Designers share five original ways to rethink the traditional dining room arrangement.
Close your eyes and picture a Norman Rockwell Thanksgiving: Grandpa carving the turkey at one end of the long wooden table, Grandma at the other end, seated on one of 10 matching chairs. For a long time, that set-up was synonymous with "dining room." But the American family has changed since Rockwell last put down his paintbrush — and American dining rooms are changing, too. "People are entertaining in a much more informal and creative way today," says San Francisco-based designer April Sheldon. "They're mixing different patterns in their dishes and putting branches and shells on their dining tables. The traditional mahogany table just isn't working with today's lifestyle."
So, what is working in today's dining rooms? Mixable, matchable furniture in unusual materials and unexpected finishes, making a style statement by breaking all the rules.
Like many busy people today, designer Raji Radhakrishnan and her family usually eat dinner in the kitchen. "I almost never use my dining room for sit-down meals," says Radhakrishnan, owner of Raji RM Design (http://www.rajirm.com) in Brambleton, Va. "We're much more likely to use our dining room for high tea or cocktail parties, so I have set the space up for that. The table is fairly small and has a sofa behind it, with two antique Bergeres with caned seats facing it. There are some small end tables and I bring in other small tables when I want to."
If you have a screened-in porch or sunroom, consider using it for casual dining. To make this windowed room meal-ready, designer April Sheldon placed antique Chinese scholar benches on either side of a table made from an ironwood platform from India. The backless benches are surprisingly comfortable, she says — and they are easier to get in and out of than benches with high backs. And because there is no upholstery, spills are never a concern.
You could create a similar feeling in an indoor dining room, too, says Sheldon; just make sure the furniture is not only beautiful, but comfortable, as well. "People really like to linger at the table," she says. "It's all about feeling good, relaxing and enjoying good food."
Sometimes, a single long table really is the best option for a particular room. But that doesn't mean you're stuck with matching chairs.
"In one dining room we did," says New York-based interior designer Benjamin Noriega-Ortiz (http://www.bnodesign.com), "the owner had a very long dining table. Having 14 chairs around it made the room too busy with legs. Our solution was to select four high back chairs that divide the table in two sections, and then to design a banquette that was repeated four times. The host and hostess sit in the middle chairs, so that they have access to all guests."
If you'd like to recreate this look on a modest budget, you needn't have benches and chairs custom-made. Many furniture stores sell settees that could work quite nicely at a table; just make sure you select pieces that coordinate well with the upholstered chairs so the arrangement looks thought out, not thrown together.
If you can't decide whether to go for one big table or several little ones, why not do both — at the same time? "The most unusual table that I have done," says New York-based interior designer Roderick N. Shade, "is one that was a big square, but came apart to be four smaller tables to seat more folks in the dining room. The best part was that it was a very simple parsons-style table in a bright red lacquer surrounded by Chippendale-style chairs."