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Dress Up Your Dining Room With Upholstered Dining Chairs

When you think of formal dining chairs, chances are good that the first thing that comes to mind is a very traditional upholstered chair. But while iconic antique chairs with all their bells and whistles are certainly a great way to create that elevated, formal feel, these days they’re far from the only option. Even ignoring chairs made entirely of wood, metal, or plastic, there are a plethora of different qualities that make a dining chair feel more or less formal, and more or less traditional.

High-Backed, Traditional Dining Chairs (That Are Heavy On The Detail Work)

The most common perception of formal dining chairs are traditional chairs with all the bells and whistles (by Collective Design + Furnishings)
The most common perception of formal dining chairs are traditional chairs with all the bells and whistles (by Collective Design + Furnishings)

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The most iconic formal dining chairs are typically the most intricate, with fine fabric upholstery, shaped backs, carved wood legs and accents, button tufting, and nailhead finishing. These chairs are also often quite large, with tall, wide backs that create the imposing feel that sets them apart from more casual kitchen dining chairs. Any one of these qualities can make just about any chair feel more formal, but the more you pile on, the more traditional the look will feel as well.

Upholstered Dining Chairs With Antique Wood Detailing

Small upholstered chairs with nice woodwork still have a very traditional feel, but are a little bit less imposing (by Parker House Inc.)
Small upholstered chairs with nice woodwork still have a very traditional feel, but are a little bit less imposing (by Parker House Inc.)

Keep in mind, though, that size matters: smaller dining chairs that have really intricate woodwork and antique-inspired shapes and detailing are becoming quite popular now as pairs for a more relaxed farmhouse style. And one of the big keys here is that the chairs themselves are smaller. Showing off more wood, combined with the more compact shaped backs makes these chairs much less imposing. Pair that with the fact that they’re typically upholstered with a rough textile fabric (like linen or canvas) rather than an expensive brocade, and despite all the traditional accouterments, these dining chairs have a casual (though still elegant) feel that more sizeable chairs lack.

Modern Dining Chairs With Elegant Wood Accents

A little wood detailing can elevate simpler, more streamlined modern designs (by Lisa Wolfe Design, Ltd)
A little wood detailing can elevate simpler, more streamlined modern designs (by Lisa Wolfe Design, Ltd)

Most casual “family table” style dining chairs are made entirely of wood, with simple, compact designs meant to accommodate a small space. But that isn’t to say that wood elements in particular will always make for a less formal look. On modern upholstered chairs, wood elements can be used as a callback to more intricate antique designs and to help bulk up the size of the chair. Especially when using finishes that veer away from a modern “espresso” or midcentury walnut, wood elements are often a great way to indicate that chairs with a modern design aren’t meant to have a relaxed, casual feel.

Nice Upholstery On A Simple Dining Chair

You don't need a lot of traditional detailing to get a formal feel - you just need a pretty big chair and some nice fabric (by David Charlez Designs)
You don’t need a lot of traditional detailing to get a formal feel – you just need a pretty big chair and some nice fabric (by David Charlez Designs)

Similarly, if you use a fine fabric on a big, high-backed dining chair but leave off most or all of the ornamentation (aka no nailhead finishing, no wood detailing, and simple modern legs), you’ll get a look that’s very modern, but still has that hyper-formal feel that you’d get from a very traditional design. With this type of chair in particular, the nicer the upholstery, the more formal the final look will be; with the right fabric, even very simple modern chairs can have a posh contemporary feel.

Upholstered Mid-Century Modern Chairs

Upholstering mid-century modern chairs can help give them a more inviting, transitional look and feel (by You & Yours Interiors)
Upholstering mid-century modern chairs can help give them a more inviting, transitional look and feel (by You & Yours Interiors)

Another look I’m starting to see a lot more of is dining chairs that are inspired by iconic mid-century modern designs, but that are upholstered rather than left as exposed plastic. These are typically smaller than traditional upholstered chairs, but have a more elevated, less casual feel than the original mid-century designs they’re based on. The distinctive shapes and silhouettes maintain the playful, accessible feel of a mid-century aesthetic, but without the hard lines and modern materials that can make them clash with more traditional elements. If you’re looking to add a formal touch to a smaller space, this is an excellent way to do it.

Fake An “Upholstered” Look With A Stylish Slipcover

High backed dining chairs with slipcovers are the perfect midpoint between traditional seating and homey comfort (by New Rosslyn Construction)
High backed dining chairs with slipcovers are the perfect midpoint between traditional seating and homey comfort (by New Rosslyn Construction)

Last but not least are chairs inspired by a good old fashioned workaround. It’s long been tradition to cover up seating (from sofas to dining chairs) in order to protect them (from pets, kids, spills, and so on). But lately I’ve been seeing a lot of manufacturers making chairs designed to look like they have slipcovers…but that are actually just made with that extra fabric built in. The result? You get a chair that looks thoughtfully cared for, but also homey and inviting. While these faux slipcovers won’t actually do much to protect your chairs, they’re fantastic for creating a certain ambiance. Especially when the chairs are high-backed and otherwise very traditional, the slipcovers help you retain that elegant feel in a way that’s a bit more accessible.

Finding the right dining chair has almost nothing to do with what constitutes the “perfect chair” and everything to do with the final look you’re going for. The takeaway? Don’t be afraid to experiment with mixed styles or seemingly mismatched elements if they help build the atmosphere you want for your dining room!