Designer 101: How to Choose Dining Room Chairs

Designer 101: How to Choose Dining Room Chairs

Designer Kenneth Wingard gives you his expert advice on choosing dining room chairs.

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By: Kenneth Wingard

Dining room chairs are perhaps one of the most frustrating things for me to buy. When purchased new, they are expensive individually and will run up a king’s ransom if you’re buying a full set for the next big family dinner.

Once you have all the chairs, what do you do with them? They cost so much you want to quickly usher anyone who stops buy into the dining room to have a seat. Luckily with today’s style trends, you have more options than ever for dining seating and they don’t have to include buying 12 antique dining chairs.

Before we go into the options, let’s set up some guidelines:

  • Your chairs do not have to match your table. In fact, today it’s more fashionable to have chairs that complement, but not match your table. Unless you’ve inherited Abraham Lincoln’s dining room chairs, decide on your dining table first and find the chairs that work with it.
  • Determine how many people you need to seat on a regular basis and how many people your table will actually hold. Take note of where the legs of your table are located and how many chairs will fit around the table if you allow 24 inches for each chair.
  • Are you going to get enough seating to max out your table or are you getting enough for your everyday meals and will use other chair options for big events? Are you going to keep all the chairs around the table or will the armchairs live against the wall or will the additional side chairs double as chairs in the office?
  • Most tables are a standard height that will work with standard dining chairs, so that’s one thing you don’t need to worry about. However, do measure the clearance height of your table — the distance from the floor to the bottom of the apron (the vertical rail that runs under the table top) — to make sure that chairs, especially arm chairs, will fit all the way under your table. You want at least 7 inches between the top of the seat and the bottom of the apron for your guests’ legs and 10 inches if you want said guests to be able to cross their legs.

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Tip: If you do have one of the taller tables that are known as counter or bar height (meaning that it’s the same height as your kitchen counter), your choices are going to be greatly limited.

Tip: Be sure that your chairs are sitting on the correct rug by following Kenneth Wingard’s advice!

So now that you know what size and how many you need, let’s look at your options — not so much as the style of the individual chair, but on how they are going to work with your table. Here are a few stylistic options:

Matching Side and Arm: Chairs that match each other and the table. This is what your mother — and grandmother — have: An armchair for each end of the table and side chairs (no arms) for in-between — all in the same wood as the table. These can either have a hard wood, upholstered or woven seat and are best purchased at the same time as the table to ensure an exact match.

Tip: If you go this route, it’s best to purchase all the chairs you will need at the same time as finding chairs with the exact finish later may prove to be a challenge.

Non-matching Chairs: Chairs that match each other, but not the table. Becoming almost as popular as a matching set, this option allows for more leeway in purchasing and allows your personal style to shine a little. It’s best to choose chairs that are quite different than your table so as not to look like just a mistake, but a purposeful complement. You can pair an oak table with country white chairs, a dark wood table with acrylic chairs, an antiqued table with rattan chairs or a traditional table with upholstered chairs.

Mismatched Seating: Using chairs that are all different around the same table. This is not for everyone, but when done correctly has great casual charm and can be easy on the pocket book. For this to still have a cohesive look, it’s important that all the chairs share some characteristic: farmhouse chairs all of the same worn oak, different wood chairs all painted the same color, etc. This can also be done to a much lesser extent by having all matching side chairs but different armchairs. The added advantage of this is that the armchairs can serve double duty in another room until they are needed in the dining room.

Bench Seating: Replacing chairs on one or both sides of the table with a bench. This is currently quite a la mode. It can work well in both contemporary and country homes. The big plus here is that you can easily squeeze a couple of extra people onto a bench as needed, the minus is that it’s not always the most comfortable for long meals. It also works well when you need to eliminate the visual disturbance of multiple chair backs — perhaps if your dining table is in front of a picture window with an amazing view or the table is separating the kitchen from the family room. Bench options can go anywhere from a reclaimed church pew, to an upholstered settee to a backless farmhouse bench.

The last hint in chairs is to make sure that they’re comfortable. As great as a chair looks or as much of a deal as the set may be, if you can’t sit through a meal in them they’re not going to do you any good. Take your time, sit in the chairs and ignore the sideways glances of the sales clerks. If your back starts to ache after five minutes, it’s time to move on — no matter what the chair looks like.

Kenneth Wingard attended Princeton University’s School of Architecture and has studied art, sculpture and architecture in Europe, Asia and Africa. It was during these travels he developed an appreciation for the skill of the local craftsmen and began to think about how to combine those talents with his own design sense. He’s worked for Williams-Sonoma and was the Divisional Director of Pottery Barn. His products have been spotted at the New York and San Francisco MOMA, LACMA and the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. Get to know Kenneth here.

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So detailed guide thanks! I've didn't realized before that "it’s more fashionable to have chairs that complement, but not match your table". Bought a set of chairs last week in this furniture shop, Now I'm looking for a suitable rug...

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