The Grown-Up Guide to Styling Your Dining Room
So you’ve just moved into your first apartment… Congratulations are in order, but what are you going to do with all that empty space?
While the blank canvas is super exciting, it can also be daunting. It’s that initial trepidation we can only imagine a scribe feels before wielding a pen to plain paper, or an actor experiences upon walking on set for the first time—but there’s no need to get stage fright. It’s time to put on your creative cap. Of all the rooms in the house, a great dining room can set the tone for a grown-up apartment. To style it, you should have equal parts preparation and intuition—follow your gut, but also make sure the items are both fashionable and functional.
UK-based interior designer Abigail Ahern told MyDomaine that while it can be “quite tricky to get right, and a bit overwhelming if you’re starting from scratch, [styling a dining room is] all about creating an inviting, laid-back glam atmosphere, the sort of place you’re happy to linger in during the wee hours with good friends and good food.”
So before you get started, we asked the experts for their top tips when creating a practical dining room that doesn’t skimp on the pretty. It’s time you dined in style.
Since the table takes up the largest amount of space in the room, it’s the best place to get started, Ahern says. She recommends “curvy” or oval tables, which are great for squeezing into small spaces and helping to create a flow in the room. A round table also allows you to cram a few more people around it if need be. For this reason, Ashley Bussell of Laurel & Wolf prefers a leaf table that can fold and expand as needed. If you don’t opt to go round, Ahern suggests “adding in curvy items like mirrors, sculptures, or vases to break up all the straight lines.”
When it comes to choosing a finish or style, you should think of the table as your LBD, Ahern says, and opt for something simple and classic. “I’d say it’s not the place for crazy colors or too-trendy styles,” and the best part: “You don’t have to spend a ton of money,” she adds.
“A well-loved rustic wooden or zinc-topped table, or a classic black lacquer or a tulip design will last you forever. And just like an LBD, it’s all about how you accessorize and dress it up for different occasions.”
Bussell believes “a solid wood dining room table will never go out of style,” she told MyDomaine. “Choose a durable hardwood such as mahogany, walnut, maple, oak, or teak.” Sarah Magness of her eponymous design firm in New York also agrees that a large wood farm table is best for handling the many different activities it will be used for, from dining to crafting and even folding laundry.
“Today people live more casually, so a farm table is a beautiful object to visualize, but it’s also extremely durable to handle the family lifestyle,” she said.
If you’re going to invest in a beautiful rug, make sure it can handle the many food and wine spills that are bound to happen every day. Bussell suggests placing an indoor/outdoor rug under your table, or a rug that can resist stains and spills. If you don’t know which size, the stylist advises it should run 24 to 30 inches wider than your table and stay at least 8 to 10 inches from your walls. “Don’t be afraid to pair a bold patterned rug with a wood table. The contrast will liven up a simple room,” she says.
Mikel Welch of Mikel Welch Designs believes you should choose “practical pieces with versatility” such as choosing a dining table with a hidden leaf that expands. “I’m also a fan of credenzas and buffets that showcase all of your beautiful China and glassware while housing your silverware set,” he says.
If your dining room is more akin to an open loft style, then Welch suggests a rectangular dining table that can double as a chic room divider. “Its linear lines allow you to create a faux barrier between the dining and living areas,” he said. Brilliant.
If there’s one element of your dining room you should never underestimate, it’s lighting. As far as Ahern is concerned, “lighting is all-important.” Why? “Dining rooms are mostly evening locations, so you want them to look magical when the sun goes down,” she said.
For a grown-up touch, you should look for a pendant or chandelier, Ahern says, and “go larger than you think you need to.” The obvious question now is where to hang it. The answer: at least a foot lower than you think you should. “It will instantly bring more drama and a sense of high-octane glamour to your space, however small,” says Ahern.
As a general rule of thumb, Welch recommends placing the dining table directly under a strong light source. For more exact measurements, Bussell says a central light should hang 30 to 36 inches above the surface of your table. “If you are renting, use a pendant-light cord set," she said. “Don’t be afraid to expose the cord by adding a color or fabric texture.”
But if you really want to amp up the atmosphere, Ahern urges all budding interior designers to install a dimmer. “If that’s not possible, switch the overhead light off and go with side lights and candles when you’re dining,” she says. “There’s nothing worse than harsh, airport lounge–style bright lighting to put you off your food.”
So we’ve covered all the practical elements—now it’s time to make it personal. Pepper in some sentimental pieces and original artwork to elevate the space and reflect your personality.
“If you ask me, the dining room is the best spot in the house for a gallery wall,” said Ahern. “You can pack in oodles of personality, make a massive statement, and best of all, easily switch it up if you get bored.”
If like Welch you gravitate toward a more informal, casual setting, ditch the “uptight and stuffy seven-piece matching dining room settings” of your grandma’s ilk, and mix it up for a more communal feel. He adds, “You can even play with a small banquette or bench for seating as well. You want the space to say, ‘I’m an adult but I don’t take things too seriously.’” Outside of the bedroom, the dining room is the most used area of the home so it should be comfortable. You want the space to be inviting and cozy so guests will want to stay all night long.
Bussell says this is also your chance to really “express yourself” and match styles that appeal to your aesthetic, but make sure there is a common factor such as the color scheme, textures, or styles.
Ahern says there is a trick to making it work. “Either match the chairs in pairs or stay strictly within one color palette,” she advises. “I find it gives more of a cohesive glam look.” It’s also really cost-effective.
“It’s great to invest in stylish chairs. They really make a room, but if you can only afford two cool chairs at a time, no problem,” she said. “You can just mix them in with an inexpensive bench or stools while you build your collection.”
Okay, we get it—you’re excited and just want to have the dining room finished and ready for entertaining already, but hold up a minute. When you rush things, you make rash decisions or overbuy, which Ahern says is a common mistake.
“Don’t panic-buy in bulk,” she insists. “This is a mistake I see people making all the time, and the result is always an overcrowded, bland dining room.”
Depending on how much space you have available, Ahern recommends buying a table that can accommodate at least six people. Any bigger is overdoing it.
“On average, you won’t typically have more than six guests dining unless it’s a special occasion,” she said. “If you have a small dining room, I’d recommend a round, 36- to 40-inch dining table. The rounded edges will give your eye the illusion of more space.”
If you really want your dining room to pack a stylish punch, consider adding an unexpected yet subtle twist. Ahern loves to paint the ceiling in a glossy hue that’s the exact same color as the walls.
“It’s an easy change, which is super glam,” she said. “It will look magical reflecting from the chandelier.”
What’s your top dining room styling tip?