Over the past few years, the formal dining room has sort of fallen by the wayside as homeowners and designers alike clamor for bigger, more open and more integrated kitchens. But the maligned formal dining room is starting to make a comeback, with a strong emphasis on the formal. This might be surprising, since the trend toward open kitchens is very much a trend towards a more casual, communal eating and entertaining environment. But the returning popularity of the dining room is an attempt to fill the gap that these kitchens leave: a place for larger, more formal gatherings. The difference is a slim but important one, and starts with choosing just the right chairs.
Upholstered Dining Chairs
The biggest difference between a kitchen table and a dining room set – besides, of course, the size of the table – is the size of the chairs that go with it. Kitchen chairs tend to be small and made of wood, with maybe a tie-on cushion if you’re lucky. But formal dining chairs need to be bigger and more grand, with high backs and – at the very least – padded seats. Both the size and the upholstery give dining chairs a much more formal look and feel, and many homeowners are turning to fully upholstered chairs to play up this more traditional aspect. Even very simple high backed upholstered chairs will do. The big twist, though, is that rather than rich, ornate fabrics, for a more contemporary look you want to go with a chair done in a very simple fabric in a neutral color, like canvas, or a soft tan or gray, so the space will look sophisticated without feeling too old fashioned.
From there, you can get a little fancier, and one of the best ways to do it is to look for chairs with a more traditional design. Nailhead upholstered chairs have become particularly popular lately, especially in tandem with an industrial style decor, as they have some of that hand-hewn, turn of the century quality that really defines the style. Again, you want to stick with a fairly simple fabric, but simply adding a trim of little decorative nails around the edge of the chair gives it a really appealing finished quality that you won’t find from more contemporary styles of craftsmanship.
Similarly, dining chairs with tufted backs are great for adding a more formal touch to your dining room. Though generally reserved for big, cushy chairs or sofas, this type of upholstery can be found on dining chairs as well, and is becoming more commonly available. Even if the chair is otherwise fairly simple, the dimpled pattern of the buttons will give it a very traditional quality. To enhance the look even more, look for chairs that have antique style tooled legs, like the cabriole style legs on this chair. Combined with a light neutral fabric, these features will make for a chair that’s both sophisticated looking and very comfortable without being too staunchly traditional.
Another option that’s both simple and elegant is to simply cover your dining chairs with slipcovers. These fitted fabric sheaths ensconce the chair entirely, fitting snugly around the back and seat and forming a little skirt around the legs. This is a great way to cover up and conceal existing chairs that aren’t quite in line with the style you’re trying to achieve, and means you won’t have to worry about coordinating the wood on the chairs with your dining table. The look is popular enough that you can actually buy chairs that are built to look like they have slip covers (and in some cases the covers can be removed for easy washing) rather than covering an existing chair. Here, the only real embellishments are the ties on the back of the chair that secure the cover in place, but the sweeping folds of material give the whole chair an impressively elegant and formal appearance.
There are a whole host of antique styled chairs out there that will work beautifully, too, with different shaped backs and differently tooled or styled legs or even arms that add visual interest to the chairs and, by extension, to the room. These tend to be a bit shorter than very high backed chairs by virtue of the shaped backs, but are a good choice for putting along the sides of a dining table, especially if you have a larger, more assertive chair at either end. The sheer variety of these smaller chairs also makes them great for mixing and matching, whether you buy them new or find and reupholster antique chairs yourself. Having several different types of chairs around a large, formal dining table makes for a more eclectic mix of dining room furniture that feels a bit less stuffy than a perfectly matched set. For an even more casual look, you can even mix in a few midcentury modern dining chairs, just as long as you have two very formal chairs at either end to anchor the traditional look and feel of the space.
Choosing simple yet elegant dining chairs in a slightly old fashioned style is the perfect way to give your dining room a sophisticated, formal look and feel. What style chairs are you most drawn to? Let me know in the comments below!