party sets as elements of living or entertainment centers, which also include wall systems, sofas, love seats, and occasional chairs. One company thinks the term ''party group'' tends to be limiting. So it refers to them as ''entertainment-dining sets.''

By whatever name, the groups are being made by dozens of manufacturers. To many consumers they are problem-solvers, both functional and fashionable.

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